A Survivor’s Guide to Pandemic Stress
There is no question we are living through stressful times—which means we need to be proactive in managing this stress. The following is not a checklist to be completed, but a list of ideas and techniques that have been found to be useful in helping people manage stress. Try more than one of them, see what resonates with you, be OK with not liking or wanting to do some of them.
A Healthy, Balanced Diet Helps You Stress Less
The key word to remember here is inflammation. Some foods (sugar, refined grains, alcohol, processed meat) create an inflammatory response in the body— a stress response. Regular consumption of high sugar items like soda, or pastries may contribute to such inflammatory diseases as rheumatoid arthritis, and heart disease. Processed meats like bacon, sausage, and ham are loaded with something called advanced glycation end products (AGE) which are known to cause free radical damage, inflammation and premature aging.
If someone is interested in changing up their diet or adding a few items to help manage internal stress/inflammation, consider the following:
- A little dark chocolate goes a long way! In a 2009 Swiss study, daily consumption of 40 g of dark chocolate lowered stress hormones in the body. (1)
- Complex carbohydrates such as sweet potato, whole grains, quinoa, brown rice, steel-cut oats digest more slowly which can help keep blood sugar levels more level, which supports a balanced mood. (2)
- Bananas are potassium-rich, and contain dopamine and B-vitamins, all of which can help support nervous system function.* (3)
- Omega-3/Fatty fish (tuna, salmon, sardines) can help reduce inflammation, support neurological health, and balance mood. (4)
Regular Exercise For Stress Management
Research has shown again and again, that there are benefits to regular, sustained, aerobic exercise. For stress management, aerobic exercise supports a reduction of the body's stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, while stimulating endorphins - the chemicals in the brain that are the body's natural painkillers and mood elevators.
To be clear, regular exercise doesn't have to be something hardcore and doesn’t require a gym membership. Walking around the neighborhood for twenty minutes is great, or try getting off the subway one stop early and walking a few extra blocks home.
Of course, a gym offers a variety of classes and exercises plus there is the added benefit of social interaction. If the preference is to work out in private, there are all kinds of exercise videos on YouTube and other online platforms, which support biking, aerobics, yoga, pilates, tai chi and more.
If exercising is new for you, check in with a doctor or nurse practitioner and get their advice on how to approach adding exercise to your health routine.
Yoga For Stress Management
The deliberate connection of breath to movement is what makes yoga such a perfect tool for handling stress. There are different styles of yoga practice, some more vigorous and challenging, while others are more quiet and introspective in nature. All offer the same benefits: a calmer mind, and relaxed body. As mentioned above, there are plenty of videos available online to support a new practice. It is worthwhile, however, to take a few classes in person as well so that the student can get feedback from the teacher on form and technique.
Breathwork For Stress Management
We know that when stressed, the body’s fight or flight response kicks in: heart rate is increased, adrenal glands are activated, breathing becomes faster and more shallow, and muscles are engaged. So, it makes sense, as part of a stress management system, to consider how to get the body into a relaxation response. Breathwork (pranayama) is one way to accomplish this. Quite simply, when our breathing is slow and deep, our heart rate can more easily decrease, blood pressure can rebalance… and we are more relaxed.
While certainly a part of yoga, breathwork is also practiced alone. A simple exercise looks like this:
- Set a timer for ten minutes.
- Sit in a chair with your feet on the floor, hands on your lap, eyes closed, and just notice what is happening. How does the body feel? The breath? Is there anything you can do to relax a bit more? Like soften the shoulders, loosen the jaw, shake out your hands.
- Take a deep breath in, and then exhale slowly. Repeat two more times.
- Keep your eyes closed if you can. Inhale to a count of two or three, exhale to a count of four. Inhale to a count of two or three, exhale to a count of four. Repeat this pattern until the timer goes off, or as long as it feels comfortable.
- Ideally, at some point, the inhales and exhales will get longer – four-second inhales, six-second exhales, and you are able to set aside twenty minutes or half an hour.
Meditation For Stress Management
Meditation is the practice of sitting quietly and clearing the mind of thought. Sometimes a word or thought (mantra) can be used to help focus the mind, and often there is breathwork involved. The idea is to move away from the ego part of our mind – the part that needs to control.
The process is very similar to the pranayama exercise above. Set aside some time for quiet reflection. The key is to not let the “monkey mind” keep us from being present. So focus on breath, and at some point, you’ll notice that you are thinking again. Simply start over with a big deep inhale and let the mind follow the exhale.
Allow this process to be flexible. The truth is, unless you’re a purist, there is no wrong way to meditate. If you ride the subway to work, try meditating instead of listening to music or a podcast. Work at home? Take ten minutes away from the computer screen, sit quietly with your eyes closed and focus on slow, deep breathing.
Bodywork for Stress Management
There are a wide variety of bodywork methods available – each with their own strengths and benefits: massage, acupuncture, Reiki, chiropractic, cupping, Rolfing… When considering any of these modalities, talk with a medical provider, and let them know the plan. Make sure to also research the method that you plan to use – get recommendations from trusted friends, check credentials, interview the practitioner, and look at Yelp reviews.
Some Other Stress-Busting Ideas to Explore
- Epsom Salt baths – while the literature is all anecdotal, many people testify to the detoxifying properties of this old school remedy.
- Supplements and herbs –A number of natural ingredients and botanicals demonstrate gentle relaxation and neurological health benefits. ecoNugenics recommends select, targeted formulas that can help promote optimal stress response, cognitive function, and more. Before taking supplements for any medical condition, be sure to consult with a licensed healthcare provider.
Stress is a natural part of life—but in today’s global climate, we’re certainly experiencing a rise from all sides. These gentle, natural and research-based solutions can help balance stress responses and support greater calm and clarity, for optimal long-term health and wellness.
- Ahmed Al Sunni and Rabia Latif. Effects of chocolate intake on perceived stress; a controlled clinical study. International Journal of Health Science website. 2014 Oct; 8(4): 393–401. Accessed September 25, 2020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4350893/
- Naidoo, U. Nutritional strategies to ease anxiety. Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School website. April 13, 2016 Updated August 29, 2019. Accessed September 25, 2020. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-strategies-to-ease-anxiety-201604139441
- Kennedy, D. Veasey, R. Effects of high-dose B Vitamin complex with vitamin C and minerals on subjective mood and performance in healthy males. Springer Link website. Published May 8, 2010. Accessed September 25, 2020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2885294/
- Kuan-Pin Su, Yutaka, Matsuoka, and Chi-Un Pae. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in prevention of mood and anxiety disorders. Clinical Psychopharmacology and Neuroscience website. Published August 31, 2015. Accessed September 25, 2020. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26243838/