Stress is a common condition in our hectic lives. The Oxford dictionary defines stress as, “A state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.” Staying home during a pandemic falls squarely within that category. In biological terms, stress affects the neural, cardiovascular, autonomic, immune and metabolic systems – often in negative ways. It results in poor sleep patterns, smoking, overeating, drinking heavily etc. which exacerbate the situation, forming a vicious cycle.
Interestingly, stress was evolution’s way of ensuring that we survived challenging circumstances by prompting a ‘fight or flight’ response in us, hence the elevated levels of cortisol and adrenaline that leave us sweating and panicking. Short term stress actually enhances our innate and adaptive immune systems.
Naturally, there are many ways to release stress, but most of us are used to doing so with our support systems, engaging physically with friends & family and dealing with it on a daily basis at work/school. Since that is not an option right now, here are some stressbusters that you can follow for both short term frazzle and long-term chronic stress.
Mindfulness and Relaxing
Take a deep breath. Now take another one. Breathing techniques are the cornerstone of all other relaxation and mindfulness techniques, such as meditation, yoga, practicing affirmations, visualizations and the like. Start by forcing yourself to take a deep breath, hold it for 3 seconds, then slowly let it out. Once your pulse slows, start being more aware of the breath whistling in and out, then move your attention in turn to the rise & fall of your chest, your diaphragm stretching, and your abdomen swelling. Then begin to affirm things you know for certain, such as “I am here”, “I am alive” and work your way up to, “I am safe” and “I am loved.” Also try visualizing calming scenes like still lakes, green pastures, meadows of flowers dancing in the breeze, relaxing hotels with massages, eating comfort food with loved ones etc. Mindfulness programmes are increasingly being used in workplaces to reduce burn out and psychological symptoms so why not bring it into your home too? It’s an easy way to deal with stress that requires nothing else.
Pet a Pet
There is plenty of research about the human-animal companion bond and its health benefits for both parties. The saying, “Dogs might be in just a small part of our lives, but to them, we are their whole life” is applicable to any companion animal in stressful situations. Workplaces are slowly waking up to the advantages of having an animal stress buster that employees can interact with; recently, health care workers on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic showed how important it was that dogs were able to come in and comfort them.
If you are stuck at home without a pet, then the next best thing is to watch some cat videos online. A study of nearly 7000 people using internet data found that watching cat videos mitigated the effects of stress by modelling ‘enjoyment’ as a function of our relationship with the internet. While binge-watching might not be healthy under normal circumstances, perhaps it can be excused in these trying times.
Feel the Burn
Since exercise is a form of physical stress, can physical stress help reduce mental stress? The Harvard Medical School certainly thinks so. Simple activities like walking and jogging are great stress busters but they may not be doable these days so instead, follow a simple aerobics tutorial online. There are plenty of great videos that give you ideas on how to move your body, be it yoga, skipping or dancing. If you don’t like ‘exercise’ per se, put on some music that will get you moving and start cleaning! Get on your hands and knees and scrub the floor; clean the kitchen counters; sweep underneath all the furniture. Not only will you feel better once your body gets moving, you get a clean living space into the bargain. Don’t forget to cool down by relaxing your muscles. Use the breathing techniques from above.
Find Your Inner Artist
If you are a creative soul languishing under a 9-5 job, here is your chance to zap that work stress with some art. Art therapy has long been considered one of the best ways to significantly reduce cortisol levels and the research backs it up. If you’re not the next Picasso, adult colouring books have a similar effect. In fact, the same experiment repeated in 2005 and 2012 found that while colouring of any kind (blank paper, plaid designs etc.) can reduce anxiety, the best results came from colouring the circular mandala designs which are so popular in adult colouring books these days.
But if art is not your thing, don’t despair! There is anecdotal evidence that any kind of creative activity can reduce stress. In fact, baking has been a frontrunner in stress relief activities while staying at home, possibly because the exact measurements and the specific chronology of baking gives us control over something in our lives.
So the next time you’re feeling stressed, don’t linger in that mood for too long; bust out a move, sing something, or try some deep, meditative breaths to calm yourself down. Stay safe, stay home, stay sane.