Well, there is no doubt about it, the level of anxiety and fear in the world today is the highest it has been in decades. Not since 911 have I seen this level of uncertainty in fellow Americans. With restrictions and measures to control the spread of COVID-19 ramping up again and the circus currently going on in our government, the unease many of us feel continues to grow. Uncertainty over the future of our food security, job security, and economic future weigh heavily on many along with fear for the health and safety of those we hold dear.
In times like these it is important to find ways to calm the anxiety and fear. An anxious, fearful mind is not a well-functioning mind. Studies have proven that fear and anxiety lower cognitive function and problem-solving skills. In a world where both could really make the difference between making it and not, managing those feelings becomes very important. We’re in the wilderness now, folks, time to refocus and watch for that lion, lest we become its next meal. Luckily, there are a lot of things we can do to calm the anxiety and fear so we can focus on what is happening here and now.
In these rather special and unique circumstances, the very first step we need to take to get the anxiety and fear under wraps is taking a big step back from the 24-hour news stream. If you’ve been watching this disaster unfold all day everyday on the news and social media sites, shut it off, set it down, and walk away! You did good to hang in this long, you deserve a break from your vigil. Because you don’t want to be unaware if the situation changes, choose a time once, or twice a day to check in with ONE news source. Just for the updates, just for the facts. Please don’t choose Facebook as that news source! Whatever newspaper, television newscast, or web-based news source you prefer, skimming it once a day will keep you informed without being constantly overwhelmed. If you are a frequent social media scroll-er, scroll on by the pandemic pandemonium and focus on those cute kid pics, the endless amazing free virtual experiences being offered everywhere at the moment, or pop into my new favorite group Quarantine Karaoke (created by a fellow Mainer 😊 because we know how to get through tough times!) for some music and entertainment. Unplugging from the news will help you put your focus on more positive things. Something that is really important if you are trying to manage anxiety right now.
It is a well-known fact that controlling our breathing can help us through many things. Breathing through pain, the Lamaze method, has long been used during labor. Many women, yours truly included, have continued to use this well-known breathing method to control other types of pain. But, did you know there are many other breathing methods? It turns out there are methods of breathing for increased lung capacity, endurance, pain, sleep, stress reduction and so much more. The simplest, and probably best-known method of breathing for stress relief is deep breathing. Another popular method that I have been using is the 4-7-8 method, a method that has been specifically identified as a great stress reduction and focus technique. Simply breath in for 4 seconds, hold it for 7 seconds, and exhale for 8 seconds, repeat 2-4 times, you may be surprised how much better you feel. The best thing about this anxiety management tool is you can do it anytime, anywhere, and it takes less than one minute.
Since breathing and meditation go together like bread and butter, let’s talk about this ancient method for stress reduction and re-centering next. Used in India for thousands of years, meditation has been gaining popularity in western culture over the past few decades. Chances are, if you suffer from anxiety regularly, someone has suggested you try meditation. There is no doubt that this ancient technique, which involves focusing on our breath and going within, is an excellent way to re-center and regroup. If you’ve tried and failed, welcome to the club, like all things worth doing, meditation takes practice. There are a huge number of free guided meditations available online and even apps for that.
Another gift from ancient India, yoga is a popular and well-known form of exercise in many areas of the world today. With a focus on stretching and strengthening many have turned to this ancient exercise to maintain strength and flexibility, but did you know it also reduces stress? Many of the poses, breathing methods and exercises commonly used across the varied forms of yoga are also excellent anxiety management tools. So, pop on over to YouTube, or dust that yoga workout video off and give it a shot. It is also a great way to get kids calm and centered, so invite the whole family to join you for some morning yoga to get that day at home off to a great start.
Take a walk
Not only is walking great exercise it is also a wonderful way to reduce your stress level. Taking a walk alone or with your family each day is a great way to promote the release of endorphins and decrease feelings of stress. If you are able to walk in a natural setting, that walk will be even more beneficial to your state of wellbeing. In some cultures, regular emersion in nature is even prescribed by medical professionals to help balance the stress of busy lifestyles. The Japanese call it forest bathing. Whether you choose to walk around the block or wander through the woods nearby, taking a walk daily will help improve your mood and, as a bonus, provide you with fresh air and sunshine, both of which help keep us healthier and more resistant to germs.
It is no secret that exercise is a wonderful tool for stress management. If walking and yoga are not your thing, choose something that fits you better. Spending a bit of time focusing on moving your body, working up a sweat, and releasing those endorphins (happy chemicals) will leave you feeling better. So take that run, dig out those exercise videos, sign up for that virtual kickboxing class, and treat your body to some happy chemicals courtesy of biology.
Spend time in nature
If walking in nature is not for you, or you have mobility limits that make that a challenge, find ways to get out and immerse yourself in nature. Take a ride to the shore and watch the waves come in, grab a portable chair and sit at the edge of a field or woods and just watch for a bit. The less active we are, the more active our animal neighbors tend to be. Use this time to animal watch, learn to identify birds in your backyard, or just sit and take it all in. Take some time to close your eyes and listen to the rhythm of the world around you. The natural world is full of life we cannot hear when we are whizzing by with our heads full of worries and lives full of plans. Taking some time to just be in nature is a sure-fire way to reduce the stress you are feeling.
