The COVID-19 pandemic has raised stress levels for many people. Research studies are showing increases in sleep problems, anger, and lack of motivation during the pandemic. Prescriptions for anti-anxiety medicines reached a new high in 2020. People are also reporting more physical impacts of stress, such as teeth grinding.
When stress lasts a long time, it may also harm your health. “There’s a really big body of research now that says that chronic stress promotes inflammation,” says Dr. Janice Kiecolt-Glaser of The Ohio State University, who studies the effects of stress on the body. Inflammation is associated with many diseases, including heart disease, cancer, arthritis, and some mental health conditions.
Stress also may affect your metabolism, can cause the body to burn fewer calories at rest, and can cause mood changes and increase irritability.
Ways To De-Stress
The first step is to recognize the signs that you’re stressed beyond a normal level. Trouble sleeping can be one. Some people get headaches or stomach aches. Stress can also cause changes in appetite that lead you to gain or lose weight.
Once you know you need to reduce stress, there are practical steps you can try.
- Get regular exercise.
- Spend time on an activity you enjoy. This can be anything—from dancing to making art or getting out into nature.
- Make sure to get enough sleep.
- Stay socially connected. Close personal relationships are key to reducing stress. Reaching out to friends and family by phone, video chat, and email can help you stay in touch even when you’re not able to see them in person.
- Eat regular, well-balanced meals and avoid alcohol and other drugs.
Using mindfulness helps some people cope with stress. It teaches you to focus on being present in the moment. Research shows that simply being aware of what you’re doing can improve well-being.
One study showed that people spent nearly half of their waking life not paying attention to what they were doing, says Dr. Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an expert on mindfulness. “And when they were not paying attention to what they’re doing, they were significantly less happy.”
Davidson recommends starting modestly with three to five minutes, a few times a day. That way you don’t get overwhelmed and stop. There are many mindfulness apps available that teach different techniques.
The simple act of controlled breathing can bring stress relief. “It’s well known that slow breathing techniques have a positive effect on emotional state,” says Dr. Jack Feldman of UCLA, an expert on the neuroscience of breathing. Breathing techniques can help people who are depressed or anxious. Controlled breathing may disrupt the brain circuits involved in depression, he explains.
There are many different breathing techniques you can try. Practicing a few minutes a day can help you get started. “Belly breathing” is a simple form. Sit or lie down in a comfortable position. Place one hand on your upper chest and the other on your belly. Take a slow, deep breath in through your nose, taking air into your lower belly. The hand on your stomach should rise, while the hand on your chest remains still. Slowly exhale through your mouth.
If you’re experiencing more stress and side effects than you feel you can manage, it’s important to talk to your doctor.