Like many of you reading this right now, I‘ve been able to keep myself relatively safe during this pandemic, but it is taking me longer to fall asleep.
I’m awake in the middle of the night with greater frequency and I’m riddled with a level of anxiety I usually associate with taking the SATs.
Life is always going to be stressful. Sometimes it can be the good kind of stress you encounter when waiting for a fresh batch of cookies to emerge from the oven. Other times it’s the bad kind of stress like when you mentally calculate your available credit in the checkout line. I know both stressors well and prefer the former.
The coronavirus pandemic has supercharged that everyday stress and anxiety. On top of that, you’ve likely just come through your first — and hopefully last — Covid Christmas. Reasonably unscathed, perhaps, but I’m sure it was an “interesting” experience.
To help you cope, here are five skills I’ve honed like a well-crafted stress artisan, aka Stressisan Dan. I use these relatively easy-to-implement strategies to help me sleep, keep me active, and allow me to focus on the stuff that truly matters.
Since the lockdowns, shutdowns, and restrictions started around the world in March, how much time have you spent inside? If you’re like most of us, it’s much more than usual.
Between being told to stay home and being afraid of the virus, we’ve all hunkered down and become hermits to varying degrees.
That’s responsible behavior under the circumstances, but we’re not designed to hibernate.
It’s time to get (safely) outside.
Zig-zagging your way through a series of skyscrapers is good; making your way into nature where trees far outnumber people is better.
The Japanese call it “shinrin-yoku”, which literally means forest bathing. It’s an amazing way to reduce both stress and anxiety. There’s also something about the way sunlight pierces through the trees that is quite invigorating and calming.
And while I can accept that not everyone has a forest in their backyard, that doesn’t mean you can’t get outdoors for some much needed fresh, covid-free air. Stroll around your neighborhood, hit the local park, or find the nearest green space and just take it all in.
Physically distanced, of course.
The pandemic, related restrictions, and rolling lockdowns have made us sedentary like never before. We’re just not doing much of anything, and as a result, we’re feeling lethargic, uncertain, and anxious.
If you take an uber-stressed person, stick them into an MRI machine, and collect a series of images of their brain, you’ll typically see poor blood flow to areas that are responsible for thinking, executive function, memory, emotional regulation, movement, and vision.
Pretty much everything.
Chronic stress has the ability to strangle blood vessels like a boa constrictor on its prey. This disrupts blood flow and results in less oxygen and other nutrients getting to our neurons, the fundamental building blocks of the brain.
And that’s not good for us physically or mentally.
Without getting too formulaic — save that for the baking we’ve all started doing lately — it’s time to get active.
Spend 30 minutes doing aerobic exercise at least every other day.
Go for a light jog, bike ride, walk in the park, or anything else that gets your heart pumping a little more.
As a rule of thumb, keep it at a pace where you can manage a conversation. If you’re out of breath, take it down a notch.
This gentle but steady increase in blood flow will widen and nourish those vessels and remove that boa from its stranglehold on the brain.
Make It, Eat It
You don’t need me to tell you that it’s easy to overindulge and find yourself “gifted” with a few extra pounds when the holidays are over.
Staying at home all-day, every day during a pandemic can have the same effect.
Celebrated author Michael Pollan has my favourite approach to dealing with this dilemma: if you make it, eat it.
There’s a lot more time and effort that goes into actually making something to eat than mindlessly pulling it out of the fridge or pantry.
If you can tame the physical properties of hot flying oil and bang out a dozen sufganiyot (Israeli jelly donuts), good on you, you deserve ‘em.
But otherwise, don’t buy them. It’s far too easy to stock up on sweet treats or fatty processed food when all you have to do is toss them into your shopping cart.
When we’ve bored, we tend to eat more because it’s something to do, and if that stuff is in your home, it’ll end up in your mouth.
Truth is, even if I roll up croissants like the Pillsbury dough boy one ambitious morning, that ambition doesn’t resurface for weeks, and that stops me from eating them too often.
“If you make it, you can eat it” is a great mantra because it slows us down and makes our choices much more mindful.
I once spent significant time treating an NHL player who “needed” a combination of Xanax, Ambien, melatonin, magnesium, and cannabis to sleep at night.
He was chronically stressed, often injured, and emotionally erratic. He averaged anywhere from three to five hours sleep per night, but needed double that.
That’s a bad combo leading to a vicious cycle: he was sleeping less because he was stressed, which made him even more stressed, which made him sleep even less.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
Science continues to prove the link between sleeplessness and stress. While I obviously wouldn’t advise his methods, focusing on the quality of our sleep is a must.
A few tricks I find helpful:
- No technology or bright lights at least an hour before bed. Bright lights after sundown throw our circadian rhythm — our biological clock — for a loop, and that disturbs our sleeping patterns. This is especially true for blue light wavelengths from our device screens and energy-efficient lighting.
- No coffee or other caffeinated beverages like cola within 8 hours of bedtime.
- Opt for a warm/cool combo. Take a warm shower or bath followed by a cooler temperature in your bedroom than elsewhere, as this helps to induce sleep.
If you’re not getting enough quality sleep, you’re not going to feel your best. Period.
Need it. Get it.
First, a caveat: I’m not saying to burn your mask collection and start attending super-spreader events.
But the opposite has the potential to become equally problematic. Humans are social animals.
John Cacioppo, a pioneer in the field of loneliness research, explains the evolutionary basis for loneliness like this:
“Loneliness is a mechanism that’s in place because we need, as a social species, to be able to identify when our connections with others for mutual aid and protection are being threatened or absent.”
Connecting with others was key to our survival and our evolution as a species. Covid-19 is now putting that connection to the test and stressing us in unprecedented ways.
That feeling of loneliness is there for a reason.
While physical distancing must remain a foundational pillar to a global public health strategy, there are still ways to feel connected while forced to be apart:
- Make others a priority. It’s too easy to sit on the couch alone watching Netflix for hours on end these days. I’m not saying you need to schedule hour-long calls with people, but popping in with the occasional five to ten minute call will definitely make you feel less alone.
- Get creative. Had this pandemic hit 30 or even 20 years ago, we would’ve had a lot fewer options. Zoom video calls, Skype dinners, Facetime game nights, online video games, Facebook watch parties. Anything goes. Two patients of mine play what they call “Zoom Jenga” on a weekly basis; one person builds a Jenga tower on their end and the other person tries to copy, then they switch it up. Modern technology has provided us with plenty of opportunity to connect across the distance. Use it.
- Go old school. Try sending handwritten notes and “thinking of you” cards via snail mail to family, friends, and just about anyone else. I received one the other day and it made me feel great.
Covid sucks. There’s no getting around that. It has, and will, continue to alter our lives in unthinkable ways. Walking mostly barren streets with Barry Manilow’s “All By Myself” playing in our heads on repeat feels almost apocalyptic.
But this is not the apocalypse; far from it.
We do have the ability to control our own outcome here.
Is this a hard thing to do on a global scale? Absolutely. So we start small.
We start by caring for ourselves and those around us. Then we look to scale upwards. We come together by whatever means necessary and allow our emergent, adaptive brains and bodies to battle the stresses of Covid, loneliness, and whatever else gets thrown our way.
It’s what we do.
There will be other pandemics; history tells us so. There will be other financial collapses; human behaviour tells us so. There will be other cyber attacks; technology tells us so.
Yet rather than live in a world where we choose to ignore these and many other harsh realities, let’s choose to come together and tackle these issues head on.
If Forrest Gump can do it, so can we.