“THE SUN WILL RISE AGAIN”
Stress and COVID-19
Rarely do circumstances force people, globally, to change their normal day-to-day routines, habits, patterns, preferences and comfort zones, almost immediately and with little preparation time, but this is precisely what COVID-19 has demanded. Across the world, lockdown, isolation and social distancing are measures that have been adopted by governments as national/global best-practice in response to the spread of a little understood pandemic.
As a result people’s lifestyles, livelihoods and freedoms have been drastically changed. People, to a greater or lesser extent, have experienced heightened levels of stressful experiences and change including illness, work trauma, work-from-home, financial challenges, isolation, confined family living, home-schooling children, domestic abuse, job loss and the loss of a loved one without the opportunity to say goodbye. For some, finding sufficient food every day is becoming increasingly difficult.
These challenges have given rise to emotional responses such as fear, panic, anxiety, uncertainty, confusion, depression, loneliness, grief, overwhelm, trauma, frustration, anger and impatience in the face of this life-threatening virus. One of the most important concerns here is that stress, and the associated emotional responses and thoughts, can create physiological responses that are detrimental to one’s health e.g. increased heart rate and blood pressure, the release of immune-suppressing stress hormones, and gastric disturbances. This, in turn, has the potential to undermine your most important asset at this time – your immune system.
Good mental health is linked to optimal immune health. The challenges that we all face at this time not only impact on our peace of mind, and sense of well-being, they can also be detrimental to our physical health and increase our risk of disease. In essence, when we are stressed, our immune system’s ability to fend off antigens is reduced and the susceptibility to infection increases. Furthermore, stress may also have a secondary effect on our immune system if unhealthy behavioural coping strategies such as excessive drinking, smoking, drug use and resorting to ‘comfort’ food that may offer little in the form of healthy nourishment, are adopted.
The good news is that we can do something about this. As individuals, we may not be able to change certain of the challenges associated with COVID-19, but we can control our response to them. We can choose how we respond within the context in which we live. We can adopt appropriate physical, mental, social, spiritual and practical strategies that are empowering, healthful, helpful, meaningful and valuable to both ourselves and those we love. So begin by asking yourself what sort of strategies might prove helpful to you?
As a mental health professional, much of my focus is on thoughts and emotions, and our capacity to change our response; to change the way we think about things, to change the way we feel. Recently I have come across a beautiful example of this capacity and I have chosen to share it with you. It reflects a positive approach to the myriad of cancellations that have been enforced by this pandemic. Read these words and get in touch with how you feel ……
NOT EVERYTHING IS CANCELLED –
- Sunshine is not cancelled
- Spring is not cancelled
- Love is not cancelled
- Relationships are not cancelled
- Reading is not cancelled
- Naps are not cancelled
- Devotion is not cancelled
- Music is not cancelled
- Dancing is not cancelled
- Imagination is not cancelled
- Kindness is not cancelled
- Conversations are not cancelled
- HOPE is not cancelled
And, I would add, living is not cancelled; our choice is how we perceive it, live it and respond to our circumstances. Sometimes we forget this so, to get you started on living well, here are five positive choices to consider under the current circumstances:
- Change your exposure and ‘lighten your load’. Limit uncritical exposure to repetitive, alarming information about COVID-19. Stay informed through credible sources, that is important, but over-exposure can be detrimental, draining and alarming. Choose exposure to something you would enjoy instead, such as an online visit to a museum, music concert or a virtual game drive in Africa, downloading a movie that you have always wanted to watch, finding a book you have been meaning to read, or immersing yourself in a creative outlet such as painting or cooking. Find new ways to relax and enjoy this time-out, being accepting of what you can’t do and grateful for what you can. Remember too, this is also an opportunity for doing things around your home that you have not previously had the time to do. Engage in all that technology and connectivity can offer, from self-care apps, to mental health information, self-diagnostic chatbots, online educational programmes and more.
