5 Easy Ways to Help Manage Stress during Social Distancing (and Beyond!)

We seem to have turned a corner with regards to weather here in Nova Scotia and I am so thankful for it! My mood of late has most definitely been affected by the weather, so I’m super happy to see so much warmth in the forecast for this week! There’s nothing quite like 5 days of sunshine boost my mood! Bring. It. On!

Looking at my list of 4 simple ways to stay healthy during COVID-19, today’s post should be focused on ways to improve sleep, but I’m switching it up a bit – throwing caution to the wind! LOL! Based on what I’ve been hearing from friends, family, seeing on social media lately, as well as how we’ve been feeling in our house, it seems we’re all pretty much maxed out with social distancing! Since we’re still not in a position where it’s possible to be done with it just yet, I thought it might be helpful to jump ahead to stress management. It’s key for optimal wellness at the best of time, but even more so during a pandemic! 

We all have stress. It’s a part of life for everyone. In some cases, avoidance is a way to deal with certain stress-causing situations (or people), but it’s not always an option. COVID-19 falls into that category. Worldwide, folks have been forced to practice social distancing over the past few months, so we really are all in this together…and we’re all feeling the effects of it.

In my head, it all comes down to what we can control. We can’t change the rules put in place by the government and I have to admit, I’m getting tired of those rules. We’re really enjoying our time together as a family, but the restrictions are starting to irritate us all – although we understand and are respecting them (the rule-follower in me wouldn’t have it any other way!). Recognizing the negative effects those feelings have on the mind and body, I’ve made a point to start managing those feeling more deliberately and helping my kids to do so, as well. 

Feelings of irritation, frustration, anger, and sadness cause stress reactions to occur in the body that can manifest physically and mentally. The chemicals released when we are stressed activate our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and put us into fight-or-flight mode. This causes the body to kick in all the systems that can save us in the event of an emergency – heart rate, blood pressure and inflammation all rise so the body can fight what it perceives to be impending danger. Although this chain of reactions is awesome for immediate emergencies, it’s not meant to be sustained and is damaging to the body when it perpetuates. Prolonged states of stress can cause things like digestion, sleep and hormonal troubles, and even more serious issues such as autoimmune conditions, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. Folks, we’ve been social distancing for over two months – so pretty much all of us have been in a prolonged state of stress! If you’re not making a conscious effort to manage those feelings, it’s high time to start. Your body needs you to help it calm down, not just to keep your body strong enough to stay safe during COVID-19, but to prevent you from developing any other serious illness or chronic condition.

The other side of the coin…

Counter to the SNS, we have the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS). Opposite to the SNS, when activated, the PSNS puts the body into “rest and restore” mode, allowing it to digest food, make hormones, repair muscle, and restore balance throughout the body. The super cool thing about these two systems is that they can’t both be activated at the same time. We don’t have a lot of control over when our SNS kicks in (and that’s probably a good thing in the case of immediate danger), but it’s actually quite easy to deliberately activate your PSNS…to bring your body from “fight or flight” mode, to “rest and restore”, calming the stress response and helping to manage stress. 

So how can we do it?

Managing stress doesn’t have to be complicated, it just have to be deliberate – it took me a while to realize this little tidbit, but I got it now! If you can teach yourself to recognize when your SNS has kicked in unnecessarily, you can remind yourself to focus on switching to the PSNS instead. These are 5 ways I activate my PSNS and help to manage my stress:

  1. Deep Belly Breathing: This works like a charm and seriously couldn’t be easier…the hard part is recognizing when you need to do it! When you’re feeling irritated or worked up, breathe in for 4 beats (fill the belly), hold for 8 beats, then slowly breathe out for 7 beats. Repeat the process until you feel yourself start to calm down.

  2. Lightly running your finger over your lips: It can’t get much easier than this! There are parasympathetic fibers throughout the lips and when you touch your lips, it stimulates the PSNS. Cool fact: kissing works, too – and there’s nothing better than a great kiss!

  3. Sing – Loud and Proud! Singing activates the vagus nerve – the longest cranial nerve in the body, running from the brain to the abdomen. Like the lips, the vagus nerve contains parasympathetic fibers. When we sing (or hum), it activates these fibers and therefore, activates the PSNS. It also increases vagal tone of the nerve, which is important for stress management because a higher vagal tone allows the body to relax faster after stress. So this one is a two-fer!

  4. Meditate: This one tends to cause a lot of eye rolling with people and I was one of them! I always thought meditation just wasn’t for me – like it would be impossible for me to turn off my brain for that long. But here’s the thing…it’s not necessary to completely turn off your brain to meditate and also, there’s no set time frame that’s perfect for meditation…any amount of time spent meditating is time well spent. It took me a while to find a technique I could stick with, but the Ziva Technique is now my jam. I highly recommend the book Stress Less, Accomplish More (could that title be any more enticing?!?), which describes the technique in detail. If you’re new to meditation, I think it’s important to spend some time trying out a few different techniques, people/voices and times, but once you find one you like, get at it! Work it into your routine by scheduling time for it every day. The more often and regularly you do it, As you do it more often and more regularly, you’ll naturally start to build how long you spend doing it.

  5. Feed your body well! You knew there was no way I’d get through a post like this and not connect it to good nutrition! There’s a reason for that – good nutrition is the key to a healthy mind. Avoid stimulants like caffeine and sugar (which makes it easier for the SNS to kick in) and focus on eating more anti-stress foods that contain B vitamins, magnesium, iron, and fiber. You’ll find it easier to activate your PSNS and you’ll naturally start to sleep better and feel more relaxed. Herbal teas are another relaxation-promoting addition to any diet.

I’m always talking about how much control we have over our health and that includes the control we have over our mental health. We all need to take advantage of that – figure out what works for you and do it. Commit these techniques to memory, learn to recognize when you feel yourself becoming worked up, ready to “fight or flight” and then pick one or two to help bring you back to “rest and restore”. It’s where your body naturally wants to be and it will get you through these times – and many more that are bound to come your way. 

Stress therapy that is easy, fun, super effective and fun…it can’t get much better than that!

Bring on the kissing! 😘