Stress is a natural reaction to the pandemic that has turned our lives upside down. Finances, family, fear of exposure and the host of other COVID-related stressors can lead to feelings of irritability, anxiousness, loneliness, isolation and a general lack of control. Stress can have adverse health effects long-term. But it is possible to reign in that stress before it consumes you.
In this episode of San Diego Health, host Susan Taylor and Scripps psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Brackin discuss different coping mechanisms to deal with stress, such as keeping in touch with loved ones, deep breathing exercises, connecting with nature, adding more structure to your daily routine to create a sense of normalcy, or reaching out to your physician or psychiatrist for help.
There are people experiencing high stress due to finances, or family, or children going back to school with distance learning and fears of exposure. How you manage that stress is indicative to what your coping mechanisms have been in the past.
Physically you may notice some disruption of sleep. You may notice that your appetite is changing, either increasing or decreasing. Psychologically speaking, you may find yourself feeling extra irritable, or you may find yourself withdrawn. You may find yourself feeling extra anxious actually.
When we’re stressed, our blood pressure goes up naturally. That puts you at higher risk of having a heart attack. You’re at higher risk of having a stroke. You’re at higher risk of even developing cancer. Psychologically speaking and relationship speaking, those things can interfere within your daily life in terms of how you interact with your loved ones, your significant other, your parents, your children. So, it’s very important to get a handle on your stress level immediately.
The social distancing requirements have caused us to really change our habits and the way that we connect with other people. People are looking for ways to connect with other people. That might be a weekly phone call with a friend or a family member. Zoom has become extremely popular as an alternative to connect. The main idea is that people need to connect with other people. Other ways would be going outside, taking walks, being a part of nature, realizing there’s so much more than maybe what’s in your little bubble.
Structure and routine are so important. No matter what age you are, create some type of routine in your day. I would certainly encourage to continue the things that closely resembled what you used to do. If you worked out, figure out what a workout regime would be. What time did you typically work out before? What were your eating habits before? You can continue to take control of your life by creating a sense of normalcy for yourself despite what’s going on outside in the world. You may even have a loved one reach out and they might say to you, “It seems like you’ve been really down these days.” Listen to what they’re saying.
If other people are starting to recognize some differences in your personality, or your behaviors, you want to take that in. You really want to check in with yourself and decide what resource is it that you need? Is it that you need to exercise more? Is it that maybe you need to schedule an appointment with your physician? Or even seek out some mental health counseling? When you feel you need to talk out your problems, if you just kind of need some basic coping mechanisms, that would be when you’d want to seek out the therapist. If you feel like you’re physically and emotionally so distraught that there might be a chemical imbalance, I would suggest seeking out a psychiatrist.
[There are safety protocols in place across the Scripps system.]
The last thing you would want is to ignore some medical condition that you have for fear of seeking out the proper medical attention and have that get worse.
I recommend throughout your day, regardless of what your circumstances to do this: deep breath in for three seconds, hold for four, exhale for three.
Deep breath through your nose, exhale through your mouth.
Do it as you are feeling some level of stress, such as when your heart starts beating fast or maybe you’re sweating, or you’re feeling extra irritable or frustrated. In that particular moment, that would be the time when you just say to yourself, “Hold on. I need to calm down. I’m going to take a deep breath.”
Mindfulness meditation is a wonderful intervention that you can do at home. There are wonderful apps that you can download like Calm, or Headspace. These are popular mindfulness meditation apps that are accessible regardless of what kind of smartphone you have. These are easy ways that you can give yourself a sense of peace regardless of what’s happening externally.
Resist the urge to pick up your phone and check text messages or emails or play games. Screen time has been identified as something that will stimulate your mind. It’s the antithesis of trying to get into that restful sleep mode. Instead, you want to change environments.
After 15 minutes of rolling around and realizing, “I can’t turn my thoughts off,” you want to leave that particular space, leave the bed and go somewhere else. Choose some other thing to do, even if it is watching some TV. But that TV program that you choose, be sure it’s not something that’s going to overstimulate you or draw your attention back in. Once you get a little bit drowsy, then you return back to your bed and try to go to sleep.
When you really feel like you’ve tried all of those things, and nothing is working and you’re still feeling the same or even worse, you should absolutely seek out professional help.
This has been a difficult time. It’s important to just validate that we’ve all gone through this. In that way, we can holistically connect.
Just realizing that this has been a very challenging year, that these feelings you’re experiencing, there are many people out there that are feeling similarly, if not the same. You’re not alone.
Lightly edited for clarity
Watch the San Diego Health video with host Susan Taylor and Dr. Elizabeth Brackin discussing healthy ways to deal with stress during the COVID-19 pandemic.