The last few months have been packed with heart-stopping environmental headlines: January was the hottest month on record; February was the wettest recorded in the UK. Now Coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to sweep across the world, anxiety is understandably increasing.
We are all worried about our health, our loved ones and our finances. All this anxiety and stress keeps our nervous system is in a permanently heightened mode of ‘fight or flight’ for survival.
While completely natural, feeling anxious needn’t be inevitable – there’s plenty we can do to help ourselves and others feel a whole lot better whilst we are staying safe and social distancing. How we respond to any situation decides how we feel about it.
Here are a few tips:
1. Facts vs Fake News
Our brains don’t like uncertainty, and some of us struggle with handling unknowns more than others. So, it’s definitely worth knowing your facts on how good or bad things really are. It will also give you more certainty and control over your imagination. Stick to reputable sources to answer those worries and questions. In the case of COVID-19, a once daily check of the NHS advice and WHO situation report is sufficient for most of us. Here are some tips on social distancing.
2. Physical Activity
Exercise one of the most important things you can do to combat stress. It might seem contradictory, but putting physical stress on your body through exercise can relieve mental stress.
The benefits are strongest when you exercise regularly. People who exercise regularly are less likely to experience anxiety than those who don’t exercise (1).
There are a few reasons behind this:
- Stress hormones: Exercise lowers your body’s stress hormones — such as cortisol — in the long run. It also helps release endorphins, which are chemicals that improve your mood and act as natural painkillers.
- Sleep: Exercise can also improve your sleep quality, which can be negatively affected by stress and anxiety.
- Confidence: When you exercise regularly, you may feel more competent and confident in your body, which in turn promotes mental wellbeing.
Activities — such as walking , jogging, yoga — that involve repetitive movements of large muscle groups can be particularly stress relieving. Outdoor exercise like walking and jogging is permitted during social distancing, only avoid coming into contact with other people or try the online Yoga platform EkhartYoga, which is offering free gentle yoga and meditation classes online to people during the outbreak.
3. Write it down
One way to handle stress is to write things down. While recording what you’re stressed about is one approach, another is jotting down what you’re grateful for. Gratitude may help relieve stress and anxiety by focusing your thoughts on what’s positive in your life.
4. Chew Gum
For a super easy and quick stress reliever, try chewing a stick of gum.
One study showed that people who chewed gum had a greater sense of wellbeing and lower stress. One possible explanation is that chewing gum causes brain waves similar to those of relaxed people. Another is that chewing gum promotes blood flow to your brain.
It’s hard to feel anxious when you’re laughing. It’s good for your health, and there are a few ways it may help relieve stress:
- Relieving your stress response.
- Relieving tension by relaxing your muscles.
In the long term, laughter can also help improve your immune system and mood.
A study among people with cancer found that people in the laughter intervention group experienced more stress relief than those who were simply distracted.
Alternatively listen to Anthony McCarten outlines the importance of humor and laughter in today’s world.
Try these laughter yoga exercises at home.
6. Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness describes practices that anchor you to the present moment. It can help combat the anxiety-inducing effects of negative thinking.
There are several methods for increasing mindfulness, including mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, mindfulness-based stress reduction, yoga and meditation.
A recent study in college students suggested that mindfulness may help increase self-esteem, which in turn lessens symptoms of anxiety and depression.
7. Listen to Soothing Music
Listening to music can have a very relaxing effect on the body.
Slow-paced instrumental music can induce the relaxation response by helping lower blood pressure and heart rate as well as stress hormones. Some types of classical, Celtic, Native American and Indian music can be particularly soothing, but simply listening to the music you enjoy is effective too. Nature sounds can also be very calming. This is why they’re often incorporated into relaxation and meditation music.
8. Deep Breathing
Mental stress activates your sympathetic nervous system, signaling your body to go into “fight-or-flight” mode. During this reaction, stress hormones are released and you experience physical symptoms such as a faster heartbeat, quicker breathing and constricted blood vessels.
Deep breathing exercises can help activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which controls the relaxation response.There are several types of deep breathing exercises, including diaphragmatic breathing, abdominal breathing, belly breathing and paced respiration. The goal of deep breathing is to focus your awareness on your breath, making it slower and deeper. When you breathe in deeply through your nose, your lungs fully expand and your belly rises. This helps slow your heart rate, allowing you to feel more peaceful.
This video explains how to practice diaphragmatic breathing.
If you feel you need an external intervention research has shown that acupuncture treatment may specifically benefit anxiety disorders and symptoms of anxiety by acting on areas of the brain known to reduce sensitivity to pain and stress, as well as promoting relaxation and deactivating the ‘analytical’ brain, which is responsible for anxiety and worry. Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, while acupuncture can activate the opposing parasympathetic nervous system, which initiates the relaxation response.
Acupuncture can be safely combined with conventional treatments such as medication or psycho-educational therapy, possibly enhancing their beneficial effects and reducing unwanted side-effects.