However, there is no doubt that the stress and uncertainty of the situation has affected virtually everyone. From sheltering in place and ongoing social distancing to concerns about exposure, jobs, and finances, this pandemic has taken a toll on practically everyone at every age.
A little stress and anxiety is a normal part of life. But when it’s prolonged — as many have experienced over the past few months — it can cause a multitude of problems, from trouble sleeping and concentrating to high blood pressure, depression and much more. That’s why it’s so important to practice self-care — during this pandemic but also as an everyday practice.
There are many different ways and techniques to calm yourself, quiet your mind, focus your energy and maintain a positive outlook. The key is finding the right approach (or two or three) that will work for you. Here are several ideas to get you started — you’re sure to find a few that are right for you and those you love:
Find at least three things to be grateful for every day. Speak them out loud, or even better, record them in a daily journal. Just by focusing on small things — a beautiful blooming flower or feeling the sun on your face while you walk the dog — you can reduce your cortisol (stress hormone) and adrenaline levels, which can help calm you and may even promote better sleep. Get the whole family involved as part of a mealtime ritual or start your next virtual happy hour off with a gratitude sharing session. You’ll be surprised how such a simple practice can make such a big difference.
Take a deep breath.
When you take a few deep breaths, your body sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax. That’s why deep breathing is one of the best and quickest ways to lower stress. Make sure you are breathing from your abdomen and exhaling in a slow, controlled manner. Many people find that breathing in deeply through their nose, holding for a few seconds, and then exhaling slowly from the mouth is something they can do anytime or anywhere to calm their nerves. There are several different patterns of breathing that are well-suited for relaxation, meditation, sleep and more. Try “box breathing” for managing anxiety and increasing focus: breathe in for four counts, hold for four counts, exhale for four counts and hold for four counts — then repeat 10-20 times. This simple technique is used by elite military troops when their bodies are in fight-or-flight mode because it’s so effective at quickly reducing stress and returning their breathing to normal. To help you find the breathing pattern that’s most helpful, consider trying an app. There are many free ones available, with different timed breathing exercises set to calming music or chants.
Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years, but its popularity has soared over the past several years as studies have proven (and millions of practitioners have confirmed) the positive benefits for both your emotional and physical health. During meditation you focus on your breathing, being aware and feeling relaxed — all while eliminating the racing thoughts that are crowding your mind and causing stress. There are many different types of meditation, but all can leave you feeling more calm and focused immediately after, as well as throughout the day. Some meditation practices include repeating a calming word or mantra. Others, such as Tai chi or Qi gong, incorporate gentle movements to help restore balance. Guided meditations are led by a narrator or teacher, and help you form mental images of calming places or situations using as many senses as possible. Walking meditation is one of the simplest to learn; just slow down your walking pace and focus on the repeating movements of lifting, moving and placing your feet with each step. You can also focus on counting each step to help tune out other noises or distractions on your walk. Some types of meditation are easier to learn and practice with a virtual session. There are many free guided meditations available online, and a variety of free and paid apps you can download to your phone for easy access anytime.
Yoga combines physical poses, controlled breathing and relaxation and can result in a significant reduction in stress. Many of the poses are designed to increase strength and flexibility, so the contorted body positions can be intimidating to beginners. But don’t worry, there are plenty of poses and practices that can be done by just about anybody — even those with joint and mobility issues. Many yoga videos show different ways to adapt the poses based on your physical limitations or concerns. A beginner video or virtual class is a good way to learn the basics about breathing and holding the poses correctly. If you don’t have the time or inclination to commit to a class right now, you can still reap the benefits of taking just five minutes to try a calming stretch or pose in the middle of your day. Start by trying one or two of these poses. Go gently and slowly, stopping immediately if anything hurts. If you haven’t exercised in a while or have chronic health issues or joint problems, talk to your doctor before attempting any yoga practice.
When you let loose with your body, your mind tends to follow. Moving your body in time to your favorite music can be joyful, energizing and just plain fun. It’s also a great way to sneak in a little exercise and get your heart pumping. Whether you have an impromptu dance party with the whole family or just get up and move by yourself whenever a great song comes on, dancing can lift your mood and help diminish anxiety no matter how you bust a move!
Finally, keep in mind that when life is unusually stressful, there are nearly always steps we can take to help control our response. Be inspired by the words of Viktor Frankl, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
El Camino Health has a free relaxation playlist that focuses on mindful breathing, guided meditation, sensory awareness and more.