- Sharing your feelings is beneficial. It is important to talk about your concerns and feelings. A pandemic is challenging, and feelings such as fear, confusion, sadness and uncertainty are normal responses. Talking to someone you trust can help to put your own thoughts and feelings into perspective, and can help manage them. It can also assist you in sticking to the facts. Support and help others in the same way.Sadly, for certain families, COVID-19 has brought concern for ill loved-ones, perhaps separation from them and, tragically, loss and bereavement. Hard as it is, find a way to reach out to a source of emotional support that is most comfortable and meaningful for you.
- Stay connected with family, friends and others. We may not be able to interact, work, share, visit, hug, and show love in the way we are used to right now, but reaching out and staying connected is very important. Technology is helping families to stay in touch, work in certain sectors to continue, ‘quiz nights’ to be arranged, and online social gatherings, dinners, competitions, music shows, to name a few, to take place. Technology has also enabled a virtual world in which some have been able to honour the memory of a lost loved one, albeit differently to normal and perhaps not what they might have planned. Feelings of loneliness, disconnection, helplessness and disengagement need to be managed. Finding coping strategies to deal with them is important. Find a way through, for example, email, mobile, laptop or telephone to reach out to family, friends, support groups or the community for connection, companionship, love, support and any help you need. Helping and connecting with others, giving of your time, and supporting the vulnerable and those in need, is a richly rewarding experience for many people, bringing meaning and purpose into their world at this time. There are many different ways in which one can contribute. If this feels like a positive choice for you, think about how best you could make a contribution. This will give you a marked sense of purpose, which is a powerful stress reliever in challenging times.
- Be aware of your breathing and use it to your benefit. Stressful, anxiety-provoking situations give rise to an increase in respiration rate, shallow breathing and feelings of shortness of breath. To address this, take a deep breathe in to the count of 7, and out to the count of 11, and continue this until you feel that you are settling. Focus on your breath, pushing all other thoughts aside. Be conscious of the breath coming in and going out; focus on the sensation of inhaling and exhaling. Deep breathing increases the supply of oxygen to your brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting a state of calmness. Deep, abdominal breathing for 20 to 30 minutes each day will significantly reduce anxiety and reduce feelings of distress. Meditation, mindfulness practices, progressive relaxation, yoga and prayer are also effective options for promoting a state of calm. Choose what works best for you.
- Exercise and nutrition. Walking, running, exercise and any rhythmic activity can be great stress relievers and readjust your focus. It helps you to let go of frustrations, tension and negative emotions, and releases endorphins which can elevate your sense of general well-being. Outdoor exercise can also help you to connect with nature; enjoy the beauty, breathe in the fresh air and disrupt any feelings of boredom and monotony you may be experiencing as a result of home-confinement. Under current government guidelines (UK) we are able to leave our homes for one period of exercise per day. Use it. It will provide some perspective and relief so you can return in a new frame of mind. Exercise, adequate sleep, your choices and coping strategies, such as those listed above, create a foundation for stronger immunity. Nutrition plays a significant role in this too. Pay attention to nourishing your body in the best possible way and resist the temptation to eat more than usual, eat too much ‘comfort food’, overindulge in alcohol or cigarettes, or to abandon previous healthy habits if at all possible. Your immune system needs you to take care. Remember, you have faced adversity before and you came through it. Utilise the skills and strategies you used successfully before to help you now. Know that the sun will rise again, on a changed world, in new normal, but it will rise again. Let us be grateful for what we have, endure what we have lost, support one another with compassion, and be strong together in the face of new beginnings – and let us all ensure that no one ever walks alone. Be safe.
- Dr Elaine L Finkelstein is a registered clinical psychologist and a registered occupational psychologist. She is a chartered psychologist (UK) and an associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Elaine is also the founder of the Transformative End-of-Life Experiences Research Foundation.The author of this blog is not dispensing medical or psychological advice, or prescribing the use of any technique as a form of treatment for physical, medical or psychological problems. The advice of an independent physician or mental health professional, either directly or indirectly is required for this. The intent of the author is only to offer information of a general nature to help you in your quest for emotional and spiritual well-being. In the event that you use any of the information in this blog for yourself, which is your right, the author assumes no responsibility for your actions.
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