Managing Stress in the Time of COVID 19
We have all been staying at home as much as possible and now as the Tampa area enters Phase II we need to plan what this means for our lives and the lives of our loved ones. How can we minimize exposure to Corona virus? How can we manage the fear that going out more may bring? How do we manage our stress when masks and social distancing are not being employed?
When the news of Corona virus first broke in the U.S. many of us paid attention, stocked up on essential items (I’m talking about TP!) and hoped and prayed that the virus would pass us by and life would go on as it normally did. We could not have predicted that we would soon be juggling working at home, school at home for months with few breaks from Zoom and other stressors.
Television brought bad and often confusing news for those unanticipated long days that turned into evenings. Many questions about the virus and how it was transmitted changed over time and soon sewing skills were necessary to make masks for outings. Initially the news was reassuring about children and the effects of the virus but then, in May the news came about possible links between Kawasaki disease and the corona virus. This all led to increasing stress for many of us.
What is stress?
Stress is our body’s response to real or imagined threatening or harmful situations. Our bodies release adrenaline (epinephrine) when we experience stress. This neurochemical increases our heart rate, dilates our pupils and provides a surge of energy to address the threat. This is called the “fight or flight” response. In small and infrequent doses adrenaline is not harmful but when we experience stress on a daily basis we can begin to also experience muscle tension, headaches, chest pain, trouble sleeping, upset stomachs and irritability.
Over time stress may lead to chronic illness including depression, anxiety, menstrual irregularities, obesity and high blood pressure.
While it is necessary to be aware of updates about the corona virus we can be over exposed when we read about it on social media, discuss it with friends and family and never take a break from 24 hour news streaming. The future seems uncertain and it can be difficult to feel optimistic. This constant exposure can lead to stress overload. Decisions about wearing a mask, social distancing and planning play dates using social media can lead to feeling overwhelmed. There is little time to practice self-care, to recharge, and intimacy and private moments can be rare. Below are a few ways to minimize stress and increase hope and optimism.
Tips to help manage stress during COVID 19:
Begin a self-care practice
Treating the stress you are already experiencing should take precedence over prevention. Begin simply so that these practices are achievable. Self-care is an activity (physical, mental or spiritual) that we do to take care of ourselves. This activity can reduce stress, improve our mood and increase our resilience. Self-care can also improve the relationships we have with others including our partners, children and family members.
Plan on dedicating one hour a day to the type of self -care that focuses on meditation, exercise and time for self. Begin by taking a walk and pay attention to your surroundings observing life and activities around you. Try not to think about stressful situations while walking. This time is for you…think of your heart bringing blood to your muscles. Think of your lungs bringing oxygen to your lungs. Take a moment to have gratitude for how your physical body functions.
If you are unable to walk or get outside another way to experience the outdoors is using YouTube. Here is an example.
There are also many exercise apps available on YouTube including dance, weights, and yoga. The main barrier may be finding the motivation to make the time for yourself. Strategies to address this include engaging with a motivation partner, using self-talk (“you can do this” “just do it today” or “you deserve this”).
If you are home with children this is a good time to combine exercise with family time. Children may be spending more time indoors due to the pandemic and may miss their time at the park or playing with friends. Talk with older children (over the age of 5) about why it is important to exercise. Daily exercise keeps our bodies strong and keeps our minds focused and able to concentrate. Taking a daily walk together outside can benefit the whole family.
Your family may be wearing masks. The CDC recommends masks be worn when you will be in close proximity to others but you can remove your mask outside if few people are around. The recommendations include that children over the age of 2 should wear a mask when social distancing is not possible. It may scare a child to wear a mask so all family members should wear them. A well-fitted mask with designs that are child friendly may make mask wearing less stressful. If possible allow your child to pick the design(s) or to decorate the mask. Explain in simple terms why wearing a mask is necessary right now.
Breathing techniques have been shown to reduce stress and to calm the body and mind. You can also develop a habit of focused breathing techniques. Alternate nostril breathing is calming and can reduce stress and tension.
Breath of fire helps to build lung capacity, increases the ability to focus and concentrate and may be particularly important since COVID 19 can effects the lungs.
This last link is specific to breathing techniques to do if you are infected with COVID 19.
Sleep is a vitally important activity when our bodies heal and repair. Chronic sleep deficiency may contribute to the development of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. Sleeping well during pregnancy or with babies or young children can be challenging. In addition, stress and tension can affect our ability to fall asleep and/or remain asleep.
Sleep hygiene or steps to sleep better include the following.
- Go to sleep at the same time every night.
- Keep the room you sleep in dark, quiet and cool. Avoid having a TV or computer in the room you sleep in.
- Avoid the use of caffeine (coffee, tea, Mountain Dew, Coke/Pepsi) about 6 hours before sleeping.
- Do not eat a heavy meal prior to sleep.
- Have a pre-sleep routine: take a bath/shower, meditate, read a book.
These techniques can also help parents establish a routine for bedtime with young children. Co-sleeping or families that sleep together may have positive and negative impact on sleep.
If you are waking during the night, 4/7/8 breathing can help. Slowly inhale through your nose for a count of four. (If you have difficulty breathing through your nose; breathe through your mouth.) Hold your breath for a count of seven. Exhale slowly through your mouth for a count of eight.
The doulas at Buddha Belly also provide Overnight Newborn Care and can help the whole family get better sleep.
When should I seek help for my stress?
Stress is unavoidable but it should not negatively impact our lives on a daily basis. If symptoms of stress and tension persist, even after practicing self-care, then it may be time to seek professional help. A professional (psychiatric nurse, psychiatric nurse practitioner, social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist) can provide a higher level of care. Short-term therapy can provide insight into how to better manage overwhelming stress. This along with self-care practices can make stress much more manageable.
By: Lorraine Byrnes PhD, PMHNP, FNP, FAANP
Lorraine Byrnes is a psychiatric nurse practitioner and retired certified nurse midwife. She is the sole proprietor of a counseling and coaching practice that focuses on care to women across the lifespan. Dr. Byrnes lived, taught and practiced on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. Malama is the Hawaiian word for caring. Dr. Byrnes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.