How are you doing right now? If you’re feeling stressed, down or worried about the future, first, that’s to be expected, and second, you’re not alone. I want to offer some encouragement for you as well as give you some practical tips to help during this time.
In my own years of experience, as well as working with many people who have walked through unexpected traumatic and extremely difficult times, I have been encouraged with how resilient and creative the human spirit is in being able to adapt and persevere. Not only to survive crises, but to rise above them.
Many of you have already done that in your own lives, and I applaud you for having the courage to face your struggles, and do what’s necessary to grow and change. You’re already examples of that resiliency and creativity. We will get through this, together, and how we approach it mentally and emotionally will determine whether we just survive this time, or come out of it a better version of ourselves. Most of us have never had to experience social and physical isolation, and therefore we’re all learning new ways to adapt to this new “normal” So to help, I want to offer you ten practical ways to thrive during this time.
1. Keep to a daytime schedule during the week.
Nothing throws us off more than when we go from a structured week to no structure. Many of you are working from home, and so you already have that weekly schedule. For children, it’s especially important to have a weekly schedule, even hour by hour to help them stay focused and reduce their stress and anxiety. It also helps us maintain productivity, which is important for our mood. A structured schedule brings some stability to chaos and can help us, and more importantly, our children, feel more secure.
2. Keep your same bedtime schedule.
This is really important, because messing with our circadian rhythm messes with our brain, which can impact our mood. Get up at your regular time each day and go to bed at your regular time. If you have never considered sleep hygiene, this would be a good time to incorporate that into your life. Sleep hygiene means doing things that help your brain prepare for sleep and increase its release of melatonin, the hormone that regulates good sleep. Have a regular sleep/wake schedule, eliminate screen time 1-2 hours prior to bed to help melatonin production (as blue light stimulates serotonin, which inhibits melatonin), read before bed, sleep in a dark, cool room, and use non-blue lights in your room such as orange lights.
3. Restrict your news intake.
Even without a global pandemic crisis, it’s important to limit our intake of negative news. This isn’t news to anyone anymore! We all know the anxiety and worry that results when we let ourselves be bombarded by the traumatic and tragic things that happen around the world. But how much more when we are not only hearing about it, but living through it ourselves. Today, with constant access to information, we must be the censors of what we choose to feed on.
If you’re prone to anxiety or depression, this is even more important for you. Children cannot adequately process negative news with their undeveloped and concrete brains. Everything bad that happens means that it could happen to them. Please limit your conversations right now at home around the little (and big) ones as you process your worries; they may absorb your worries and make them their own. If Mom or Dad is worried, then it must be bad, they conclude. Children need a safe haven from the scary, negative things happening around them, and right now, you are their safe haven. Don’t watch the news around them, and speak encouraging, positive words into their worries. I saw a post on Facebook from Mr. Rogers who shared that when he heard tragic news, his mother would direct him to focus on the helpers. She said, “When something bad happens, there are always helpers, look for the helpers.” Help your children see the helpers during this time — as we are all encouraged with the positive stories that are coming out of this crisis.
4. Take care of yourself.
Self-care is always important, but even more during situations when there’s potential for increased stress and anxiety. Yet, it’s often the first thing that we let slide. Our bodies are designed to move every day, so get outside, go for a walk, ride your bike, hike, play some sports, run, move every day and do it outside if you can, cooperating with your area’s social distancing rules, of course. Not only does exercise cause us to release hormones and chemicals in the brain that make us feel good, but the fresh air and sunlight provide immune boosting healing to our brains and bodies.
In addition, eating healthy, balanced meals with fruits, vegetables and protein helps fuel our brains and improves our mood. Take some extra supplements during this time to help boost your immune system and cognitive functioning. Research has shown that increasing Vitamin C, D, and Omega-3 has shown significant impact on brain health and mood, as well as increasing our body’s immune system.
5. Train your Brain to be Calm.
Your brain wants to be anxious, but you can control your brain and teach it to be calm. One way is to practice meditation or mindfulness every day. This simply means taking a few minutes every day to center your thoughts on something positive, hopeful and encouraging. It could be a Bible verse, a prayer, or a positive thought or belief. Research has shown that meditation or mindfulness practiced regularly not only reduces anxiety and depression, but increases brain volume, especially in the learning and memory area of the brain. And who doesn’t want more brain capacity for learning and memory! We know that an anxious or depressed brain releases more cortisol, a stress hormone, which reduces the calming, good chemicals and hormones in our brain. But incorporating mindfulness or meditation can begin to change our brains, teaching them to calm down, thereby reducing our chronic cortisol release.
