How to be truly healthy: Managing stress during a pandemic
What do you think of when you think of the word ‘health’? A fit person with abs? Lifting heavy weights? Speed? Endurance? Freedom from disease? Often, ‘health’ is synonymous with matters pertaining to our physical body, but what is often forgotten is the importance of our mental health.
More so now than ever, it’s essential to pay close attention to your mental health. Coronavirus has changed the world as we know it. The fear of the pandemic reaching you or someone you care about, the rates of unemployment as high as the Great Depression, and the burden of isolation during quarantine; at the peak of COVID, the world was a scary time to be alive. For many, it still is, as they struggle to find their footing in the world post-lockdown.
As a nutritionist and trainer, I’ve seen firsthand the impact of poor physical health. However, I’ve also seen the fittest people out there who have struggled deeply with their mental health. In both camps, true health is not achieved. Being able to manage stress, alleviate anxiety and feel grounded is a skill that should be practiced daily. Much like your daily workout and your daily supplements, mental health is equally as important as your physical health. So if you’re affected by COVID-related stress, as I can presume you are, here’s what you can do.
Why stress is the most common, least discussed COVID symptom
It makes sense why we’re stressed, the effects of COVID are unprecedented. In a recent survey by the American Psychiatric Association, 36 percent of Americans said the pandemic has had a serious impact on their mental health. In another survey, 31 percent of Americans say their sleep is disturbed because of anxiety, and online mental health services like Talkspace have seen an unprecedented increase in demand for services - up by 65 percent!
In the UK, these statistics are similar. A recent report by Nuffield Health found that 80 percent of people in the UK feel that lockdown has negatively impacted their mental health, and a quarter have emotionally struggled during isolation. In fact, preliminary data from a survey that was collected during COVID found that 50 percent of people have experienced moderate to severe depression during the last month and an additional 32 percent have experienced moderate to severe anxiety. Rates of anxiety and stress are at an all time high. COVID is a very real disease, but so is acute stress.
Stress is more than a feeling. In severe cases, it can be just as dangerous for our health as other diseases. A cohort study published last month found that chronic stress was associated with all cause mortality, which was supported by the body of prior research. Stress kills. You need to pay attention to it, manage it before it manifests. Here’s how.
How to manage stress
Before you attempt to combat stress, you need to become aware of your triggers. There are general triggers that affect everyone: financial stress, breakups, lack of employment etc. But there are also triggers unique to each individual: do you need to spend time alone to feel grounded? Does coffee make you stressed? Do you get stressed when you skip a workout? Pay attention to where your energy flows - are you exacerbating or reducing stress throughout your daily life?
There are a number of research-backed strategies that are easy to implement to help reduce stress:
- Light exercise
- Getting at least 8 hours of sleep per night
- Staying hydrated
- Self-care practices like taking a bath, face masks etc.
- Watching your favorite movie or tv show
- Disconnecting from social media
One of the most effective ways to manage stress - and the most accessible, during COVID in particular - is mindfulness. A meta-analysis that examined the results of 39 studies on mindfulness and stress found that mindfulness was the most effective tool for relieving stress and decreasing anxiety.
Mindfulness can be practiced during meditation, exercise, drawing or taking a bath - and that’s the best part - it can be done anywhere, with any resources. It’s a state of mind that alters your biology and makes you objectively less stressed. Mindfulness involves deep breathing and focusing your mind on the present moment. It’s not about controlling your thoughts, it’s about detaching yourself from them - watch them come and go, like they’re on a conveyor belt.
When we breathe deeply, we shift our bodies into a parasympathetic state. This is the ‘rest and digest’ state, relaxing your central nervous system to promote feelings of calm. This is in opposition to the ‘fight or flight’ state - the sympathetic state we are in when we are stressed. Research shows that being in a parasympathetic state boosts digestion, immune health and cognitive performance, and reduces inflammation.
Studies show that after practicing mindfulness, the brain’s amygdala - the region of your brain responsible for stress - decreases in size, while the prefrontal cortex - the region of your brain responsible for problem solving, emotional regulation and creativity - increases in size. Plus, cortisol and adrenaline levels decrease (the stress hormones) and melatonin, serotonin and GABA all increase - these hormones associated with calmness, happiness and stress reduction.
It’s essential to view stress as a component of your health. There’s no point taking supplements, following a strict diet and killing yourself in the gym if your mental health is getting left behind. During the pandemic, rates of stress and anxiety are higher than ever, so becoming aware of your triggers and implementing strategies to help manage these feelings is vital. So if you’re struggling, try and follow some of these strategies - particularly mindfulness - if you want to be truly healthy.
By: Emilina Lomas