“It’s the pandemic, it’s the social unrest, it’s climate change and the wildfires. It’s the election, it’s upcoming holidays, said Vaile Wright, American Psychological Association’s senior director of health care innovation.
“I can’t remember any time in my lifetime, or most people’s adult lifetimes, where you’ve had this many adversities,” Wright said. “It’s the cumulative effect of one thing on top of another on top of another — to the point where I think people are either just going numb to it or feel so overwhelmed that they’re frozen.”
If your coping skills are worn down to the nub, there are actions you can take to boost your well-being and strengthen your endurance during this stressful time.
1. Get some exercise
It may seem counterintuitive, but getting up and moving when you least feel like it is one of the best ways to counter stress and improve your health and state of mind.
Exercise regulates the body’s central stress response system, called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which can help reduce cortisol and other harmful stress hormones.
“In reaction to stress our body kicks into fight, flight or freeze as a survival mechanism. But when the threat is gone, we’re supposed to be able to relax and release cortisol and other stress hormones that get kicked into gear,” Wright said.
“But when we’re in this constant state of hyper arousal, hyper vigilance, we don’t get that release — and that stress overtime really wears away on our bodies, our minds,” she added.
Especially during the pandemic, there are many free trials for apps and online Zoom fitness classes, so you can use this time as an opportunity to try something new, Drayer suggests.
And you don’t need a ton of expensive exercise equipment to accomplish your goal. Try dancing, yard work or vigorous housecleaning to get moving. For weight training, anything that will give you muscle tension can work, such as jugs of water, books or even your children, Drayer advises.
Try a set of yellow, green and red resistance bands, which can be used for back, bicep, triceps, shoulders and leg work.
2. Get a mental and physical reward with yoga
Yoga, of course, is a form of physical exercise, and exercise is widely recommended to help ease depression and other mental health conditions.
Scientists believe exercise increases blood circulation to the brain, especially areas like the amygdala and hippocampus — which both have roles in controlling motivation, mood and response to stress.
But yoga is also a spiritual discipline, designed to meld body and mind. A yoga lifestyle incorporates physical postures, breath regulation and mindfulness through the practice of meditation. There are lots of yoga options online to choose from.
3. Improve your sleep
4. Reach for relaxation
5. Practice deep breathing
Something as simple as taking deep, slow breaths can do amazing things to our brain and therefore our stress, experts say. Deep breathing realigns the stressed-out part of our bodies, called the the sympathetic system, with the parasympathetic, or “rest and restore” system.
While there are many types of breathing, a lot of research has focused on “cardiac coherence,” where you inhale for six seconds and exhale for six seconds for a short period of time. Focus on belly breathing, or breathing to the bottom of your lungs, by putting your hand on your tummy to feel it move.
“You begin to realize that you are separate from what’s happening to you, and you can choose a response instead of just a primal reaction,” Ackrill said.
6. Meditate for change
At the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, researchers studied the brains of Tibetan Buddhist monks recruited by the Dalai Lama and found startling results: Tens of thousands of hours of compassionate meditation had permanently altered the structure and function of the monks’ brains. One 41-year-old monk had the brain of a 33-year-old.
Davidson pointed to the results of a randomized controlled trial of people who’ve never meditated before. Using direct measures of brain function and structure, he found it only took 30 minutes a day of meditation practice over the course of two weeks to produce a measurable change in the brain.
“When these kinds of mental exercises are taught to people, it actually changes the function and the structure of their brain in ways that we think support these kinds of positive qualities,” said Davidson, who is a professor of psychology and psychiatry.
7. Practice appreciation
One of Davidson’s favorite mindfulness exercises cultivates appreciation.
“Simply to bring to mind people that are in our lives from whom we have received some kind of help,” Davidson said. “Bring them to mind and appreciate the care and support or whatever it might be that these individuals have provided.”
“You can spend one minute each morning and each evening doing this,” he said. “And that kind of appreciation is something that can foster a sense of optimism about the future.”
Like exercise, mindfulness will need to be practiced on a regular basis to keep the brain’s positive outlook in good shape, Davidson said. But the effort is definitely worth it.
“This is really about nurturing the mind,” he said. “And there is ample evidence to suggest that there are real psychological and physical health-related benefits.”
8. Strive for optimism
Science has shown that people who practice gratitude are happier and more optimistic, and you can easily teach yourself how to do it.
And while you’re at it, list the positive experiences you had that day, which can also raise your optimism.
9. Crack a smile
It’s long been said that “laughter is the best medicine,” and that applies to the anxiety of our times, experts said.
“Remember, you can’t be anxious and smile at the same time. That’s a physiological thing,” Webber said.
So watch funny movies, listen to comedy routines, ask everyone you talk to on the phone to tell you a joke. Give back to them by doing the same.
10. Set up a social phone tree
Staying socially connected with friends and loved ones even though you’re physically apart is a key way to survive this stressful time.
Of course, technology is a great way for many of us to do that, but some in the family, such as grandparents, may not be as adept at using Facebook, FaceTime and Zoom, for example.
Trauma psychologist Shauna Springer, who has spent a decade working with military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, suggests creating a phone tree.
“Instead of just relying on social media, we can make a list of the 10 or 20 people that we care the most about and put them in our phone on a rotating basis,” Springer said. “We’re going to call one of those people every day.”
Next, Springer suggests adding more people from our outer ring of friends and associates that we may not be as close to and put those people into that daily call rotation. That’s especially critical if you think those people may be especially isolated right now.
“Reaching out and connecting with people, especially those who are especially isolated, and giving them space to talk about their experience and anxiety during this unprecedented time of anxiety and then sharing our own experience is how we will get through this,” she said. “When we connect, we survive.”
11. Prioritize self-care and routines
It’s important to carve out time for yourself right now, even in the midst of crippling anxiety, experts say.
That may include hobbies like knitting, taking an extra-long shower or bath, reading, taking a tea break or calling family members. Even better, schedule these stress relievers into your day just like mealtimes and other obligations, suggests CNN contributor Drayer.
Stretching your body after you wake up or doing a sun salutation can help to get your blood flowing and your body moving in the morning, she says.
Establishing a wellness routine is also an important part of self-care. Routines allow you to focus on health goals by creating structure and organization, which can be particularly beneficial when things seem out of your control.
12. Focus on what you can change
Fight back against anxiety, experts suggest, by taking control of how you think.
“One of the ways to do that is to take out a sheet of paper, put a line down the middle and on one side write down the things we can’t control right now, and on the other write what we can control,” Springer said. “And then we form a plan of action that allows us to move on those things that we can control.”
This stops us from “soaking in that feeling of helplessness or if you will just be sitting in our foxhole and waiting for more bad news to come,” she said. “We’re actually moving on things that we want to be doing with our lives, even if there are some very challenging circumstances right now.”
For some people that may not feel possible, especially if they lost a job or were furloughed when the economy came to a screeching halt.
“Losing a job is a seismic stressor, one of the most stressful things that can happen to you,” Springer said. “But you can sit and ponder on your negative situation or you can use the time to learn something new or deepen yourself or gain some skills.”
She points to the many high quality, inexpensive or free training programs on the internet today that can add skills to your profession or even help you transition to something new.
“So people can use this time to build skills and become smarter and stronger and more prepared for when the workforce really kicks back in and full force,” Springer said.