Are you feeling a lot of stress these days? Just know that you are not alone! While people in the U.S. were reporting high levels of stress before the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clear that the pandemic has led to a tremendous amount of additional stress for many people. Not only can the high levels of stress impact our ability to function in our daily lives, there is a large body of research which shows that chronic stress can cause increased risk of both physical problems (such as Type 2 Diabetes, cardiovascular and intestinal problems, and even cancer), and mental health problems (such as depression, anxiety, and suicidality).
While it would be nice if we could get rid of all of the things that cause us high levels of stress, that is not usually an option (although by all means, consider what you can do to reduce or get rid of stressors that are within your control!). Given that most of our stressors can’t be changed, it is important to consider what we can do for ourselves to best protect us during stressful times. While many people have found good ways to handle their stress, here are some strategies you might want to consider or add in:
- Exercise – Exercising not only provides health benefits, but reduces feelings of stress and increases endorphins (which make you feel good!). While regular exercise is great, even just going for a walk for 10-20 minutes can help you feel better when you are experiencing a lot of stress.
- Get social support – When we are super busy it is easy to cut ourselves off from others while we work on the tasks at hand. However, having positive social contact with friends, family, and colleagues can reduce our feelings of stress and improve our mood. Try to make time to connect with those people who make you happy.
- Keep an eye on your thoughts – Sometimes the automatic thoughts we have increase our feelings of stress, but we can consciously change them to reduce stress and feel better about a situation. Here are some examples: What is the worst thing that can happen if things don’t go the way that you wish? Could there be another explanation for someone else’s behavior? Sometimes consciously thinking differently about a situation can reduce our stress and give us comfort.
- Relax those muscles – Consider using hot showers or baths, heating pads, or even massages to release tight muscles. When our muscles relax, this can help us to feel more relaxed.
- Watch your breath – Our breathing tends to be fast and shallow when we are stressed, and the lower levels of oxygen we experience can make us feel more panicky. Taking a few slow deep breaths can help us regulate breathing and increase our oxygen levels, allowing us to feel better. In fact, just focusing on our breathing can help us divert our attention and reduce stress. Just a caveat: don’t engage in deep breathing for too long, or you could get dizzy/faint.
- Engage in mindfulness – Mindfulness is an umbrella term used to describe a number of activities and interventions that help us focus on the moment, and there is a lot of evidence that this can be useful in reducing stress and improving mood.
- Take care of for yourself – Healthy eating, sufficient sleep, and taking time out for pleasurable activities can go out the window when we are feeling overwhelmed, but these are important things that we can do to take care of ourselves. It’s a lot easier to cope when we have had enough sleep, are eating properly, and have had a break!
Life in general can lead to high levels of stress. While this is to be expected, it will be important to keep an eye on this, and make sure you are getting what you need. If you do your best to work on your stress and mental health but are still struggling, there is no shame in seeking outside help, and reaching out for help is a show of strength, not weakness. Whether it is bouncing ideas around with a trusted friend or family member, or consulting with a therapist or physician, do what you need to do to get the help you need.
The Live COVID SMART blog series was developed to promote resilience in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Contributing authors: Heidi Radunovich, Marcia Brown, Kim Griffin, Beth Kerr, Lori Wiggins, John Diaz, and LaToya J. O’Neal. This work is supported by the Rural Health and Safety Education Program [grant no. 2021-46100-35459].
Resources Charlesworth, E. A., & Nathan, R. G. (2004). Stress management: A comprehensive guide to wellness. Random House. Sapolsky, R. M. (2004). Why zebras don’t get ulcers (3rd ed.). Henry Holt and Company.