This last year has given us a number of challenges, twists, and surprises (and that still feels like an understatement). We’ve all been affected by hardships in one way or another, whether in the form of loss, fear, financial insecurity, unrest, or other forms of distress, the common theme experienced is stress.
The stress response
Stress is a normal, physical, mental, and emotional reaction to change in daily life. It’s not inherently bad and, in fact, small doses of stress can help us stay motivated and driven. Stress can also be something we experience in response to positive changes, like family planning or starting a new job.
When stressors are large, however, or when they last for long periods of time, stress can start to take a negative toll on the body. The body’s stress response is more commonly referred to as “fight or flight” (more recently recognized as “fight, flight, or freeze”). When confronted with danger, our bodies adapted to get us prepared to manage the threat. In order to get us ready to appropriately engage in combat, run away, or stay hidden, part of our nervous system (the sympathetic nervous system) activates, secreting adrenaline into our bloodstream. This response is helpful when faced with a real threat that requires a quick resolution, but this response is also elicited from chronic daily stress.
This era of a pandemic has caused significant distress in a number of ways, increasing stress levels and affecting nearly everyone. Fear of uncertainty and the unknown, concern for the health of oneself and loved ones, financial insecurity, political unrest, and social isolation to name a few.
If left unmanaged, chronic stress can lead to serious, negative health outcomes, including a weakened immune system, mental health concerns like anxiety and depression, cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal distress, among others. Conversely, effective management of stress improves quality of life, reduced emotional distress.
To manage stress, we have two options: (1) decrease contact with stressful stimuli, or (2) change the relationship between a stress reaction and emotion distress. Some things we can’t change. We can’t change the fact that we are in a global pandemic or that political tensions exist within families. We can change some things, though, such as filtering news intake. On the other hand, we can change the relationship with have to stressful stimuli by practicing self-care to build resiliency and better cope with stressful reactions.
Below are several evidence-based practices for stress management:
Tips (That Work) to Manage Your Stress
These mindset-focused practices come from various theoretical approaches to clinical interventions to reduce negative thoughts and change the way negativity affects you.
Focus on what you can control
Sometimes, we worry about things that we don’t actually have control over (e.g., the course of the pandemic, other people’s health, other people’s behavior), which can cause significant distress. Bring awareness to how much time and energy you give to worrying about things you don’t actually have control over.
How much time do you spend worrying about things outside of your control?
How do you feel during and after thinking about those things?
Not having control over difficult situations is a significant stressor. It’s also emotionally draining without room for change. Instead, can you shift your focus to things that you can control?
Examples of things we can control include: how we act, how much time we spend thinking about certain things, how we cope with stress, and how we spend our time.
Be intentional about content you take in
Watching the news and scrolling through social media can be triggering and upsetting. Coverage of the pandemic and political climate seem to be everywhere. There is a balance between staying informed and practicing self-care by turning the news off and limiting time of social media.
Notice how watching the news or scrolling through Facebook makes you feel. If it makes you feel upset, anxious, or distressed, can you make intentional changes in how much and what kind of content you take in?
Focus on the gains
Many caregivers and those in the helping professions (e.g., healthcare, emergency response, education, social services, and more) are holding the stress of those they serve, in addition to their own. The weight of secondary stress and trauma can turn into compassion fatigue, characterized by fatigue, loss of interest, lack of motivation, and irritability.
The antidote to compassion fatigue is compassion satisfaction.Rossi et al. (2012)
There are really hard, draining aspects to your work, and there are also rewarding aspects that likely drew you to your field. When you notice yourself fixating on the negativity, shift your attention to the positive aspects of your work as a helper.
What feels rewarding in your work? Do you feel like your work has made you a better person? What might others appreciate about the work you do?
This shift in mindset aids in more positive outcomes because there is a higher ability to tolerate stress when we can view it as a challenge that we can overcome rather than something impossible.
