Only a few months ago, many were talking about our hectic, frenetic, fast-paced and overly stressful lifestyle. Enter COVID 19 and suddenly our stress levels have skyrocketed to unprecedented levels as we are forced to respond and adjust to the current reality. Life as we know it has changed and we are now grappling with social distancing, working from home, isolation, fear and uncertainty. However, just like any crisis there are things we can do to keep physically and emotionally healthy to help us weather the storm during these challenging times.
Let us begin by understanding what goes on in our brain during high threat situations. All human beings have what is called an “evolutionary negativity bias”. This is a self-preservation mechanism in the brain that keeps us alert and vigilant for potential danger. It is what kept us on the constant lookout for predators thousands of years ago and is still functional today.
When we perceive any form of threat, be it psychological or physiological, a small cluster of neurons in our brain called the Amygdala fires up and activates the well-known “fight or flight” response. This is the classical primitive stress response that is designed to garner our strength to fight off predators or run away from them. Under these conditions, several psychological and physiological changes take place in our brain and body. These have a significant impact on our perception, judgement, attitude, behaviour and sense of wellbeing. As our body experiences a rush of cortisol and adrenaline, we get ready for action!
However, what is designed to be a momentary reaction to help us deal with temporary threat may become a continuous state of mind when faced with an ongoing threat. In other words, our brain becomes “primed” for flight or fight and our mindset may become stuck in a “threat filter”. This may result in a tendency to overestimate negative outcomes, become hyper-vigilant, and even anxious. While the danger and threat are real, we may easily amplify it simply because of our negative mindset. For those who may already be struggling with anxiety or other mental health issues, the added stress response triggered by this crisis can be enough to tip the balance from coping to a serious struggle to cope. While this is a normal reaction it is important that we do something about it and that we do not allow it to spiral into a more serious situation.
In this context practising self-care is critical and it may help us survive and even thrive during these challenging times. Here are some self-care practical tips that may help us holistically if we invest in the four practical dimensions of wellbeing: Physical; Cognitive; Emotional and Spiritual.
The Four Dimensions of Wellbeing
The Physical Dimension
- Stay on a healthy diet rich in fruit and vegetables and resist the temptation to snack on sweets and processed food as a quick mood fix.
- Get enough sleep. The average adult requires between 7 and 8 hours of sleep daily. Sleep stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system which helps to calm our internal stress response.
- Do plenty of exercise daily. This will help you stay strong and healthy on every level including psychologically.
- Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of warm liquids throughout the day.
- Practice all the safety measures that are being recommended by the health authorities. This will help reduce your anxiety levels.
- Avoid using smoking, alcohol or other addictions including online shopping to deal with your negative emotions. These produce short term relief but only make things worse in the long term.
- Remember to breathe! Nice long deep breathing with an extended outbreath helps to calm us down and diffuse anxiety.
- Practice Yoga, Pilates or some form of core strength building activity. Long periods of sitting down can weaken our muscles over time.
- Practice some form of guided deep relaxation such as progressive muscle relaxation.
The Cognitive Dimension
- Try to keep your anxiety and worry in check by limiting your daily dose of COVID related information. Be selective and get your information from reliable sources.
- If you catch yourself spiralling into catastrophic thinking, try to break the pattern by doing something to distract yourself or reality-check with a friend. Learn how to reframe your thinking to be more realistic.
- Keep your mind occupied by learning something new. This could be an opportunity to learn a new skill or to start working on a qualification you always wanted.
- Use work as an antidote if you are working from home. Try to establish a sense of normality with your work routines as much as possible.
- Heightened anxiety will tend to influence your perception and magnify your threat filter. To counter this, make a conscious effort to recognise and acknowledge the positive things that you see happening around you.
- Look for information that is uplifting, inspiring and generates optimism.
- Practice daily intentional gratitude. Think of things and people in your life that you are grateful for even during such a difficult time. Practising intentional gratitude has a direct positive impact on wellbeing.
The Emotional Dimension
- Maintain regular contact with friends and family by means of the various web-based tools that are available.
- Read or listen to inspirational books or stories that generate a sense of hope and positivity to balance out the barrage of negativity coming your way.
- Find practical ways of helping others by reaching out to those in need while ensuring that you protect their health as well as yours.
- Start to learn or practice meditation. There are various forms of meditation and you will need to find a style that works for you. Mindfulness meditation is currently one of the more popular forms of meditation.
- If you feel unusually depressed, worried or anxious reach out for professional help. These are normal emotional states in the current circumstances and can be managed.
- If you are getting anxious and worried about your job security or financial stability, talk to the right people who can help you out with planning and budgeting
The Spiritual Dimension
- Spirituality can take various forms and is known to provide us with significant emotional and psychological sustenance. Practice whatever spiritual form you endorse and use it as a source of internal strength.
- Use this period as an opportunity to revisit your values and your lifestyle. Slowing down from the usual frenetic pace of normal life may provide the precious time and space to reflect and take stock of your life, your priorities and your direction.
- Try to regard this challenge as an opportunity for a deep learning experience. Times of crisis can often serve as wake-up calls for profound transformation.
- Find meaning and purpose in what is happening right now. While not everything necessarily happens for a reason, we can find purpose in everything that happens. This could be an opportunity to reconnect with people you lost touch with, to spend some meaningful time with your loved ones or even to carry out those long-neglected items on your to-do-list!
Remembering that “COVID 19 too shall pass” is an important perspective on a situation that may feel interminable. However, if this crisis passes without us benefiting and learning from it, it would have meant that all the sacrifices and suffering that this virus has brought with it would have been all in vain. Every crisis is an opportunity for growth, and this is no exception. It is a challenge we must face together and through our collaborative effort we can get through it and emerge as wiser and better people.