How To Keep Your Stress Level Down & Immune System Up Until COVID-19 Is Contained

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How To Keep Your Stress Level Down & Immune System Up Until COVID-19 Is Contained
Self, Health And Wellness

“When the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked, all would be lost. But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centered, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.” — Thích Nhất Hạnh

Do you know anyone who has not been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic? I don’t.

But even for people on the front lines, the trajectory of the current Coronavirus outbreak is full of unknowns — and unknowns equal anxiety.

Anxiety, fear, and overwhelm are normal, understandable feelings to experience when we enter uncharted territory of any kind. These emotions are normal reactions to threats and our innate fear of the unknown.

We're inundated with COVID-19 images and warnings about its spread, but we don’t hear or read much about how to stay calm or find relief. This is unfortunate given how much we know about the negative impact stress can have on our immune system.

My own patients are describing more than feeling anxious, afraid, and overwhelmed right now, though. They’re also talking about feeling powerless and confused, sharing their desperate desire to feel more in control and to find a sense of agency in the face of so much still unknown.

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Those feelings are normal and understandable too.

Fortunately, there are ways we can contain and manage not only the spread of the COVID-19 virus Itself, but the potential spread of its negative impact on our mental health.

Here are 6 tips for managing stress and keeping your immune system strong until the Coronavirus is contained.

1. Remind yourself that we are all interconnected.

No matter how alone you may feel, you are always part of something bigger. We are all in this together.

Connecting with others, even virtually, strengthens bonds and immunity. It also helps to buffer us against depression and worsened anxiety. This is where virtual technology and some forms of social media are heroes. (Thank you, FaceTime!)

And remember, we have a moral responsibility to take care of people in our community, especially people who are more at-risk.

2. Remember that we are each responsible for our shared environment.

People tend to be at their best when taking care of each other.

Remaining self-quarantined decreases the spread of the virus. It slows down the rate of spread so that hospitals can manage treating the people who are most vulnerable. We are being asked to make personal sacrifices for the greater good.

We aren't hard wired this way, but is what we need to do to move beyond the crisis.

3. Remember that we have the capacity for the tenderness and compassion needed to overcome obstacles, challenges — and even a pandemic.

Once panic sets in, biology takes over. Fight or flight mode is front and center. Our brain is not able to access the prefrontal cortex, the part that helps with rational decision making. When we panic, we tend to make poor decisions.

Ignoring reality does not make it go away. Denial is tempting, but not a useful refuge. It is the extreme alternative to anxiety.

One way to calm ourselves down is to help other people. We diminish our own anxiety by caring for others. The potential ramifications of the COVID-19 outbreak are huge, with economic, recreational, financial, educational and societal implications. Finding concrete ways to cope is essential.

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4. When washing your hands for 20 plus seconds, bring someone you care about to mind.

Maybe even wash your hands in front of a mirror while saying a metta (loving kindness) meditation, gazing non-judgmentally at yourself. (Hopefully you are included in the group of people you care about.)

The Buddhist practice of metta meditation — "metta" can be translated from Pali as "benevolence, loving-kindness, friendliness, amity, good will, and active interest in others" — is the brain’s equivalent of hitting “control-alt delete." Even though it probably won't have a lasting effect, the short break can help.

Traditional loving kindness phrases are, “May we all be happy, may we all be safe, may we all be healthy, may we all live with ease,” and repeating this two or three times takes about 20 seconds.

5. Be of service to others in some way.

Helping other people has been shown to improve our overall health, tame the brain and lower anxiety. Performing acts of service gives our brain something to help keep it more even-keeled.

Here are some things you could do:

  • Support the local economy through acts of compassion.
  • Check in on elderly or vulnerable neighbors.
  • Support local businesses by purchasing a gift card.
  • Pay your house cleaners even if they don’t clean your house this week.
  • Tip wait staff more money.
  • Donate to local food banks.

Implementing these ideas will help you to channel energy while helping your community. Win-win!

6. Try a simple, straightforward mindfulness practice to help relieve anxiety and fear.

This doesn't have to be anything complicated. You don’t need to sit cross-legged, all zenned out.

There are two simple steps you can follow: The first is to calm your mind down. The second is then to see what is going on in there.

Step one helps you prepare for step two, although practicing step one alone is also fine. If you find it hard to calm your mind, ground yourself in your body to calm down. To do this, feel your feet (or bottom, if you're sitting) strongly rooted into the earth. Notice or count your inhales and exhales, if that feels okay.

Take notice of one object. It may be the feel of your body against the chair, or your breath, or something else like a candle flame. Then , when your mind is more calm, notice what’s up in your mind.

You might observe a thought as basic as, “Oh, there is a lot of worry; “ Just recognizing what you are thinking and feeling is mindfulness.

The practice is not about making your negative feelings go away, but rather about noticing, with curiosity, what your mind is up to.

There is no such thing as being bad at it. Just be curious about what you are feeling and thinking in and of itself that can help. If your mind is in the future or past, bring yourself back to the now.

Mindfulness practice could also be applied to hand washing. Feel yourself washing your hands.

Or use the CDC recommendation of not touching your face as a mindfulness practice. When you have an itch, notice it, but don’t scratch. Just be with the itch, This is an unpleasant feeling, but you aren’t obsessing about your anxiety-making thoughts when you are noticing your itch. You are just staying with the sensations of the itch.

When you do this, you are building metacognition muscles, which means you are becoming more skillful at awareness of your mind's output.

Practicing with something benign (like an itch on your face) builds resilience and prepares you to be with what is difficult on a larger scale.

Individually, we can’t stop the spread of COVID-19, but we can each do our part.

We are all experiencing an international crisis which is generating tremendous anxiety, fear, overwhelm, helplessness and hopelessness.

Empower yourself. There are things you can think and things you can do to help yourself, your family, your friends and your neighbors.

And, remember, this epidemic will pass.

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Dr Elayne Daniels is a Boston psychologist in private practice who test drove the ideas in this article to help manage her own anxiety about COVID-19 —​ and they worked!