Are you stressed, anxious, or feeling depleted? Adding the fast pace of modern life to the ongoing uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic has increased stress for many. A recent survey found that, “…Two-thirds of adults (63%) agreed that uncertainty about what the next few months will be like causes them stress, and around half (49%) went further to say that the coronavirus pandemic makes planning for their future feel impossible.” And yet even in the midst of a stressful time there are tangible choices you can make to refill your tank. By focusing on what is within your control to do you can boost your health, well-being, and resilience during a period that is universally challenging. 

First and foremost it is important to pay attention to the minimal self-care choices that give every human body its best chance of feeling good. These baseline choices include: 

  • Protecting a 7-9 hour sleep opportunity every night
  • Drinking ½ of your body weight in ounces per day
  • Eating an anti-inflammatory and whole foods diet
  • Exercising for 30-45 minutes per day: walking, running, bicycling, dancing, and etc.
  • Practicing mindful awareness
  • Connecting with loved ones
  • Spending time in nature

The collective impact of these baseline choices is important because of how they influence one another. For example, it is harder to exercise and eat healthfully if you only slept for four hours last night. It can be challenging to sleep well if you were sedentary most of the day. It is easier to reduce stress levels with a healthy diet, exercise, mindfulness, and enough rest. Spending time in nature can aid in recovering from stress and help improve quality of sleep. Connecting with loved ones who feel safe is yet another way to improve physical and mental health. Mindfulness helps us recognize how we are feeling and what we need in the present moment. For example: “I notice I am grumpy… Have I showered? Eaten? Had water? Hugged someone I love? Been outside recently?”

In addition to the baseline needs listed above, there are other choices we can make to go from stressed out to replenished — body, mind, and spirt. 

  • Slow down. Pause and take a deep, slow breath before turning on the car, answering the phone, sending that email, or eating a bite of food. Injecting pauses and slow moments throughout your day taps the brakes on the nervous system. This helps to reduce stress and shift the body from survival mode to rest and relax mode.
  • Breathe. Try a breathing technique such as 4-7-8 breathing  or box breathing to slow down your breath and further aid in tapping the brakes of the nervous system.
  • Play! “… play helps relieve stress, boosts creativity, improves our mood and outlook and keeps our minds sharp. It also improves our relationships with others.” 
  • Rest time, 1980’s style. Allow rest to be different than sleep, and think about ways to truly let yourself rest.  As a society we have shifted towards binge watching Netflix specials, checking out the latest YouTube videos, and scrolling social media pages to rest. While we get a dopamine hit and feel pleasure by doing so, we are not necessarily helping our bodies and minds to truly relax. Give yourself 1980’s style breaks – play a board game, go for a walk, give yourself five minutes to sit quietly and enjoy your coffee or tea.
  • Boundaries around screen-time. Studies have shown that exposure to screens before bed can reduce melatonin levels by 50%. Set up healthy boundaries with phones, computers, and T.V. to allow for healthy sleep. This can look like turning off technology one hour before going to sleep, keeping your cell phone out of the bedroom at night, and etc. Look for ways to connect, play, and relax that do not require technology. 
  • Visualizations. Focusing on imagery can help you relax when you are stressed, whether it be picturing fluffy white clouds or remembering a setting from the past that you associate with happiness and safety. Dr. Rick Hanson writes in his book Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakeable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness: “Much of our stress is driven by internal verbal processes. They worry about the future, rehash the past, and mutter about the present. In most people, the neural basis for language is on the left side of the brain while the right side handles imagery and other forms of holistic processing…The two sides inhibit each other, so if one becomes more active, that quiets the other.” 
  • Gratitude practice. Pausing to write or speak what you are grateful for each day helps train the mind to see what is good and let it count. The latter is crucial, as our natural negativity bias makes it easier to notice what is going badly instead of what is going well. Dr. Rick Hanson explains the neurology of this, as well as three simple steps to more easily “take in the good,” in his short article, “Taking in the Good versus The Negativity Bias.

As you explore ideas for reducing stress, consider also the choices that increase your stress while depleting your energy. This looks different for everyone but might include getting too little sleep, working long hours, reading the news, driving rush hour traffic, stressing over finances, over-binging shows and movies, eating junk food, rushing all the time, checking social media, or worrying about the future. Consider what is within your control to decrease. Is there any one stressor that you can reduce or remove from your daily life? 

Knowing what to do is often not as hard as enacting that knowledge. For tips on how to shift current habits, check out our blog post on the topic, “Making the Change: A Health Coaching Perspective.” James Clear also offers excellent advice on how to build new habits on his blog and in his book Atomic Habits. The first step he recommends? Start small. He quotes Leo Babauta, “Make it so easy you can’t say no.”

The blog post was written by Ariana Figueroa, the Health Coach for Integrative Family Medicine of Asheville. You can read more about Ariana in her bio!