On March 15, 2020, America went into lockdown. The experience was akin to a butterfly being forced back into a cocoon because of circumstances beyond its control. And then, two weeks later, America’s restless cocoon period was extended, and then extended again.
Now, different parts of the United States, and indeed the world, are operating at different frequencies of openness, business, socialness, etc. This has always been true of course, but now those frequencies are painted in sharp lines; it’s not that business looks different in Texas or Arizona from New York, it’s that it sort of has to look different, due to a virus that has taken more than 200,000 American lives, and sadly will continue to take more.
Add a fraught (and that’s absolutely the most mild way to put it) presidential election on November 3rd (VOTE! VOTE! VOTE!) to the recipe and the result is probably the worst batch of (national) homemade chocolate chip cookies ever.
Stress levels are up, way up, for everyone. Job loss, economic uncertainty, death, grief, social isolation, cramped spaces mixed with potentially occasional joyous moments (which only compound the stress when it returns) and, well, I’m making myself anxious just thinking about it.
So what do we do? Let’s start by taking a breath in (counting in our minds for four seconds) and then taking a longer breath out (five seconds or more if you can). This is called a parasympathetic breathing exercise and it’s been proven to help diminish that crazed fight-or-flight response that I know we’re all feeling most of the time right now.
See that, we’ve already taken one step forward in coping with our stresses and anxieties. Now, let’s talk about some other ways. And if it ever gets to be too much, just remember the breathing exercise. I’ll be with you every step of the way.
The first way may also be one of the toughest for some, but is also considered one of the most effective ways to lower stress levels. Even a simple walk outdoors will help. By getting your heart rate up, your body will burn off excess anxious energy as well as release lovely, lovely endorphins. Fresh air, if you have it, can also work wonders, which is why exercising outside is so beneficial. But again, only in such a way that it won’t cause you more pandemic-induced stress.
This seems like another counterintuitive one; wouldn’t learning cause more anxiety? But in trying a new activity, starting a book about a topic you’re unfamiliar with, or taking online classes at a local college, you’re adapting your mind. You could even take Psychology courses to learn more about your mind’s stress responses! No? Okay, it was worth a shot.
Take the extra step of reminding yourself that you’re not hopeless; you’re capable of learning new things and, by extension, handling intense or stressful situations as they arise. Hey, you managed kindergarten and high school, right? This should be a piece of cake.
I’ve touched on this in a previous blog. Meditation is another proven way to bring your heart rate down and de-stress. There are different methods and styles of meditation, from Transcendental to Mindfulness (which is the one I practice), and you can try out a few until you find one that works for you.
Doing just five or ten minutes in the morning can, like exercise, reverberate positively throughout the rest of your day. And you can never get enough Good Vibrations, right *puts sunglasses on*?
Take a look at this Daily Calm Meditation on YouTube for an easy starting point!
Maybe you have a trusted friend or two? Maybe you’re one of the lucky ones with a dedicated mental health professional who you can turn to? Maybe a family member is there for you?
In any case, find someone to talk to, but here’s the kicker, the real important part. Make it conversational, open, and honest. So that if you share that you’re facing a certain anxiety or stress, they are comfortable enough that they can acknowledge they’re facing similar feelings.
Yes, this involves vulnerability, but the pros far outweigh the cons: you’ll realize that you’re not alone.
Let’s face it: some things are going to fall by the wayside right now. It’s just too tough a time to expect ourselves to handle all the tasks, chores, and duties that were on our plate pre-pandemic. Make a set of lists that includes what absolutely has to get done, and by what time or date, then make another list with an ideal of what you could get accomplished.
Recognize that, while some activities like schoolwork may need to happen regardless, there are activities that cause stress that you can take a break from right now.
I can’t promise that these will be foolproof solutions all the time. Exercise might work one day, but not another. Talking it out with a friend could help one hour, but quickly turn sour. What I do know is that these are tried and true techniques for many, and myself, at various times throughout the pandemic and before.
We’re all white-knuckling day by day and that’s not good for our minds, our bodies, or our relationships. Try these techniques and a few others. See what works. And a final final thought: When something stops helping, no longer de-stressing, don’t blame yourself. I find this to be one of the most insidious facets of stress. We think that if we just did this meditation or that exercise it’ll all go away. And the reality is it won’t. But if you accept that, and accept your own limitations, you’ll be that much closer to feeling better.