Identify and label unhelpful thoughts
The way that we think can sometimes cause problems or distress. By noticing and labeling unhelpful thoughts, we can help our brain learn to think differently. Some unhelpful thoughts that might come up around pandemic stress include:
Catastrophizing: thinking about the worst-case scenario and assuming it will happen to you (e.g., “I’m going to get very, very sick”)
Magnification or minimization: hyper-focusing on a problem (e.g., hoarding toilet paper) or situation or distancing from it altogether (e.g., ignoring safety suggestions and guidelines)
Jumping to conclusions: drawing conclusions or making decisions before gathering sufficient information (e.g., “I feel fatigued, I must be ill”)
When you notice yourself having one of these unhelpful thoughts:
- Acknowledge the thought as a potentially unhelpful thought
- Ask yourself, “what is the evidence that this is true?” and “what is the evidence that this is false?”
- Using information from your identified evidence, replace your unhelpful thought with a more-informed, rational thought.
Create some distance between yourself and your thoughts
Our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are interconnected. Sometimes, we place more weight on thoughts than we should, like believing thoughts to be facts. Placing that kind of weight on unhelpful thoughts can be very distressing.
Instead, when noticing an unhelpful thought, distance yourself from that thought by changing the weight you give it. Label the thought as a thought; remind yourself it is not a factual piece of information. This helps label the thought as a thought, and not give it the weight of a fact, reducing any associated distress. For example, “I feel fatigued, I must have COVID” would turn into something like, “I am having the thought that I have COVID based on my noticing that I feel fatigued”.
Focus on Your Wellness
Focusing on wellness helps you build psychological resiliency against stress. By improving overall wellness, you set yourself up to manage stress better, reducing negative outcomes.
Foster social connectedness
Research shows just how important social connection is on mental health, which by extension impacts physical health. Despite physical distance, you can foster social wellness through socially-distant activities, phone calls, virtual programming through various community organizations, or other virtual connection.
Make time to care for yourself
Self-care describes things you can do for yourself to take care of oneself and reduce stress in one’s life. While, for some, that might look like rewarding oneself at the end of the week or engaging in a relaxing activity, self-care is also making sure you eat well, sleep enough, move your body regularly, and get a good dose of nature.
It’s important to not abandon your wellness and self-care habits, despite the challenges of the pandemic. Instead, how can you adapt your routines so you can still practice self-care within the constraints of the pandemic?
For example, if not being able to go to group exercise classes at your favorite community center keeps you from wanting to exercise, can you join a virtual exercise group that still highlights the community aspect of groups?
Sometimes, self-care, wellness habits, or mindset practices can feel easier said than done. Set yourself up for success by:
Creating an action plan: Decide what you want to do, setting only a few goals at a time, and assess the barriers ahead of time. Think about what might get in the way of you succeeding and brainstorm ways to overcome those barriers if they come up. Help yourself out more by including cues (things that will serve as reminders) based on you and your life.
Setting S.M.A.R.T. goals: When setting goals for yourself, make them Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound. (Use this template).
While stress management takes more of a preventative approach to mental health, sometimes we can become activated or fall into what feels like a crisis. In those cases, we need to find ways to bring our nervous system back to baseline.
Stressful, anxious thoughts take us out of what’s going on in the present moment, where we actually have control. When in high-distress, tap into your physical, sensory experience to return your attention to what’s going on presently.
Stop and focus on noticing what you see, different things you hear, what you feel in different parts of your body, and what you smell and taste.
This practice forces yourself back into the present moment, instead of feeling overwhelmed by stress, anxiety, depression, or other sources of distress. The present moment is the only time that we have control.
By regulating stress hormones and activating specific parts of the brain for emotion regulation, deep breathing exercises are therapeutically used to lower anxiety and psychological distress, also aiding in sleep. Practice this a few times each day to build this as a skill and to counter distressing reactions to daily stress.
Find a comfortable seat or lay down. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. When you breathe, breathe through your diaphragm. When practicing deep breathing, you should feel your stomach moving, expanding as you inhale and deflating as you exhale, rather than feeling your chest moving with your breath.
Inhale for four counts, and hold briefly. Exhale for four counts, pausing for a moment. Pay attention to what it feels like to inhale slowly, and how it feels to exhale with control. Continue breathing deeply until you feel you have returned to baseline.
Pair this exercise with spiritual practice (e.g., inhaling peace, goodness, calm; exhaling distress, negativity out) or visualization (e.g., imagine a candle flame that grows as you inhale and dims as you exhale or a balloon that slowly expands and deflates).
By no means, is starting all these new routines the expectation or even realistic. Start small and find something that works for you.
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