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Coping with Anxiety and Stress During Uncertain Times

Coping with Anxiety and Stress During Uncertain Times

Nicole Knight, AHCJ | March 24, 2020 | Women's Health

You’re not alone these days if you feel caught in a spiral of anxious thoughts. The global coronavirus pandemic has upended life for many of us. 

In uncertain times, it's natural to feel jittery, but being consumed by stress and anxiety isn't good for your mental or physical health. 

So the next time you feel anxious thoughts begin to creep in, try these 9 proven strategies to help you to cope.

 

Hack your anxious thoughts

When you talk with someone who is anxious, it can infect a part of your brain in a phenomenon known as social contagion. Social contagion can be harmful, triggering a physical response and anxiety (1). 

The antidote for social contagion? Awareness. The instant you feel yourself getting anxious during a conversation, hit the pause button on your thoughts and evaluate them (1). 

If, for example, an acquaintance is sharing her fears over her nephew who is quarantined in Italy, this is upsetting news for her, certainly. As you empathize, you can process this news with the understanding it has no direct impact on you or your loved ones — and isn’t a cause for you to worry. In one study of physicians, those who used an app to combat social contagion saw their anxiety drop by 57% (1). 

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Move your body

Activities that get you up and moving can make you feel happier and more relaxed. Physical activity triggers the production of endorphins, the natural mood-boosting chemicals in your brain. It also lowers the amount of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline (2, 3, 4, 5).

You don't need a lot of exercise to reap the benefits. Even 5 minutes of aerobic exercise can provide anxiety-busting benefits. Many fitness studios and gyms are offering online workouts, and workout apps are offering pricing specials while everyone is hunkering down (2, 3, 4, 5).

 

Enjoy nature

Head to the local park if you need a mood boost. Getting outside in nature, of course while maintaining social distancing guidance, helps calm your nerves, reduces anxiety, and even encourages prosocial behaviors, like generosity and empathy (6). 

Research also shows that a 90-minute walk in nature can quiet activity in the part of your brain linked to negative rumination. If you can’t get outside, even looking at a natural scene outside your window can improve your mood (6).

 

Try a news diet

Take breaks from watching the news or scrolling through the latest coronavirus headlines on social media. Although it’s good to remain informed, a torrent of pandemic-related news is not only unnecessary, it’s upsetting (7). 

One therapist coined a term for the jitters caused by constantly watching bad news: “headline stress disorder.” He found that repeatedly watching upsetting news triggered feelings of anxiety and stress in his clients. Women in the study were more prone than men to suffer from the disorder, although it’s not clear why (7). 

Consider turning off news notifications on your phone. Pick a few times a day to check in on the news to stay up to date while minimizing undue stress (7).

 

Connect with others 

Social distancing doesn’t mean social isolation. Don’t try to cope with your worries solo (2, 3).

Talk with friends and loved ones about your concerns and how you’re feeling. One study found that for women in particular, spending time with friends and children helps release oxytocin, a natural stress reliever. According to researchers, this "tend-and-befriend” effect is the opposite of our innate fight-or-flight response (8). 

If you find yourself struggling to cope, realize it’s ok to reach out to a mental health professional for support. These professionals are trained to help in trying times like these (2, 3).

 

Focus on what is in your control 

Granted, there’s a lot these days that's outside our control, but try to concentrate on what you can influence. This is called perceived control, and practicing it can reduce stress (5).

For example, you could focus on thoroughly washing your hands, cooking healthy meals, or taking a 20-minute walk each day. As you perform these activities, don’t aim for perfection, which is impossible. Instead, give yourself credit for what you’ve managed to accomplish in the midst of this crisis (5).

 

Pursue your passion 

With so many staying at home now, you may find yourself with more free time than usual. Try devoting some of this time to an enjoyable pursuit or hobby (9). 

Research shows that people with hobbies are less likely to experience stress and depression. When surveyed, 4 out of 5 people felt less stressed after spending time on their hobby (9). 

 

Process your feelings

Keeping your feelings pent up inside isn’t good for your health, and that's particularly true in times of uncertainty like the coronavirus pandemic. Look for healthy avenues to express your thoughts and emotions (4, 5). 

Journaling, for example, can help relieve stress and anxiety. Journaling also can help improve your mood by giving you an outlet to identify and prioritize your fears and concerns. The practice also helps to create a sense of order when the world feels uncertain (10). 

Writing in a journal can also be an avenue to practice gratitude. Consider making note of positive occurrences during the day that made you feel happy or less stressed (10).

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Challenge yourself to stay in the present 

As humans, we’re hardwired to project into the future. But dwelling on what-if scenarios can be an unnecessary source of stress and anxiety, and that’s especially true in times of uncertainty (11). 

When you find yourself worrying about something in the future, gently bring yourself back to the present moment. Notice the sounds, sights, and other sensory experiences around you and name them (11). 

Try a mindfulness exercise like taking a few deep breaths to calm your nerves in the moment. Research shows that practicing mindfulness can relieve stress and reduce the amount of time spent brooding. The technique also can help boost your concentration and give you a feeling of calm (11, 12).

The world can feel chaotic right now. If you find that your anxiety is interfering with your day-to-day life, work, or relationships despite your best efforts, consider reaching out to a therapist or other mental health professional. Taking your mental health seriously is now more important than ever.

 


Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

References

  1. Brewer, J.A. (2020, March). A Brain Hack to Break the Coronavirus Anxiety Cycle. New York Times.
  2. Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (n.d.). Physical Activity Reduces Stress.
  3. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, March). Mental Health and Coping During COVID-19.
  4. American Academy of Family Physicians. (2019, July). Mind/Body Connection: How Your Emotions Affect Your Health.
  5. Mental Health America. (n.d.). How to Deal With Stress and Anxiety.
  6. American Heart Association. (2018, August). Spend Time in Nature to Reduce Stress and Anxiety.
  7. Cohut, Maria. (2020, January). Anxious about the news? Our top tips on how to cope. Medical News Today.
  8. Taylor, S. E., Klein, L. C., Lewis, B. P., Gruenewald, T. L., Gurung, R. A., & Updegraff, J. A. (2000). Biobehavioral responses to stress in females: tend-and-befriend, not fight-or-flight. Psychological Review, 107(3), 411–429
  9. Australian Government Department of Health. (2019, July). Purposeful activity - hobbies
  10. University of Rochester Medical Center Health Encyclopedia. (n.d.). Journaling for Mental Health
  11. Marshall, D. (2020). Taking Care of Your Mental Health in the Face of Uncertainty. American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
  12. Davis, D.M., Hayes, J.A. (2012, July/August). What are the benefits of mindfulness. American Psychological Association, 43(7), 64.