Right now, we have a lot of reasons to be stressed and anxious. Here's the science behind both and 11 steps you can take today to feel the best you can in quarantine.
What is stress, and what is anxiety?
On the surface, they seem very similar. Stress is a biological and psychological response to an external threat. Right now, there are some very real stress triggers, whether that’s Covid-19, the stock market, limited supplies, or being cooped up at home trying to balance space, health, family, and work.
Stress usually goes away once a situation is resolved (i.e. things go back to normal). Anxiety, on the other hand, originates in our own minds. Some anxiety is rational and productive (making us stock up wisely and self-quarantine). But sometimes, it becomes irrational and unproductive (ruminating excessively to the point of panic, which doesn’t help anyone).
I don’t mean to minimize the stress or anxiety people feel right now. I’m hoping this post can help give you some concrete actions to take today to keep yourself sane while quarantined.
What’s so bad about stress?
The link between stress and serious health problems has been studied for 70+ years. Short-term, the “fight-or-flight” response kicks in: the stress hormone adrenaline is released, causing our heart to beat faster, digestion to pause, and glucose (sugar) to be sent to our muscles, supplying us with the energy to react. Think of sprinting to catch a flight. Second, cortisol kicks in to increase appetite meant to restore the sugar we expended running from danger. Which makes sense except… if we aren’t running from danger, chronic stress leads to many issues such as weight gain, colds, depression, diabetes, hair loss, heart disease… the list goes on.
What can I do to combat stress?
Here are some practical ways to deal with the physiological stress reaction while in quarantine, or really, anytime.
1. Breathe in for 5, out for 5. Our average breathing pace is 12-16 breaths per minute, or ~4 seconds each. That’s only 2 seconds in, 2 seconds out. When you’re stressed, you may notice it speeding up even more. Slow it down and try to do it from your belly (technically, your diaphragm), not your chest.
Deep, abdominal breathing activates neurons that detect blood pressure. These neurons signal to the vagus nerve, the “brakes” on the stress car, that blood pressure is becoming too high, and the vagus nerve, in turn, responds by lowering your heart rate and blood pressure.
2. Do some push-ups, sit-ups, or pop in a YouTube workout video. Put that excess adrenaline to good use! Think of it as “running” from your perceived danger.
3. Laugh. Studies show that laughter reduces stress and increases immune function. Instead of scrolling through feeds on Covid-19, watch standup comedy. In a study of cancer patients, the improvement from humor was even more pronounced than from other coping mechanisms such as distraction.
4. Affirm your values. Studies have shown that those who reflect on their values experience less stress and show a substantial decrease in cortisol compared to control groups. Do you know your top values? We cover this in Capsule’s Mission 3, so I won’t go into it in detail here, but highly recommend. Understanding your values is crucial not just for stress management but also for motivation, goal-setting, and decision-making. So, get grounded and more productive while in quarantine by thinking about yours.
5. Write three things you’re grateful for. While it sounds cheesy, clinical trials have shown that gratitude can have dramatic and lasting positive effects, from lower blood pressure to improved immune function, to more acts of helpfulness and generosity. People who experience gratitude can cope more effectively with everyday stress, show increased resilience in the face of trauma, recover more quickly from illness, and enjoy more robust physical health. This scientific intervention is as simple as keeping a gratitude journal.
6. Practice progressive muscle relaxation, an exercise that involves clenching certain muscle groups one at a time and then slowly releasing them. People with insomnia often find this is helpful for falling asleep. Here’s a full article on how to practice this and which muscle groups to clench.
What can I do to combat anxiety?
Anxiety provokes a much greater cardiovascular response than the slightly milder worry. Worry can trigger solutions and strategies, while often, anxiety borders on uncontrollable.
Anxious thoughts in your head are hard to calm. Distracting only helps for so long; pesky thoughts sneak in any chance they can get. That’s why, instead of dismissing or avoiding anxious thoughts, do something even tougher: train them.
1. Practice Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Pioneered in the 1960s, CBT has become the most widely researched form of therapy. The best part is, it's so easy you can do it yourself in five minutes. The cognitive model says that the "reality" we experience is just our interpretation of events, or our immediate thoughts about them. Change your thoughts, change your feelings, and change your behavior. For example, thinking “I can’t do anything right” might create a feeling of hopelessness that leads to behaviors like giving up. On the other hand, thoughts like “I could have done some things differently” might create interest which encourages reflection and growth.
2. Do structured problem-solving. Breaking down a problem and deciding on a course of action can help you break free from useless rumination. Here’s how:
Define the problem. What is it you’re really anxious about? Who is involved? List possible solutions. Think of this as one big brainstorm.Choose the idea you think is best and evaluate it. How much time and effort will it require?Write a solution statement.Then, to avoid overwhelm, break that solution statement into much smaller steps. What’s one thing you can do this month? This week? Today? Right now?
3. Grounding exercise. Sometimes, we’re so anxious that we can’t even think through the above. If you are at the point of panic, follow the below exercise.
Look around you and find:
5 things you can see
4 things you can touch
3 things you can hear
2 things you can smell
1 thing you can taste
Longer-term, here are things you can do daily to ward against anxiety.
4. Buy probiotics and stay hydrated. Serotonin is a chemical that transmits messages between nerve cells. It affects so many aspects of our well-being that it’s commonly called the “happy chemical,” impacting our mood, appetite, and cognitive functioning. It is estimated that 90% of the body's serotonin is made in the digestive tract. From bowel movements to eating, your gut is like a second brain. Take care of it with probiotics and water.
5. Keep your sleep schedule. In quarantine, our schedules may be thrown out of whack. Without our regular morning commutes, we may sleep in, and perhaps stay up later as well.
Like stress, sleep disruption has been linked to multitude of short- and long-term health consequences. Short-term, it makes us more susceptible to stress, depression, and anxiety; it impairs cognitive performance and increases risky behaviors. Long-term, sleep disruption can lead to heart disease, weight issues, diabetes, and cancer.
So, which comes first? Do we stay up late because we are anxious, or are we anxious because we stay up late? Science shows that the strong relationship between sleep and depression/anxiety goes both ways. Those with insomnia are 10x more likely to have depression and 17x more likely to have clinical anxiety.
Keep on schedule. Shut off phones. The blue light from our phones is 40% brighter than sunlight and reduces the production of the sleep hormone melatonin.
Teaser for the next post in the series: If you feel your relationship is strained due to stress and being quarantined in close quarters, you aren’t alone. Here’s how to support your loved ones and strengthen your relationship.
Jasmine Chen is Founder & CEO of Capsule, a comprehensive cognitive training for mastering your mind, improving work productivity, and building lasting relationships.