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Managing Stress During Social Distancing

Updated: Mar 27, 2020

Based on article I wrote for the American Heart Association - science reviewed and originally published here. Written by: Amy Vest

What is Stress Management?

Ever notice that a good laugh has a way of lightening your burdens? Or maybe you’ve experienced a scenario like one of these.  The Benefits of Strategy: If social distancing requirements, job losses, health needs, or having the family at home feels completely stressful and overwhelming, have you coached yourself to step away from the frenzy, collect your thoughts, make a list of what you can do? Have you spent a little quiet thought time prioritizing what’s important?  Has your list helped you discover that perhaps your day is more manageable than it seemed?

The Returns of Self-Care: Maybe you usually go walking with a friend before you start your work day.  This week seems entirely too busy and stressful to fit in such “frivolities.”  But you decide that instead of skipping it, you’ll go ahead and walk using some creative modifications like taking a FaceTime walk.  Afterwards, you notice it was good for you physically, socially, and emotionally and upon sitting down to manage the needs of the day, you actually feel more able to address the list of tasks.

Learn to “pump the brakes” on stress.

Laughter, physical activity and organizing your thoughts can be effective stress-management techniques.  But something as simple as a short break can also be effective.  Dr. Robert Sapolsky, stress expert and neurology professor at Stanford, says we all need to commit to regular stress management and learn how to “pump the brakes” on stress without loading it onto other people. Let’s talk about why and how.

What is the purpose of stress?

Emotions are signals that help us recognize and respond to problems. Stress hormones help us fight-or-flee when we are in danger.  But our body’s stress response can become a problem when it constantly signals danger about issues that aren’t necessarily a threat, or it grows to the point of overwhelming our health, well-being or clear thinking.

Why practice stress management?

Your mind deserves better than to be loaded down with the never-ending job of worrying! Some stress can be beneficial and may lead to actual problem-solving, but a lot of our stress is unnecessary and even harmful. Research is clear that stressed brains do not operate the same way as non-stressed brains. John Medina, Ph.D., director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University, says creativity, productivity, motivation and sometimes even your immune system will all suffer from chronic stress paired with unproductive coping strategies.

Consider also, many of us have people in our families, including young children, who depend on our body language as signals of approval. At this time of international stress surrounding the Coronavirus and COVID-19, our ability to manage ourselves and pump the brakes on stress will help us provide emotional stability systemwide. The better we manage ourselves as individuals, the more we are able to think clearly and teach our children that we can all help ourselves feel better and act wisely.

How do we learn to manage our stress?

Step 1: Awareness. Learn about your “Low Zone.”

Stress has a way of becoming chronic when the worries we're experiencing consume all of our focus. Everyone needs pleasure, productivity and creativity in their lives and chronic stress robs us of these. If we allow whatever is currently the most stressful problem to dictate everything about what we do each day, we are less able to manage the problem.

Take a look at this continuum :

  • 1 — I feel very happy, productive, or connected.

  • 2 — I appreciate or enjoy good moments in my day.

  • 3 – 4 — With a little effort, I can tweak my day and feel pretty good.

  • 5 I can do what I need to do today, But it's not easy.

  • 6 –7 — It's taking a lot of effort to keep moving forward. I’m not really feeling okay.

  • 8 - 9 — I'm feeling anxious, irritable, or overwhelmed by my stress.

  • 9 — Help! I’m about to lose it!

  • 10 — I have chart-topping fear, anxiety, or distress.

Where do you put yourself now? How do you know when you’ve passed the moderate point?  Identify for yourself the small changes you can detect in your mood as you move up the continuum.  This may take a few days of observing yourself, but if you are like most people, (and chances are good that you are!) your stress level will climb in a predictable pattern.  By taking time to learn your emotional cues, you can learn habits that help you regulate your stress so that you spend more of your time in the “low zone” (at numbers 1-5). 

But you don’t know how stressful my life is!

Clearly some people carry more burdensome stress than than others, and those people may pay a higher cost if they cannot practice effective skills to manage stress and improve their quality of life.  For example, the stress of becoming a chronic condition caregiver often results in health difficulties and emotional health challenges.  If you are a caregiver, it’s especially important that you learn stress-management skills so that you can keep yourself in the “low zone,” find ways to enjoy your life and allow your caregiving to have moments of satisfaction and joy.

Step 2: Practice Habits that Help Bring You Back Toward Your Low Zone.

Once you’ve passed the mid-zone mark into the high-stress zone, it’s time to take a stress-management moment.  Maybe that means that you call a friend, take a short 5 minute walk outdoors, remind yourself of what you can and cannot change or keep a funny book on hand that you can visit when you need a laugh.  Whatever works best for you, take the time to bring your stress level back closer to the “low zone.”  Notice what happens to your body and mind when you take these breaks.

Here a few of the benefits of low-zone living. The benefits of low zone living are plentiful!  You’ll feel more creative, more connected, and more able to enjoy small moments of happiness.  Furthermore, you reserve your “high zone stress responses” for times it's absolutely critical. Don't feel guilty if you're helping yourself feel happy. We all need people to take care of themselves and be okay.

"It's not the lighthouse's job to stress about the storm or go out to the boats to guide them in. It's the lighthouse's job to stay strong on the rocks and keep the light on."

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