“It’s the pandemic, it’s the social unrest, it’s climate change and the wildfires. It’s the election, it’s upcoming holidays, said Vaile Wright, American Psychological Association’s senior director of health care innovation.
“I can’t remember any time in my lifetime, or most people’s adult lifetimes, where you’ve had this many adversities,” Wright said. “It’s the cumulative effect of one thing on top of another on top of another — to the point where I think people are either just going numb to it or feel so overwhelmed that they’re frozen.”
If your coping skills are worn down to the nub, there are actions you can take to boost your well-being and strengthen your endurance during this stressful time.
- Get some exercise
It may seem counterintuitive, but getting up and moving when you least feel like it is one of the best ways to counter stress and improve your health and state of mind.
Exercise regulates the body’s central stress response system, called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which can help reduce cortisol and other harmful stress hormones.
“In reaction to stress our body kicks into fight, flight or freeze as a survival mechanism. But when the threat is gone, we’re supposed to be able to relax and release cortisol and other stress hormones that get kicked into gear,” Wright said.
“But when we’re in this constant state of hyper arousal, hyper vigilance, we don’t get that release — and that stress overtime really wears away on our bodies, our minds,” she added.
Walking outside in the fresh air — while social distancing — is one of the best ways to get exercise, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But cold weather is coming, and you will want other options as well. Pick a fitness activity that inspires you — and is doable, suggests CNN health and nutrition contributor Lisa Drayer.
Especially during the pandemic, there are many free trials for apps and online Zoom fitness classes, so you can use this time as an opportunity to try something new, Drayer suggests.
And you don’t need a ton of expensive exercise equipment to accomplish your goal. Try dancing, yard work or vigorous housecleaning to get moving. For weight training, anything that will give you muscle tension can work, such as jugs of water, books or even your children, Drayer advises.
Try a set of yellow, green and red resistance bands, which can be used for back, bicep, triceps, shoulders and leg work.
- Get a mental and physical reward with yoga
Yoga, of course, is a form of physical exercise, and exercise is widely recommended to help ease depression and other mental health conditions.
Scientists believe exercise increases blood circulation to the brain, especially areas like the amygdala and hippocampus — which both have roles in controlling motivation, mood and response to stress.
But yoga is also a spiritual discipline, designed to meld body and mind. A yoga lifestyle incorporates physical postures, breath regulation and mindfulness through the practice of meditation. There are lots of yoga options online to choose from.
“Yogic philosophy teaches that the body, mind and spirit are all interconnected — what you do in one area, for example, a physical exercise to strengthen your leg muscles, will have an effect in all of the other areas of your system,” said Laurie Hyland Robertson, the editor in chief of Yoga Therapy Today, a journal published by The International Association of Yoga Therapists, in a prior CNN interview. “So we can expect that leg exercise, especially when you approach it in a mindful, purposeful way, to affect not only your quadriceps but also your emotional state, your body’s physiology and even your mental outlook,” Robertson said.
- Improve your sleep
There is another benefit of exercise: It will improve your sleep quality, one of the best things you can do to ease stress and boost your mood. What’s more, a better snooze protects your heart, improves your brain and reduces your desire to snack.
It’s not just about sleeping longer, either. You’re trying to give your body time to go through enough sleep cycles to repair itself, which means going from light sleep to deep and back again. Set yourself up for success by developing good sleep habits that will train your brain for restorative sleep.
Use your imagination – Relaxation training is really helpful, say experts. You can try muscle relaxation, even sleep imagery, such as imagining yourself in a safe place that is quiet and calm.
Sleep loss widespread – Do you toss and turn at night, yearning for a good night’s sleep? According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one third of American adults have a sleep disorder that can affect their lives in serious ways.
Don’t give up – Training your brain and body to get a better night’s sleep takes patience and commitment, but once you do, experts say you’ll get much better quality sleep, you’ll go to bed and to sleep more quickly, without any drugs and side effects.
- Reach for relaxation
Relaxing while stressed to the max sounds next to impossible, right? It’s not. Try progressive muscle relaxation, a stretching technique CNN fitness contributor Dana Santas uses for exercise recovery. You can flex and tense each muscle group in the body, holding the tension for up to 20 seconds. Then release the tension quickly, and imagine breathing through that part of the body. Start with your toes, then feet, then calves — you get the idea.
- Practice deep breathing
Something as simple as taking deep, slow breaths can do amazing things to our brain and therefore our stress, experts say. Deep breathing realigns the stressed-out part of our bodies, called the the sympathetic system, with the parasympathetic, or “rest and restore” system.
While there are many types of breathing, a lot of research has focused on “cardiac coherence,” where you inhale for six seconds and exhale for six seconds for a short period of time. Focus on belly breathing, or breathing to the bottom of your lungs, by putting your hand on your tummy to feel it move.
“Learning breathwork lets you know that you have an ability to physiologically calm yourself,” said stress management expert Dr. Cynthia Ackrill, an editor for Contentment magazine, produced by the American Institute of Stress, in a prior CNN interview.
“You begin to realize that you are separate from what’s happening to you, and you can choose a response instead of just a primal reaction,” Ackrill said.
- Meditate for change
At the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, researchers studied the brains of Tibetan Buddhist monks recruited by the Dalai Lama and found startling results: Tens of thousands of hours of compassionate meditation had permanently altered the structure and function of the monks’ brains. One 41-year-old monk had the brain of a 33-year-old.
