A Few Antidotes to COVID Stress
From requesting help to practicing mindfulness to controlled breathing, you have options for counteracting the pandemic’s effect on your psyche.
From the pandemic that brought you the terms “social distancing” and “Zoom fatigue,” here’s another one to add to your vocabulary: COVID stress. Little did we know when the pandemic emerged in early 2020 that COVID-19 would continue to disrupt our lives over a year later. COVID stress is the inevitable result of the uncertainty we’ve experienced and the growing concern about what the future holds.
Let’s look at sobering statistics, harvested from online news sources, that illustrate how pandemic stress affected the general population.
- 53% of U.S. adults say their mental health took a hit due to COVID-related worry and stress, up 21 points since March 2020.
- More than 1 in 3 adults say they’ve had symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder during the pandemic, compared with more than 1 in 10 before the pandemic.
- 36% of U.S. adults report difficulty sleeping during the pandemic.
- The rate of depression in American adults has tripled since the pandemic began and is particularly high in people with financial worries.
Closer to home in the veterinary profession, we are acutely aware that COVID stress has significantly affected our sense of well-being. An article in the March 2021 issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association noted that “Burnout, compassion fatigue and suicidal ideation are as much, if not more so, issues for practitioners during the pandemic.”
So, what can you do about the COVID stress that’s become so prevalent? Here are four strategies to consider.
- Accept responsibility for how you are responding or reacting. When faced with adversity, you can choose to be either a victim or a victor. You can’t control much in terms of how the pandemic plays out over time, but you do have control over the choices you make with your well-being. The trick, which is easier said than done, is to accept what you can’t control and adopt a bias toward positive change and action in the areas for which you have some control.
- Understand that we’re in this together, and seek help if you need it. We are all human. We have different strengths and individual weaknesses and deficiencies. Because of that, we need other people, and they need us. Stress affects everyone differently. The symptoms can be physical, psychological or both. Requesting help can be as simple as asking for understanding and support from a loved one or colleague. Or it could involve tapping into veterinary industry resources to help you deal with family or child care issues, workplace concerns, legal and financial questions, and stress, health and wellness worries.
- Learn to reframe how you look at your circumstances and experiences. The great philosopher Lily Tomlin observed, “Humanity invented language out of a deep need to complain.” And indeed, conversations about what’s wrong and who’s to blame are commonplace in our day-to-day lives, especially at work. What we focus on becomes our reality and absorbs our energy. If we focus on the positive, it becomes our reality and vice versa. So, instead of asking questions like “What’s wrong?” “Whose fault is it?” and “Why is this such a failure?” ask, “What’s good about this?” “What can I be grateful for?” and “What can I learn from this?”
- Practice mindfulness. Recovery from the shared trauma of COVID stress might be a long road, but mindfulness can help us through all the stages of the journey. “Mindfulness is the idea of learning how to be fully present and engaged in the moment, aware of your thoughts and feelings without distraction or judgment,” according to headspace.com.
With so many of us worried about the future during the pandemic, learning to be more attentive to the present could help. Plenty of research supports mindfulness as a way to improve well-being. A variety of scientific research supports the premise that mindfulness practices can improve your well-being (and help you manage COVID stress). Being more mindful:
- Reduces the signs of biological stress.
- Helps decrease anxiety, negative emotions and depressive symptoms.
- Improves sleep quality and decreases fatigue.
Mindfulness involves the non-judgmental acceptance of “what is.” Mindfulness expert Chade-Meng Tan asserts that “The practice of mindfulness is a gateway into the experiences of interconnectedness and interdependence out of which stem emotionally intelligent actions, new ways of being and ultimately, greater happiness, clarity, wisdom and kindness.” Wow! Who wouldn’t want to sign up for that!
Mindfulness is a simple tool that can help you manage COVID stress. You don’t have to be an expert to experience its benefits; you just have to keep practicing.
Why not try some or all of the following exercises, adapted from Mindful Leader, by yourself or with family, friends or colleagues?
One-Minute Breathing Exercise
When you feel internal or external conflict, like that from stress, your body kicks into fight-or-flight mode. One reaction is you start taking short, shallow breaths. This increases body tension, one cause of increased anxiety.
A mindful way to offset the reaction is to:
- Breathe in through your nose for four seconds.
- Hold your breath for two seconds.
- Exhale for six seconds.
- Repeat five times.
5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Exercise
Surprisingly, our mind wanders from the present as often as 70% of our waking hours. We dwell on or replay the past and project into the future as we try to anticipate the unknown.
When stressed, we ruminate on things, repeatedly thinking about past or potential events and attaching negative emotions to them. This reaction results in chronically elevated levels of adrenaline and cortisol and is a source of anxiety and fear-based responses.
A grounding exercise can help return your focus to the present moment and reality. It also helps you reboot the parasympathetic “rest and digest” part of your nervous system.
- Take a few deep breaths and settle into your body.
- Name five things you can see.
- Name four things you can touch.
- Name three things you can hear.
- Name two things you can smell.
- Name one thing you can taste.
- Continue breathing deeply and repeat as necessary.
The Big Shrug
If you haven’t noticed, your body serves as an early alert system that tips you off to the felt experience of stress. Tightened shoulders and clenched fists and jaws are some of the ways that your body reacts to stress. When your body reacts with tension, your brain keeps your mind racing with worry and is on high alert. This mindfulness exercise can ease pent-up tension:
- Sit with your feet flat on the floor and your hands in your lap. Close your eyes.
- Focus on your shoulder and neck muscles. Notice how they feel.
- Gently tighten your shoulders, bringing them as close to your ears as possible. Think of it as a big shrug. Hold the position while counting to five.
- Notice the feeling in your shoulders, then relax and drop them as low as you can. Focus on how different your shoulders feel now.
- Repeat five times.
Another practice that brings gentle attention to your body’s tension-carrying muscle groups when you experience stress is the body scan. Try this:
- Lie down and put a cushion under your head for support.
- Close your eyes and focus on your breathing.
- Focus on each part of your body, starting from your feet and working your way up. Continue breathing in and out.
- As you scan your body, pay attention to any part that feels tense. Breathe into those.
- End the practice after focusing on your head. The entire exercise should take 20 minutes or less.
Sometimes, our stress is caused by rumination, such as being unable to let go of a negative, distressing thought. Other times, it’s the opposite: A thought is so disturbing that we try to push it out of our mind, only to find that it won’t go away.
Rather than fight negative thoughts and feelings, accept them and recognize that they are only temporary. What’s important is to distinguish between the thoughts and feelings you have about a situation and its reality. Try this exercise:
- Sit comfortably with your phone off.
- Close your eyes or gaze softly at a fixed point.
- Observe your thoughts as though they are clouds in the sky. View them as external entities — for example as clouds passing over a mountain. They are not who you are.
These days we all need a little extra help in gaining a different perspective, leaning on each other for support and practicing mindfulness. It’s the only way we’ll get through the pandemic together.
Go With the Flow co-columnist Dr. Jeff Thoren is the founder of Gifted Leaders and an expert coach specializing in leadership and team development. He is one of only five veterinarians in the world to hold a credential from the International Coaching Federation. Co-columnist Trey Cutler has a law practice focused exclusively on veterinary transactions and veterinary business law matters.
The word “shrug” dates to the 14th century. Universally, a shrug is “a shoulder motion meant to express indifference, want of an answer, etc.,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. Android users will recognize the shrug emoji at left.