As the Doobie Brothers song says, “give me the beat boys and free my soul, I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away.” Music is a powerful tool, the right song can make us cry, pump us up, get us moving, and even soothe our soul. Playing uplifting music is a great way to decrease feelings of anxiety and drown out the fears of the world. If you also enjoy dancing, crank up those tunes and start a family dance party! Personal favorites when I need a lift are the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Michael Franti and Spearhead, and Queen, all guaranteed to transport me to my happy place, no matter where I am. Whatever music makes you happy, crank it up, don’t hesitate to belt it out, and dance till you feel nothing but joy!
Sink into a great book
Any bookworm will tell you the hands down best way to forget your troubles and the world around you is to delve into the pages of a great book. One of my personal favorite methods of stress relief and a constant in my life is reading. Whether you love fiction, poetry, biographies, or any other type of written work, grab that want to read list and sink into the pages of a great read. Be whisked away to far off lands, adventure with your favorite hero, re-read an old favorite. Reading reduces our blood pressure, stress level, and enriches our lives. It allows us to experience things we cannot go out and do ourselves.
Write it out
Writing is more than just a form of communication, it’s also a wonderful tool for dealing with uncomfortable feelings. Journaling or free writing about how you are feeling about the state of the world, your job, your family, etc. can help put things in perspective. Sometimes just writing something down will allow you to set it aside and move on with what needs to be done. It can also be a valuable tool for getting the things you wish you could say aloud but never would out of your head. You may find once your troubles are on paper, they are easier to let go, or debunk. Want to increase the therapeutic power of writing down the things you wish you could say? Grab a fireproof container and light that writing on fire, and let it go.
Talk it over
Prefer a sounding board to bouncing ideas around your own echo chamber? A chat with a good friend can do more than just fill the time. Talking things out often helps us to gain perspective. Even when it does not shift the way we see a situation, sharing our troubles with someone we trust is a wonderful way to destress and let go of the things that are eating us up. Since an in-person gab session with the bestie over coffee is likely out of the question, you’ll have to settle for a messenger vent session, phone call or video chat. So, make a date with your favorite folks to vent to and let it out.
Smile and Laugh
We’ve all heard the saying laughter is the best medicine. When it comes to breaking through the stress, it really is true. Laughter reduces our blood pressure, relieves stress and tension, decreases stress hormones and increases immune function. A good laugh will leave your muscles feeling relaxed for up to 45 minutes according to one study. And, as it turns out, smiling is every bit as good for us. When we smile our bodies release endorphins, serotonin and dopamine, three well known feel-good chemicals. As a result, the act of smiling can actually make us feel less stressed and more happy. So, dig out those comedies, read a hilarious book, play a foolish game with your loved ones. The sillier the better. Giggle, guffaw, and howl till you cry tears of happiness. You will feel ever so much better if you do.
Despite the many benefits of play, as adults we do not often take the time to engage in playful activities. Play makes us not only happier, but smarter too. Playing reduces stress, promotes feelings of joy and happiness, increases our creativity and problem-solving skills. It is also a wonderful way to forget about the troubles in the world around us and build stronger bonds with those we love. When the world gets to be too much, dig out those toys, go on a dessert adventure with your kids in the living room, and get out those board games for some family fun time. Not only will you all be distracted for a bit, you’ll be happier and more relaxed at the end as well, thanks to those happy chemicals from all the smiling and laughing.
If you’ve ever lost track of time while making something, you know the power of creativity. The creative mind is a wonderful thing. Being creative increases problem solving skills, decreases stress hormones, and is very much like a sort of meditation. The troubles of the world melt away as your brain turns to creative thinking and your eyes focus on the details of what you are making and/or referencing. When creating, brains release the chemical dopamine, known to increase feelings of happiness as well as improve focus and problem-solving skills. It turns out even something as simple as coloring in a coloring book can trigger the release of those feel good chemicals and reduce our stress levels. So, dig out the crayons, paint, cloth, wood, whatever you use to create and sink into a project. Allow the world around you and all the stress it holds to melt away for a bit.
Do whatever makes you happy
Because the ultimate antidote to stress seems to be happiness, anything that makes you feel happy will reduce your anxiety and stress. As we have learned, smiling, laughing, and creating all promote the release of feel good chemicals. There are many other activities that result in the release of those precious stress reducing hormones and chemicals. So, whatever it is that brings you joy, get up and go do it! Maybe it’s a cuddle with a furry friend, a jog around the block, a tidying spree in that closet you’ve been meaning to organize, a chat with a good friend, whatever your happy place is, now is a great time to spend more time there.
While there is not much we can do about the stressful state of the world today, there is a great deal we can do to manage the feelings of anxiety that stress brings. Taking the time to focus on activities that reduce our stress leaves us feeling happier and smarter. With brains that are relaxed and tuned for problem solving, getting through the current chaos will certainly be simpler.