Monitoring local and national news about COVID-19 and following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations for preventing infection can take a toll.
Jeff Ashby, professor and co-director of the College of Education & Human Development’s Center for the Study of Stress, Trauma and Resilience, has eight tips for people managing stress in the face of shelter-in-place orders and social distancing.
- Move. Walking, running, biking, calisthenics – all movement is helpful when you are stressed. Physical exercise not only reduces stress, but it also affects a portion of the brain that triggers the stress response, making it less likely that you will feel stress later in the day. Movement often promotes better sleep, and your quality and quantity of sleep is an important factor in stress management.
- Breathe. When stressed, we tend to breathe more shallowly from our upper chests, rather than from our stomachs or diaphragms. If you notice you are breathing more from your chest, try a 4-6-8 breathing pattern. Using this pattern, inhale through your nose for a count of four, taking the breath into your diaphragm. Hold your breath for a count of six, then exhale through your open mouth to a count of eight. As you exhale, allow your breath to make a whooshing sound until your diaphragm is completely empty. Repeat this procedure 3-4 times (but no more, as you can become lightheaded) several times a day. We can breathe to alleviate stress in the moment and breathe to prevent stress in the future. Mindful breathing quiets the mind and relaxes the body.
- Focus on gratitude. Stress exacerbates our tendency to look for threats in our environment. Identification of those threats, in turn, can increase stressful feelings. Cultivating gratitude allows us to refocus. Generating even a small number of things for which you are grateful (e.g., springtime, pets, family) redirects your thoughts, countering the stressful stories we tell ourselves about our daily lives. Start with three things for which you are grateful, and challenge yourself to generate as many more as you are able. Don’t feel pressure to excel – gratitude takes practice but is well worth the effort.
- Set and adhere, loosely, to a schedule. Feeling out of control contributes to stress levels. One area in which we can establish a small amount of predictability is in setting and adhering to a schedule. Loosely scheduling the times you will rise, eat, work and exercise provides structure to the day and a sense of control. Even a small amount of control helps us to relax. Give yourself a break if you find yourself deviating from your schedule and revise it if needed. Keep in mind that the schedule needs to be one that will work for you.
- Moderate your media/news input. While information is helpful and lack of it can be stressful, an overload of stressful information is typical in the current climate. Check newsfeeds a limited number of times per day or for a limited period of time. Measured exposure to news broadcasts provides the information you need without pulling you into a stress response. Intentionally searching for good news can also be helpful. Encouraging stories of courage and resilience may not be as prevalent but they are accessible, providing an essential counterbalance to headlines.
- Don’t socially isolate yourself just because you are socially distant. Even while social distancing physically, it is a great time for connecting electronically. Take advantage of technology and social media sites that promote connection with others. Both giving and receiving social support by checking in on others who you are unable to meet physically provides an important buffer against stress.
- Be gentle with yourself and others. Today’s climate is unprecedented and unique, as well as inherently stressful. One of the best things you can do to manage this stress is to cultivate self-compassion. We are not at our best when we are stressed. So, let yourself and others off the hook. The more we cultivate compassion, patience and charity with ourselves as well as others, the more effectively we will manage our stress.
- Consider seeking professional help. We know that stress exacerbates feelings and reactions, including depression and anxiety. If you are having trouble coping and find yourself unable to function, seek professional help. There are numerous hotlines and mental health professionals who provide telehealth services. Professionals can help you manage these symptoms, even remotely, and help you get back on the track of controlling stress more successfully.
For more information about Ashby and his research, click here.
To see more CEHD faculty experts related to COVID-19, click here.