Protecting Ourselves Against Stress

NEWS & PRESS

Protecting Ourselves Against Stress

April 29, 2020 | Education

Our stress reactions evolved to help our bodies prepare for immediate danger. However, the stresses we have in our modern lives tend to exist at a more low-level but continuous state of arousal as we manage the pressures of everyday life, like budgeting, managing deadlines or home life, or getting in the thick of politics, or social media. Putting our bodies through lots of small stress responses interferes with cognition, attention, and memory, suppresses our immune system, can upset our digestive and reproductive systems, and even increase our risk of heart attack and stroke.

The crisis that we’re facing now feels existential to a lot of Americans, who might not have the resources to pay rent or buy food, or who are worried about the people closest to them or mourning a loss. This stress is taking its toll on our health, and while it’s unrealistic to think we can—or should—become Zen masters in this heightened time, there are a few things we can do to protect our bodies and minds as we navigate life in lockdown.

TRY TO TAP INTO YOUR IMAGINATION 

When it comes to dealing with stress, our imagination can work against us. We can catastrophize the situation we’re in, or imagine the worst possible future outcomes.

But our imagination can also be a huge source of relief for us if we try consciously to tap into it.

Guided imagery might help put us in the right frame of mind to deal with situations that often bring worry. It’s an exercise that feels a little like meditation but is more focused on controlling our state than training awareness on it.

    1. Find a quiet space to sit down. Relax your gaze, and start to breathe deeply.
    2. Think about the two or three qualities you need to make it through this difficult time. Tenacity and confidence? Levelheadedness and passion?
    3. Take yourself back to a time where you feel you had those qualities. Was it helping a friend through a divorce? Acing a job interview? If you don’t feel that you’ve ever exhibited those traits, think of a time you witnessed them in someone else.
    4. Use all of your senses to stay in that time. Immerse yourself fully in the scene and dial up the feelings you had in that moment. What can you see, taste, touch, and smell? What did the carpet feel like at your feet? Was there a slight breeze? Keep noticing what’s around you, and how it feels. Stay in this state for as long as you feel comfortable, or as long as you have.
    5. Continue to breathe deeply and, when you’re ready, gently bring your attention back to the room and the situation ahead of you.

TRY MICROGOALING 

The goals ‘get out of debt’, or ‘find a new job’ feel overwhelming. We know we’ll get a dopamine hit when we complete them, but, in the beginning, the end can just feel too far away. When we break down our goals into smaller, more manageable pieces, like updating our CV, or reaching out to ten contacts, we can feel good about crossing off each little milestone along the way. Microgoals should be specific and measurable, and scheduled out to the completion of the larger goal.

TRY TO AVOID TOXIC COPING

We’re in uncharted waters at the moment. If three packets of cookies a day is helping us to plod through this mess, who are we to deny ourselves? But we know deep down when the quick fixes we turn to, like smoking, overimbibing, procrastinating, or compulsive shopping, make us feel worse. Instead of trying to make sweeping drastic lifestyle changes in this crisis, we could try paying closer attention to the effects those behaviors have on our bodies, like the headaches we get from dehydration, nicotine rushes, or too much blue-light scrolling. When we know what triggers our anxiety, fatigue, or nausea, it’s easier to change our behaviors using small goals to enhance the things we know help us, like replenishment, restoration, and better sleep.

TRY STRESS-BUSTING ACTIVITIES

We’re all aware of the simple things we can do to relieve stress; sleeping, forest bathing, art-making, reading, golfing, cycling, or making or listening to music. Why do we find it so hard to pick up these types of activities when we’re at our lowest? Sometimes we reach for the easy dopamine hits of scrolling social media, or other avoidant behaviors. Sometimes we feel guilty for not working on the problem ahead in every waking moment. Let’s permit ourselves to make time for these activities without even the expectation that we’ll love doing them in the moment or that they’ll feel transformative in any way. We can simply build them into a habit and see if they end up serving us.

If your feelings of stress about this moment become overwhelming, visit the Disaster Distress Helpline, call 1-800-985-5990, or text TalkWithUs to 66746, and if you feel like you’re in immediate danger, call 911.

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