Everyone experiences some stress, some of the time. Work, family, money, and other pressures are a part of everyday modern life. Most people successfully navigate day-to- day stress with routine tactics like getting enough sleep or adjusting their workload.
But we are not experiencing “routine” stress.
COVID-19 is an open-handed slap in the face kind of stress that most of us weren’t prepared for. Even the most resilient, calm, and knowledgeable among us are shaken by this life-changing disaster of global proportions in the guise of an enemy we cannot see.
It’s helpful to know three things. First, stress-response symptoms are a normal physiological response to an abnormal situation and there are practical steps we can take reduce stress and minimize lasting harm in times of crisis. Second, it's important to stay healthy during a crisis. I'm not talking about eating organic food, losing weight, or training for a marathon. I'm talking about basic self-care and nutrition, the kind of daily health habits that will support your mental and emotional health in a way that allows you to better manage stress. Third, you can empower yourself to move from overwhelmed to resilient and emerge safely on the other side.
In this three-part series I'll take you through each of those strategies so that you can build your skills for managing stress in times of crisis.
PART 1: Reduce Stress, Minimize Lasting Harm
Fight, Flight, Freeze
Three typical responses to acute stress or traumatic events are FIGHT, FLIGHT, or FREEZE.
Did you know that these stress responses are helpful? Fighting back against an attacker, running away from a burning building, or hiding under a table during an earthquake are instinctive stress-responses that could save your life.
Fight, flight, and freeze are normal, temporary, responses to abnormal events. In certain instances, acute stress or trauma causes lasting problems such as posttraumatic stress disorder. However, the majority of the time, most people will fully recover from stressful events in time.
But what happens during times of prolonged acute stress, such as the current COVID-19 crisis?
Unlike a fire, which can be put out relatively quickly, the COVID-19 pandemic keeps growing and there’s no vaccine or cure. It’s global, so we can’t flee from it. We can stay home, or freeze, but that creates its own measure of stress. Many people are grieved as daily routines, travel plans, and important events are canceled.
This type of prolonged stress can lead to intense emotional reactions including fear, anger, and sadness. People who are normally quite resilient may slip into substance abuse, self-medicating with food, or experiencing extremes of overwhelm or numbing.
You might also experience:
Increased heart rate and blood pressure
Lack of motivation
Unusual sensations in the body with no obvious medical cause
Symptoms like these are a normal physiological response to an abnormal situation. Even though this crisis is prolonged, it’s not permanent. It will end. In the meantime, let’s discuss some practical steps you can take to reduce stress, minimize lasting harm, stay healthy, and build resilience during this time.
Reduce Stress: Know Your Triggers
Pay attention to your symptoms.
Keep a journal of changes to your mood, eating, or sleeping patterns, along with physical symptoms like pain or headaches. Look for patterns around what makes it worse, or better.
Use this information to help you identify what, specifically, is causing the most stress.
Where possible, minimize exposure to your personal triggers.
Consider limiting the time you spend reading the news or checking social media each day.
Minimize the frequency of trips to locations where you risk exposure.
Steer conversation away from troubling subjects and toward topics that are more encouraging.
Reduce Stress: Look for what hasn’t changed.
When the world around you has been turned upside down it can feel like you’re in free fall. While we cannot control these changes, there are many things in our lives that haven’t changed.
Engage with familiar routines that feel safe and secure.
Go to bed at the same time each night.
Make your coffee the same way each morning.
Eat meals at predictable times.
Adapt by re-inventing other daily routines in new ways to fit your current circumstances.
Connect with friends and loved ones to share a laugh or a meal through phone or video.
Reduce Stress: Control the Controllable
Don’t borrow trouble by worrying about factors that you cannot control. Be actively involved with your normal, day-to-day, controllable circumstances as much as possible. Let other people handle their affairs how they will.
Now that you have three key strategies for reducing stress, know your triggers, look for what hasn't changed, and control the controllable, let's talk about how to minimize any lasting harm from the stress that you cannot reduce.
Minimize Lasting Harm: Drop an Anchor
When you notice your stress response increasing, pause. Stop what you’re doing and focus on what is happening in the here and now. Anchor yourself in the moment.
This is a helpful way to feel steady and calm while a storm of life-stress is raging around, and possibly within you. It can help you stay present and alert while you allow the moment to pass.
Press your feet into the floor.
Feel the ground beneath you.
Breathe comfortably, and slowly.
Name five things that you can see, touch, smell, taste, or hear.
Notice that you are still here, and that you are safe.
If you’re experience repeated bouts of anxiety with lingering symptoms, speak with your Doctor or a Counselor who can help you develop coping strategies or offer medical intervention as appropriate.
Minimize Lasting Harm: Acceptance
Let’s face it. It’s not possible to eradicate stress altogether. We still shop, work, and take care of essential business. During times of heightened stress even simple daily routines can feel overwhelming. It takes courage to accept things as they are, face your feelings, and move through it.
Rather than ruminating or dwelling on the worst-case scenario, accepting your current circumstances for what they are and allowing your feelings to come and go will help you to move through uncomfortable moments more quickly.
Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings, rather than fight against them.
Resisting or trying to control uncomfortable thoughts and feeling causes more stress.
Give yourself permission to experience uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, without self-criticism.
You are not incompetent, weak, or damaged for feeling how you feel.
Feelings come and go. Let them.
Take the good with the bad.
Notice that you might also be experiencing hope, optimism, gratitude, joy, humor, curiosity, creativity, love, and more.
Talk to your doctor or a trusted friend if you need help.
Anyone can feel overwhelmed. For some, these experiences can spiral into depression or other serious mental health problems. Along with the strategies described here, it’s important to seek help from a qualified professional such as your primary care doctor or a licensed therapist. Your care provider may suggest medications or other therapies to manage your symptoms.
If you or a loved one is having thoughts of suicide call the
1-800-273-TALK (8255) Open 24/7.
Stay tuned for parts 2 and three: Staying Healthy and From Overwhelmed to Empowered