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Published: May, 2020; Vol 16, Num 12

New Stressors Call for New Stress Management Techniques

Before COVID-19, a pandemic probably wasn’t on your radar. Yet this is the world we live in today, and so far it has no exact end date. Under normal circumstances, March Madness would be in the rearview mirror, the NHL playoffs would be underway and the MLB season would already be a month old. Instead, our current reality is much different – masked people are standing six feet apart from one another staring at half-empty shelves in the supermarket.

Coronavirus has led to more people turning to alcohol to cope with stress. Drinking alcohol may seem to provide some relief – positive feelings and relaxation – in the short term, but as stressful events continue, heavy alcohol use can lead to medical and psychological problems and increase the risk of developing an alcohol use disorder.

Chronic drinkers should pay extra attention, and so should their loved ones, especially during layoffs or extended downtime. Risk for heavy alcohol use increases with isolation and the lack of a schedule.

Epidemics and pandemics are highly stressful events, and only add to the stress already present in our lives. No matter how small your list of stressors was before, it’s probably grown immensely in the past few months. The stress, fear and anxiety that come with all of the unknowns can affect our behaviors, emotions and even our sleeping and eating patterns.

How do we cope with this stress? Some choose unhealthy outlets, like increased use of alcohol, tobacco or other drugs. Some take a more positive approach, like getting energy out through physical activity or relaxing with a warm shower. Perhaps you have run out of effective ways to manage your own stress. With all this new stress in our lives, now may be the perfect time to learn and develop a new coping technique.

Turning Inward to Mindfulness

The first image that comes to mind when you hear the word “mindfulness” may be sitting cross-legged in a field with flowers nearby and the breeze flowing through the grass. This is one setting where mindfulness could be practiced, but it’s far from realistic for most of us. Regardless of our location, mindfulness is the state of being aware of something. It is being in the present moment wherever you are and turning off autopilot, not thinking about the past or anticipating something in the future. It is focusing only on where you are, who you are with and what you are doing in a particular moment. The world is a chaotic place, pandemic or not. Mindfulness offers you a break.

Make Mindfulness Work For You

Give yourself permission to step away from to-do lists and struggles that are out of your control. Drop into your mind and body. How to do this can vary from person to person. One way to start is to find a quiet place, stop moving, close your eyes, take a deep breath in, slowly exhale and ask yourself “What feelings or sensations – pleasant or painful – do I notice?”. Doing this can help with your decision-making, focus, communication and energy level. It even has the potential to slow down changes in the brain that are part of the aging process. Getting comfortable with mindfulness will give you another tool in your toolbox of healthy coping mechanisms.

  • Find a time that works for you. Experiment with this technique at different times of the day to see what works best for you. When are you able to sit or stand quietly for a few minutes? Perhaps it’s when you first wake up, right after meal time or while brushing your teeth at night.
  • Practice makes perfect. If this is the first time you’re trying something like this, odds are that it will feel uncomfortable. That’s okay, but it isn’t reason enough to stop and never try it again. Think back to the first time you tried to ride a bike. You probably fell down. But you probably got back on that bike. The same can be said for practicing mindfulness, as long as you approach it with an open mind. Try it out for as short as 30 seconds at a time and work your way up.
  • Don’t go it alone. Download a mindfulness app (Headspace, Calm, InsightTimer are all free), pop in your earbuds and no one will be the wiser. Whether it’s through music or words, the calming sounds in these apps can be accessed anywhere, from home or on the go (once the stay-at-home orders are lifted). 

The pandemic will eventually fade, but its effects may linger. Try mindfulness today and your body and mind will thank you tomorrow. Handling stress as it comes, whether it's through mindfulness or other healthy coping mechanisms, can help you thrive in the tough times and even find a silver lining or two.

[Emily Smith is the Fund’s Health Promotion Manager]