“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, the rational mind a faithful servant; we have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” -Albert Einstein
The world as we know it has undergone quite a lot of change, and it can be challenging to navigate the stress that accompanies these uncertain times. As the Coronavirus pandemic evolves, many of us are faced with disruptions to daily life, and feeling anxious about what could happen in the coming weeks as we hope to flatten the curve. May is Mental Health Month, and there has never been a better time to focus on your own stress and triggers, and how to cope with them.
Stress and Immunity
When we experience stress, the immune system’s ability to fight infection is reduced. Neurotransmitters communicate to the part of the brain that processes emotional signals (amygdala). An alert is sent to the part of the brain that acts as the connector between the endocrine and nervous systems (hypothalamus). The hypothalamus communicates with the rest of the body through the nervous system activating the fight or flight response, resulting in the release of cortisol (Chrousos, 2009, pp. 374-81).
Stress wreaks havoc on our bodies and immune system. When you’re stressed, your immune system’s ability to fight off antigens is reduced, making you more susceptible to getting sick. While you can’t completely avoid stress from social distancing and isolation, you can change how you respond to stress. Mind-body strategies can help us reframe a painful or difficult experience into one that reinforces a sense of resiliency, self-control, and confidence.
If stress travels with you like unwanted baggage, take advantage of the stay at home order to reset your pattern and let it go. Harnessing the mind-body connection activates powerful inner resources for relaxation and healing. By making a commitment to incorporate mind-body modalities, you will stand taller, breathe easier, and elicit the relaxation response. Cognition, focus, and IQ go up, because you can think more clearly.
Research now shows that the brain is malleable and ever changing throughout lifespan and moldable by both positive and negative thoughts and experiences. Mind-body therapies can catalyze the healing response and manage an array of autoimmune, cardiovascular, neurological, stress and pain related symptoms.
Create Awareness with Mindfulness
Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present and aware in a current moment. When you practice mindfulness, you are not overly reactive or overwhelmed by the what is going around you. Pausing to practice mindfulness for just a few moments throughout the day can help can create awareness, and reset your stress response pattern.
What you can do now: Start by being in the moment with simple tasks like brushing your teeth, eating breakfast, or walking your dog. Pay attention to the sounds, smells, tastes and feels of those activities. By doing this you’re creating space for yourself to think, space to breathe, and you will see how mindfulness has the power to change the way you see the world.
Calm Yourself with Breath
Breathing mindfully helps calm yourself down when your stress flares. I use Dr. Weil’s famous 4-7-8- breath technique to help reduce my stress and anxiety.
Here’s how it works:
- Inhale through your nose for a count of 4
- Hold your breath for a count of 7
- Exhale through your mouth to a count of 8
- Repeat for 4 cycles
Experience a Clear Space with Meditation
According to Jon Kabat-Zinn “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” Meditation improves sleep, cognition, memory, attention, and processing speed. When you meditate, genes related to inflammation become less active. Research suggests people with a regular meditation practice may have a reduced risk of inflammation-related diseases (Bredesen, 2019).
There are many different ways to mediate, but I like to keep it simple.
- Bring yourself to a relaxed and comfortable posture, either sitting on the floor, in a chair, or lying on your back.
- Allow your body to naturally inhale a deep breath
- Exhale completely, releasing all tension. As you exhale, mentally say a word or thought that holds either neutral or positive connotations (such as love, joy, or compassion)
- Start with 5 minutes a day and add minutes as you develop consistency.
During this time, it’s important to remind yourself that certain things are out of your control. By incorporating deep breathing and mindfulness techniques, you will lower your stress physiology and change the way you react to unwanted situations. You can do that when you are feeling centered and nourished.
Quick Tips to Combat Stress
If you’re feeling stress around COVID-19, here are some ways to cope:
- Avoid burnout with a regular work schedule: while working at home, it’s easy to blend both work and family responsibilities. Try keeping clear boundaries around work hours.
- Start each meal with 3 deep belly breaths: this allows your body to switch from a sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous system to a parasympathetic “rest and digest” mode.
- Connect with nature through all your senses: See its beauty, smell its organic fragrances, feel its textures and temperatures, and hear its sounds to nurture and elevate your mood.
- Connect with others: Although we are physically distancing, stay socially connected. Share family meals to enhance communication and help reduce signs of depression and anxiety. Take walks 6 feet apart, and talk with people you trust about your concerns and how you are feeling.
It’s important to remember that you cannot control what happens in a global pandemic, but you can control how to react to stress. By practicing healthy self-care, you will build resiliency and strength and support a healthy immune system.