6. Breathe Deeply.
Along with mindfulness or meditation, spend a few minutes every day doing some purposeful, deep belly breathing. This is different from our regular breathing that comes from the chest. Belly breathing takes focus and is slower, resulting in more relaxation and calm. Here are the basics: place your hand on your stomach and imagine your stomach muscles relaxing and inflating with each inhale, and deflating with each exhale as you count to three in and out. It doesn’t have to be perfect, because just focusing on getting air into your belly will already feel relaxing and calming.
Research has shown that when we are feeling anxious, the little threat center in our brains, the amygdala, is telling our bodies that we are in danger and need to fight or flee to protect ourselves. As a result, the brain instructs the heart with each breath to rush blood to your extremities to prepare for action. This means that you have less oxygen and blood going to your brain and digestive system, which is why it is difficult to concentrate, and you feel uncomfortable in your chest and stomach. The awesome thing is that by doing the belly breaths you are now telling your brain that you are okay and safe, which then helps return you to homeostasis, or normal functioning by increasing oxygen to your brain and digestion, and thereby helping you feel calm and relaxed. Try practicing this a couple times a day when you’re feeling calm so that you can train your brain how to do it when anxiety strikes.
7. Silence your bully brain.
Honestly, we all have a bully in our brain that wants to lie to us and tell us bad news. This bully wants you to be afraid and worried all the time, making you believe that something bad is going to happen and you will not be able to cope. But that’s a lie, because most dangers that we anticipate happening, won’t happen, or if they do, they won’t be as bad as we imagine.
Secondly, you have coped with difficult things in the past, and you will be able to do the same in the future. So, it’s time to talk back to this bully and let it know that you’re on to them and they can’t bother you anymore. When you get an anxious thought, shut it down. Say, “Be quiet, get out of here, I’m not listening to you.” Do it every time you get an anxious thought, and mean business. Say it out loud if it helps. The more you shut down that bully voice in your brain, the less it will bother you.
8. Have a worry time.
During this time, your worries may want to bombard you throughout the day making it difficult to focus on what you need to be doing. In addition to silencing your bully brain, you could set up a 15-minute time in the day to do your worrying or talk about your worries with someone. Here’s how it works. You decide on a 15-minute time in your day and schedule it for your worry time. Just don’t do it right before bed! Then throughout the day when you’re tempted to worry or talk about your worries with someone, tell yourself that you are going to save it for worry time, and then get back to what you’re doing. The good news is that often when you get to your worry time, you may not even be bothered with it anymore. But the best part is that you’re training your brain that you are in control and you get to decide when and what you will think. After all, your brain doesn’t control you — you control your brain!
9. Look for the good.
It’s one thing to shut down the negative news, the negative thoughts and worries, but more importantly you need to replace them with the positive, good things that are going on in your life, and around you. There’s always good things; we just can’t see them sometimes when we’re swirling around in the negative. Worries are like tomatoes, the more we pay attention to them the more they grow. Thankfully the same can happen with positive thoughts. The more we redirect our negative thoughts to something positive, the more positive things we notice. With every negative, anxious thought you get today, what’s something positive that you can replace it with?
10. Be kind to yourself and others.
We’re isolating from the world, but not from our families. Sometimes, too much family time can be overwhelming, stressful, and slightly annoying… day after day. I’ve noticed it happening at my house, with three adults living and working from home. Things are a little messier, there’s more people around when I’m trying to get things done, and I’ve noticed that sometimes I’m just a little more cranky than usual. It makes sense, especially when you include the enormous pressures on all of us right now.
Stress can also trigger anxiety. Being honest with yourself about how you’re feeling will help to de-escalate your feelings so you don’t take them out on your family. It may prevent a family blow-up as well! Before things escalate, tune into how you’re feeling, take a time-out, go for a walk and then come back and talk about it with each other in a kind and respectful way. This will be a great way for us as parents to model for our children how to regulate our emotions and express our needs and feelings in a positive, healthy way.
I believe these ten strategies will help you thrive and grow during this present health crisis. May you come out of this stronger, and healthier in your mind, emotions and in your relationships!