But you don’t have to devote your life to meditation to see change, explained Richard Davidson, founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds, the institute that did the research on the monks, in a prior CNN interview.
Davidson pointed to the results of a randomized controlled trial of people who’ve never meditated before. Using direct measures of brain function and structure, he found it only took 30 minutes a day of meditation practice over the course of two weeks to produce a measurable change in the brain.
“When these kinds of mental exercises are taught to people, it actually changes the function and the structure of their brain in ways that we think support these kinds of positive qualities,” said Davidson, who is a professor of psychology and psychiatry.
- Practice appreciation
One of Davidson’s favorite mindfulness exercises cultivates appreciation.
“Simply to bring to mind people that are in our lives from whom we have received some kind of help,” Davidson said. “Bring them to mind and appreciate the care and support or whatever it might be that these individuals have provided.”
“You can spend one minute each morning and each evening doing this,” he said. “And that kind of appreciation is something that can foster a sense of optimism about the future.”
Like exercise, mindfulness will need to be practiced on a regular basis to keep the brain’s positive outlook in good shape, Davidson said. But the effort is definitely worth it.
“This is really about nurturing the mind,” he said. “And there is ample evidence to suggest that there are real psychological and physical health-related benefits.”
- Strive for optimism
Science has shown that people who practice gratitude are happier and more optimistic, and you can easily teach yourself how to do it.
“One thing I recommend to everyone in scary times is to write two or three things each day of what you’re grateful for. It shifts your view of the world,” said trauma counselor Jane Webber, a professor of counselor education at Kean University in New Jersey, in a prior CNN interview.
And while you’re at it, list the positive experiences you had that day, which can also raise your optimism.
Prior research has found a direct link between optimism and healthier diet and exercise behaviors, as well as better cardiac health, a stronger immune system, better lung function, and lower mortality risk, among others.
One of the most effective ways to increase optimism, according to a meta-analysis of existing studies, is called the “Best Possible Self” method, where you imagine or journal about yourself in a future in which you have achieved all your life goals and all of your problems have been resolved.
To do this, write for 15 minutes about a future day in your life in which you have accomplished everything you wish. Then spend five minutes imaging that reality. In a 2011 study, students practiced the Best Possible Self exercise for 15 minutes a week for eight weeks. Not only did they feel more positive, the feelings lasted for about six months.
- Crack a smile
It’s long been said that “laughter is the best medicine,” and that applies to the anxiety of our times, experts said.
“Remember, you can’t be anxious and smile at the same time. That’s a physiological thing,” Webber said.
So watch funny movies, listen to comedy routines, ask everyone you talk to on the phone to tell you a joke. Give back to them by doing the same.
- Set up a social phone tree
Staying socially connected with friends and loved ones even though you’re physically apart is a key way to survive this stressful time.
Of course, technology is a great way for many of us to do that, but some in the family, such as grandparents, may not be as adept at using Facebook, FaceTime and Zoom, for example.
Trauma psychologist Shauna Springer, who has spent a decade working with military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, suggests creating a phone tree.
“Instead of just relying on social media, we can make a list of the 10 or 20 people that we care the most about and put them in our phone on a rotating basis,” Springer said. “We’re going to call one of those people every day.”
Next, Springer suggests adding more people from our outer ring of friends and associates that we may not be as close to and put those people into that daily call rotation. That’s especially critical if you think those people may be especially isolated right now.
“Reaching out and connecting with people, especially those who are especially isolated, and giving them space to talk about their experience and anxiety during this unprecedented time of anxiety and then sharing our own experience is how we will get through this,” she said. “When we connect, we survive.”
- Prioritize self-care and routines
It’s important to carve out time for yourself right now, even in the midst of crippling anxiety, experts say.
That may include hobbies like knitting, taking an extra-long shower or bath, reading, taking a tea break or calling family members. Even better, schedule these stress relievers into your day just like mealtimes and other obligations, suggests CNN contributor Drayer.
Stretching your body after you wake up or doing a sun salutation can help to get your blood flowing and your body moving in the morning, she says.
Establishing a wellness routine is also an important part of self-care. Routines allow you to focus on health goals by creating structure and organization, which can be particularly beneficial when things seem out of your control.
Being predictable can “induce calm and manage stress caused by unpredictability and uncontrollability, heightening our belief that we are in control of a situation that is otherwise out of our hands,” researchers at Tel Aviv University have found.
- Focus on what you can change
Fight back against anxiety, experts suggest, by taking control of how you think.
“One of the ways to do that is to take out a sheet of paper, put a line down the middle and on one side write down the things we can’t control right now, and on the other write what we can control,” Springer said. “And then we form a plan of action that allows us to move on those things that we can control.”
This stops us from “soaking in that feeling of helplessness or if you will just be sitting in our foxhole and waiting for more bad news to come,” she said. “We’re actually moving on things that we want to be doing with our lives, even if there are some very challenging circumstances right now.”
For some people that may not feel possible, especially if they lost a job or were furloughed when the economy came to a screeching halt.
“Losing a job is a seismic stressor, one of the most stressful things that can happen to you,” Springer said. “But you can sit and ponder on your negative situation or you can use the time to learn something new or deepen yourself or gain some skills.”
She points to the many high quality, inexpensive or free training programs on the internet today that can add skills to your profession or even help you transition to something new.
“So people can use this time to build skills and become smarter and stronger and more prepared for when the workforce really kicks back in and full force,” Springer said.