by Jenna Wieden, PhD, LP
Clinical Psychologist at The NEST
Since COVID-19 has appeared, many of us feel like the world has been turned upside-down. In addition to worrying about COVID-19 itself, we are also dealing with stress related to changes in work and school, worrying about people we love, spending more time in close quarters than typical, and our own isolation and loneliness. These stressors understandably impact our relationships with ourselves and with others. They can make us experience a range of thoughts, emotions, and sensations, including trouble concentrating, difficulty falling or staying asleep, exhaustion, a sense of lack of control in one’s life, physical symptoms like shortness of breath and increased heart rate. We might also experience feelings of being on edge, sad, lonely, disconnected, overwhelmed, irritable, or apathetic. Finding ways to cope is important to keep both our physical and mental health afloat during this difficult time in our shared history.
Vagal nerve stimulation
The vagal nerve is a major cranial nerve that regulates messages of comfort, relaxation, and safety to our bodies. When stimulated, it can help us calm down, be more social, and feel more present in the moment. One way to activate this nerve is through deep breathing, aka diaphragmatic breathing. Begin by breathing into your stomach, feeling your stomach expand on the in-breath. SLOWLY exhale, letting your stomach fall back into its natural place. The slow exhale is key here; by releasing air slowly, we send messages to our brain that we can release excess oxygen, cuing our bodies that a threat is no longer perceived. You can pair this with yoga or other movements to help increase its relaxation-inducing impact (see below). The vagal nerve surrounds the vocal cords, so stimulating these cords therefore helps stimulate the vagal nerve. Singing, humming chanting, or gargling are also all great ways to stimulate this nerve and help us feel calmer.
Talking with Other People
Since we are social animals, this one is a no-brainer. However, social distancing and concern for health of ourselves and others can be a huge barrier to spending time with those we care about. Websites and apps such as Google Hangouts and Houseparty make it easier to connect with friends and family online. Even sending a text or making a quick call to check in on how people are doing can be helpful.
Not sure what to say if someone is having a hard time? Try to approach it with compassion and empathy. Don’t attempt to fix their feelings or ask if it’s ok to offer advice before doing so, as sometimes these ways of responding can feel invalidating despite good intentions.
Too stressed to listen to someone else talk about their stress? It is 100% ok to set boundaries about what you can handle! Let them know you care about being there to help support them, and you are not in a place to be able to give them your full attention and compassion right now due to your stress. Provide a timeline about when you might be able to support them and mention other contacts or resources for them in the meantime.
It may also be helpful for you and for others in your life to talk with others about non-COVID topics. Asking questions like “If you had a superpower, what would it be?”, “What is the funniest thing that’s ever happened to you?”, and “If you could have any pet, real or imaginary, what would it be and why?” For those of us in romantic relationships, The Gottman Institute has a card deck app with various topics to explore with partners that can be a fun way to build connection while talking about non-COVID topics.
Talking to a mental health professional in therapy can be another way to cope. This can be a great way to have a space for individuals, couples, and families to seek support and manage concerns around COVID-19 related stress. Most providers, including those at The NEST Clinic, are now offering video and/or audio sessions and many insurances are covering telehealth services in a similar way as face-to-face services.
Move your body
Any way you can, move! Run, dance, shake your arms, wiggle your toes, jump, roll your head, whatever! Moving our bodies helps us move from flight and flight mode into safe and social mode when stressed and can help release built-up energy in our systems. Increasing your heart rate is also important for regulating emotions and getting us out of flight/fight mode. For some people, this looks like a formal exercise routine. For others, this might mean something more informal like taking the stairs instead of elevator when possible, lifting grocery bags up and down while carrying them, or doing 20 jumping jacks during a work break. Whatever way you decide to move, get clever with it and make it your own!
Control what you can, let go of what you can’t
This is a hard one for many people. Having control makes things in our lives feel more predictable and safer, and trying to control things we can’t makes us feel ungrounded and exhausted. Think about what you can control in your life and move toward that. For instance, I can’t control how long certain businesses will be closed, but I can control whether or not I do a load of laundry and check in with my mom today. Finding ways to gain a sense of control helps us build a sense of mastery and accomplishment in our environments and our lives, which in turn can help increase our mood and self-esteem. Having trouble letting go of what you can’t control? Move toward acceptance by practicing radical acceptance. This concept is based in the idea that all humans experience pain in life, and that not accepting this reality leads to suffering. By first accepting the difficult situation we can’t control and the thoughts and feelings that come with it, we can then begin to process it and move on from it instead of spending all our energy fighting against it. While it is a difficult concept to master, with practice over time it can help us move toward a sense of release and peace in difficult situations.
Know your limit, stay within it
It is extremely hard to avoid the topic of COVID-19 if you consume any sort of media. News cycles running 24/7 make it easy to get overloaded while memes and personal experiences about the virus and being quarantined flood our social media. I’m even still getting emails about how various companies are handling the COVID-19 pandemic! There is a difference between being informed and being overloaded. Some ways to minimize media consumption is to turn off non-essential notifications on all devices, set a timer on how long you can view the news each day, and try to find sources that are based in evidence and not opinion. It’s also important to have another task you can do instead. If I say “don’t think about looking at your phone”, you are most likely going to think about exactly that. And if you have some other things to do, such as a jigsaw puzzle, taking a shower, or reading a book, distracting yourself will be easier in that moment.
Stop comparing yourself
While some small comparisons can be motivating, some can do more harm than good to our self-concept. If you’re like me, you’ve seen post after post of people using more time at home to do things like learn to bake bread from scratch, clean out their garage, or create some elaborate obstacle course for their children. These can prompt thoughts of comparison and negative self-judgement like “should I be more productive during this time?” or “I feel like I’m not doing enough”, especially when I’m spending my night watching a movie and petting my dogs. We need to remember that we are all different people who react to stress in different ways, and all these ways are valid! Different does not mean better or worse, those judgements are placed there by greater culture, by others in our lives, and by our self-critics, which can be the meanest and most judgmental of all. By practicing self-compassion, we can start to see the true intension of what our self-critic is saying and try to tell it to ourselves in a more compassionate and helpful way.
It is also important to remember that all of our circumstances are different during this time, and one person’s struggle does not erase yours. I often hear people say things like “I shouldn’t be so worried because some people are more at risk than me”. While it is important to consider the needs and positions of other people in this world, it is also important to grant ourselves the same courtesy. One way to do this is by learning to hold two seemingly different views as true by replacing “but” with “and”. There is a slight difference between the phrases “I love you, but I need space from you tonight” and “I love you, and I need space from you tonight. In the first phrase, it is easier to lose sight of the positive “I love you” because it is negated by the “but” whereas in the second phrase, there is space for both statements to be true.
Whatever method you chose to help manage COVID-19 related stress, it is important to remember that doing something once isn’t going to make everything perfect and that some of the skills above take practice before benefits are experienced. Be patient and compassionate with yourself as you learn new ways of coping and/or practice old ones that you haven’t used in a while.