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“Excessive anxiety is a common response to situations like this and we need to manage our own anxiety as best as we can,” says Maurizio Fava, MD, Psychiatrist-in-Chief at Massachusetts General Hospital and director of the Division of Clinical Research at the Mass General Research Institute. Dr. Fava is also the editor-in-chief of Mind, Mood and Memory.
These days, it’s more important than ever to keep your stress levels under control because of the health risks associated with stress. Apart from triggering feelings of anxiety or depression that can interfere with our daily functioning and long-term mental health, stress can also affect our ability to stay healthy and defend against illness ranging from COVID-19 to a common cold. Stress, immunity and disease progression are all interrelated.
Stress triggers an immune response and creates inflammation throughout the body. Inflammation is associated with mental health challenges, cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal problems, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and most other serious health concerns. “At a time when we experience COVID-19, a threat to our health and the health of our friends, families, and community, our stress levels tend to increase significantly, and this can have negative effects on both our physical and mental health,” Dr. Fava explains. “Stress reduction strategies are therefore critical for all of us to deal with the current situation. The stress response is natural, but needs to be contained so that we are not overwhelmed by it.”
If you’re spending most or all of your time at home, you may need to make some lifestyle changes to keep stress from getting the better of you. The big three components include exercise, diet, and sleep.
“Regular exercise can both reduce stress and improve mood,” Dr. Fava says. “Getting adequate sleep through good sleep hygiene is also critical. Avoiding cigarettes, alcohol, and other drugs can also help. And, of course, try to eat a healthy, balanced diet, reducing caffeine and excessive carbohydrates. Establishing a new routine can be very helpful as well.”
Part of that new routine, he suggests, may include a little less attention to the seemingly hour-by-hour updates available on this worldwide health crisis. “I would recommend not watching obsessively the news about COVID-19,” Dr. Fava says, acknowledging that there is a fine line between staying informed and living with coronavirus news 24 hours a day. “Go on line and search for helpful tips to manage stress from home. Consider yoga or relaxation exercises.”
One simple relaxation technique is simply deep breathing:
- Sit comfortably with your back straight.
- Inhale through your nose.
- Exhale through your mouth, pushing out as much air as possible, while contracting your abdominal muscles.
- Repeat while focusing your attention only on your breathing.
Breathing from the abdomen stimulates the vagus nerve, which extends from the head down through your chest and into the colon. Deep breathing in this way activates the relaxation response, slowing your heart rate and lowering your stress levels.
Another helpful stress-management strategy is mindfulness. It’s the ability to be fully aware of your current environment and what you’re doing in the moment. You’re taking in all the sights and sounds around you and you’re focused on what you’re doing in that moment, not worried about things out of your control. Of course, accepting that there are circumstances you can’t manage or affect is a challenge for most of us. But the more you can let those concerns go, the greater the feeling of control you’ll have in your own life. And that alone can go a long way in reducing your stress.
But mindfulness also means acknowledging your thoughts and feelings without judgment. It’s about experiencing the world with gentleness and forgiveness. “By practicing mindfulness or relaxation exercise we may help ourselves,” Dr. Fava says. “Personally, I love to take a walk around the neighborhood with my wife. It is a wonderful routine that allows us to talk with each other and relax at the same time.”
Stress management also means taking time for activities that bring you pleasure. If there is a book you’ve been meaning to get to, now is a perfect time to dive in. And with online streaming services and seemingly countless movies and shows to watch at home, it should be easy to find something entertaining to watch. The key is to find material that doesn’t stress you out. If there was ever a time for lighthearted comedies, this is it.
Dr. Fava also recommends reaching out to friends and relatives more often, especially if they are people who bring positivity and joy to your life. “The social distance that we need to practice to keep ourselves safe has led, in some cases, to greater opportunities to connect virtually with friends and family,” he says. “Let’s take advantage of that.”
Managing stress well is a learned behavior, and some days it’s easier than others. But if you can start incorporating some relaxation techniques and healthy lifestyle choices into your daily routine, you’ll find that you can get through a lot of challenges life puts in front of you.