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Dealing with stress during a pandemic

To say life is more stressful in 2020 may be the understatement of the year. When someone tells me they

aren’t experiencing any stress, my first thought is they are not recognizing it vs. the stress not existing. You would have to be super human to not be impacted in some way by everything happening in the world right now. So for arguments sake, let’s establish we are all stressed out to some degree AND stress is no good for our health. So now what?

Step one is to start recognizing the ways our body may express stress because this can look a little different for everyone. Here’s a few possible ways stress might show up:

  • Poor sleep. This might be difficulty falling asleep and/or staying asleep. A racing mind at night is more often than not a sign that stress is high during the day.

  • Brain fog or difficulty concentrating. Maybe you’re jumping from task to task, not able to accomplish much. Perhaps you walk into a room and suddenly can’t remember what you were supposed to do next.

  • Low energy. This can be related to poor sleep but it also takes A LOT of energy when your body thinks it’s running from a tiger (aka stress) whether there is any actual running involved!

  • Increased PMS or menstrual cycle timing is off, maybe even skipping a month or two. Hormones regulating our menstrual cycles are seriously impacted by stress- who has time to reproduce when running from a tiger?!?

  • Upset stomach, cramping, loose stool, oh my! The gut-brain connection is the real deal and when stress is high, it may negatively impact everything from digestion to gut bacteria to GI inflammation.

Step two is noticing whether you’re using self comfort or self care to manage stress. Self comfort is the coping mechanism that is NOT going to a) improve stress or b) improve our health vs. self care which helps decrease stress and in turn, our well being. A little self comfort here and there is ok but it’s easy to fall into unhealthy routines so the key is to recognize it so you can begin making positive changes. Some common methods of “self comfort” include:

  • Increased alcohol intake. Maybe the one or two glasses of wine on the weekend have become a glass or two every night.

  • Junk food. It’s WAY too easy to turn to what might taste good in the moment and/or be super easy. The reality is poor food choices can dramatically worsen your mood and health over time when happening on a regular or even semi-regular basis.

  • Increased screen time. This is often a mix of social media, news, and binging television shows. It might feel like comfort but the uptick in screen time tends to increase our stress levels along with numerous other negative effects.

Step three is to begin focusing on self care by implementing healthy strategies into your daily routine to better manage stress. There’s not just one thing that works best for everyone so be open to trying different things and determine what’s the most effective for you. Here are a few well researched options to try:

  • Exercise. Set a goal to move your body intentionally EVERY day. Not only does this help decrease stress but also acts as a natural anti-depressant!

  • Meditation. Aim for 5-10 minutes a day. Set a timer or use an app. Don’t worry if your brain is still racing for 8 of the 10 minutes. There is still benefit and like most things, you get better the more you do it. I like to think of meditation as strength training for the nervous system.

  • Positive vs negative. There’s lots of research around the power of positive thinking. Reframing thoughts to be more positive vs. negative can have a big impact on your general outlook thus also how you respond to stress.

  • Stay connected. Having quality conversations with trusted friends and family goes a long way to improving your mental well being. During these times where physical distancing is still very important, get creative and use Zoom, FaceTime or simply pick up the phone. My fav is “phone walks” with friends- exercise AND social connection for the win!

Life is stressful, more than ever before which makes learning how to process stress and respond in healthy ways even more critical.

* First published in Tualatin Life newpaper, July/August 2020

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