If you weren’t already experiencing anxiety in your day-to-day life, you probably are now
Our daily routines have been turned upside down by COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus. Social distancing has left us trapped inside our homes and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.
The anxiety brought about by the situation – whether it’s from the fear of the unknown, the claustrophobia of being confined to your home, a lack of human contact, or perhaps too much human contact – can be overwhelming. As if this weren’t enough, the (understandable and responsible) urge to stay continually informed can lead to added stress. These natural responses to the crisis may be negatively affecting our physical and mental health.
To take care of ourselves in these trying times we must be conscious of what exacerbates our anxiety and actively work to reduce it.
Understanding the Stress Response
When faced with a threat our bodies have evolved to react in a way that maximizes our chances of survival. This response is healthy and can even be life-saving as it prepares us to address or escape the threat: “fight-or-flight.”
Some threats can’t be resolved immediately and stress continues. This prolonged anxiety can do more harm than good. Some stressful situations, like COVID-19, are long-lasting and our ability to deal with them is limited, so we must manage our anxiety healthfully.
The stress response, also known as general adaptation syndrome (GAS), can be broken down into 3 stages:
When a threat is perceived, our sympathetic nervous system is activated by a sudden release of hormones including cortisol, the stress hormone. Heart rate increases, blood vessels dilate and constrict, sending blood to the heart, brain, muscles, and vital organs and increasing blood pressure. Breathing quickens and becomes more shallow, muscles tense. Blood sugar, fats and nutrients are released into the bloodstream to fuel our response. This alarm stage prepares us to react.
After the initial flood of fight-or-flight hormones, the autonomic nervous system kicks in and the body begins to repair itself. If the body does not perceive the threat to have diminished we remain in this ‘high alert’ phase. Cortisol persists, and blood pressure remains elevated. This continued disequilibrium results in the exhaustion stage.
Chronic, prolonged stress can lead to the inability of your body to return to it’s normal state of equilibrium. Hopelessness, depression, anxiety, and decreased ability to tolerate stress may result. Elevated cortisol levels over long periods of time are linked to elevated blood pressure, weight gain, fatigue, decreased immunity and is a factor in cognitive decline with aging.
Now that we understand how stress develops, what can we do to manage it?
What Can You Do to Manage Anxiety?
Limiting your news intake does not mean ignorance or indifference towards what’s going on in the world. You will be no better informed watching this crisis unfold in real time than by limiting your news intake to once or twice a day.
Instead, work to balance your intake of news with other media. Read a chapter of your current book, listen to a podcast, or stream that new show you’ve been hearing about. Whatever your preferred diversion, make sure to supplement your news intake with a generous portion.
Changes in our breathing during the fight or flight can extend into the exhaustion stage. Tension causes us to take shorter, shallower breaths and not exhale fully. You may even find yourself holding your breath.
Deep breathing connects us to our bodies, brings awareness from the outside world to the body and moment. With our attention fully focused, worries are cleared away and the mind is quieted.
Deep breaths decrease our heart rate by bringing it into sync with our breathing. It also triggers the release of endorphins. Slow, deep breathing decreases the heart rate and increases blood oxygen, promoting a feeling of calm. Increased oxygen increases energy, boosts immunity, and improves digestion.
The silver lining of this situation: extra time for self-care and fitness. Almost any form of exercise helps your mental state and improves the physical symptoms of stress.
Why do you feel better after a workout?
- Increased blood flow releases the tension stored in your muscles.
- Exercise increases dopamine levels, improving mood.
- Exercise stimulates the release of endorphins which reduce pain and boost pleasure. This euphoric ‘runner’s high’ fuels optimism, increases self-esteem, and boosts energy.
- Endorphins have also been shown to reinforce social bonds. If possible, work out with a friend or loved one!
There is a direct link between what we eat and how we feel and vice versa. During this time when there is so much that we can’t control, it is empowering to take charge of what we can: our diets. Especially since we’re probably doing fewer, more focused shopping trips and impulse fast food is likely not an option. Taking charge of your diet will leave you healthier both physically and emotionally. Here are some specific recommendations:
What to eat:
- Cortisol-reducing foods like dark chocolate, bananas, pears, green tea, yogurt.
- Foods high in tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin, such as lean meats, nuts, legumes, and eggs.
- Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish such as salmon and anchovy, walnuts, chia, flax, and hemp seeds, have been shown to help reduce stress.
- Foods high in magnesium, a natural muscle relaxer, including dark leafy greens and whole grains.
- Foods high in antioxidants: matcha green tea, beans, berries and walnuts, turmeric and ginger.
Foods to Avoid
- Excessive Alcohol. The occasional drink to calm nerves should be fine, but keep in mind alcohol dehydrates you and affects your sleep. With regular drinking, you may also build up a tolerance to the calming effects. Alcohol also causes changes in the brain’s neurotransmitter levels, leaving you more anxious when it wears off.
- Excessive caffeine. High levels of caffeine increase nervousness and anxiety as well as decreasing serotonin.
- Excessive sugar and simple carbs. Large amounts of sugar energize us in the short term, but lead to a crash that drains energy and can leave you feeling “hangry” (hungry + unhappy). Instead opt for whole fruits for your sugar fix.
5. Yoga and Meditation
Yoga and meditation are associated with reduction in anxiety, overreactivity, and sleep difficulties. Yoga asanas (postures) reduce the physical symptoms of anxiety while reinforcing the mind-body connection and calming the mind.
A 2014 Johns Hopkins study found mindful meditation to improve anxiety, depression, and pain. There is plenty of great free and subscription yoga instruction available online so you can practice from home. Give it a try – you’ll be glad you did!
Anecdotal evidence and studies indicate CBD has considerable potential as a treatment for multiple anxiety disorders. More research is needed to better understand this relationship. Remember that every person has their own unique physiology. Start low, around 5-10mg, and slowly work your way up to your ideal dosage.
7. Increase Vagal Tone
What? The vagus nerve, the longest of the cranial nerves running from the brain through the face and throat to the gut, restores homeostasis.
Reduced activity of the vagal nerve (known as low vagal tone) prevents our bodies from returning to its relaxed state after a period of stress or anxiety.
Vagal tone can be improved by:
- Exposure to cold – take a cold shower (!) or splash cold water on your face.
- Deep breathing – deep, deliberate breaths from your belly activate blood pressure-detecting neurons, which signal the vagal nerve to lower heart rate
- Use your vocal cords: singing, humming, and gargling activate the vocal cords and the throat muscles, which are connected to the vagus nerve. Ommm!
Passionflower, valerian, lavender, ashwagandha, and lemon balm are used in traditional healing to improve the stress response and stabilize mood.
Aromatherapy with essential oils including lavender, chamomile, clary sage, lemon, neroli have been shown to promote relaxation and relieve anxiety.
9. Laughter & Love
Laughter is most definitely the best medicine! Laughter enhances oxygen intake, stimulates organs and increases endorphins.
Hugging releases oxytocin, the ‘bonding molecule’, and dopamine. Hugging your dog brings the same benefits! A touch, pat, or cuddle lowers blood pressure and reduces stress hormones. Showing affection for those around you – yes, even those driving you a little crazy – is good for you!