Monday Mornings with Madison

How to De-Stress in times of Anxiety, Uncertainty and Fear

Word Count: 1,610
Estimated Read Time: 6 min.

It is normal to feel anxiety, nervousness and fear in these uncertain times.  In addition to social distancing and flattening the curve, stress is another of the buzz words circulating around Zoom, GoToMeeting and Skype sessions – our virtual water coolers — these days.  Those who haven’t already lost their jobs are worried that they will.  Those who are still working are either working from home in isolation or are overwhelmed with work such as healthcare workers.  Workloads are increasing while hours and pay are decreasing.  For many, such as teachers, duties are expanding beyond their expertise (and any conceivable 40-hour work week).  Retailers and restaurant owners are wondering if their businesses will survive sheltering in place.  And, illness looms around every corner.  Never have so many been so deeply distressed all at the same time.  It would be odd if people didn’t feel stressed.

How We Deal with Stress

According to the Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine, stress is simply the body’s reaction to change and uncertainty.  The Mayo Clinic indicates that the human body is hard-wired to react to stress in ways meant to protect against threats from predators and other aggressors.

When a person perceives a threat or any jarring change or uncertainty, the hypothalamus — a tiny region at the brain’s base — sets off an alarm system in the body.  Nerve and hormonal signals then prompt the adrenal glands to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.  Adrenaline increases the heart rate, elevates blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances the brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues.  Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. For example, it alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This sophisticated physical alarm system also alerts the parts of the brain that control mood, motivation and fear.  This is all meant to help the body deal with (fight off) any threat.  Once the perceived threat passes, hormone levels return to normal. As adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, the heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other systems resume their regular activities.  All is well again.

In Times of Distress

However, when stressors are always present and that feeling of being under attack is constant, that fight-or-flight reaction remains “ON 24/7.”   The problem is that it is not okay to live with so much continual stress.  Stress can also kill.  The long-term activation of the stress-response system and the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones disrupts almost all body processes.

Continually high levels of stress can wreak havoc on digestive and nervous systems, leading to ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, recurrent headaches, high blood pressure and heart attacks.  The psychological impact can result in burnout (losing interest in everything) and depression.   Long-term stress places prolonged or extreme pressure on coping mechanisms and can become a clinical problem that requires professional help.

Stress sometimes comes from an internal source such as how someone perceives a situation. The very thoughts a person has can worsen a stress reaction.  For example:  A person sees an interview of an epidemiologist who predicts what would happen if the pandemic were to spread unabated.  This person then watches a movie about a pandemic.  And then, that person allows his own imagination to think the worst case scenario of what will happen.  According to doctors, just imagining a catastrophe is enough to trigger the person’s body to go into a stress reaction.

Of course, external factors – such as an illness or being laid off from work or having to close a business — obviously also drives stress. Right now, there is a one clear external source of stress that is creating other stressors:  Covid-19.  Pressure from this pandemic is forecast to be prolonged (at least months) and extreme.  So how do we de-stress in the face of relentless distress?

Time to De-Stress

In times of great distress, it is important to de-stress.  The goal is to not to eliminate stress (as that is not really possible) but rather to decrease or relieve stress enough so as to keep it from creating health issues.  For example, in 2008, when the economy was imploding and people were struggling with anxiety, uncertainty and fear, people adopted a multitude of strategies to “de-stress”.  They watched funny movies.  They did some volunteer work for a good cause.  They got together with friends for a game night.  They took a spinning class at the gym.  They went to Shul or Church.  However, because of social distancing and shelter-in-place orders, none of those strategies can be used today.  Many of the usual strategies for coping with stress are off limits.  No gyms.  No dining out.  No socializing with others over drinks or dinner.  No family gatherings.  No attending religious services.  So what is a stressed and isolated person to do?  Fear not.  There are still a multitude of things to help de-stress.

1. Shut out negative thoughts. Mary Engelbriet once said “If you don’t like something change it; if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.” While it is difficult if not impossible to eliminate all stimulus that feeds stress, such as the news, it is possible to limit it and also change one’s response to it.  It starts by calming the mind.  Keep a list of everything that causes stress.  Conversations with a pessimistic friend.  Reading the news.   Hearing about how many people are filing for unemployment.  Pinpoint the feelings that every item on the list produces.  Cut back on what brings the most stress.  Ask:  “Is my reaction appropriate or over the top?  Is worrying about this adding value to my life?”  And, avoid the “what if” trap of imagining all the things that can go wrong.  Remember, the body will react to imaginary stress the same way it reacts to real stress.

2.  Take control of your physical space. Since so many are forced to stay home, it is time to make home better.  For those working from home, create a workspace in your home that is pleasant, bright, well-lit and comfortable.   Play some soft, uplifting music in the background to keep you company.  Prepare a nice breakfast or lunch to enjoy as a picnic on a porch or terrace or garden.  For those still reporting to work, make home a calm, clean and caring place to shake off the trials and trauma.

3.  Get physical. Relieve some tension and clear the mind by doing something physical.   Replace a former two-hour commute in rush-hour traffic with a brisk walk past a lake or garden or meadow.  Burn calories and elevate the heart on a treadmill. Do laps in the swimming pool if there is one at home.  Have a little dance party to favorite tunes.

One imaginative man in the UK measured and roped off a rectangular path in his back yard and ran around it 1000 times in 6 hours, equal to having run a marathon while his family videotaped him and cheered.  Now that is creative!

Do whatever is necessary to get active.  The activity will get your endorphins pumping (the brain chemicals that make us feel good) and focus your mind on your body instead of your stress.

4.  Get creative. Doing something new and different will help make involuntary distancing more palatable.  Grow an herb garden in a window box?   Take up coloring or painting.  Make some online photo books with digital photos.   Practice playing a new song on an instrument you play but may have neglected for a while.  Watch YouTube videos to learn how to knit, crochet or make a quilt.  The tools needed for any of these activities can be bought at Walmart or Target while doing groceries and picking up medicines.

5.  Do Spring Cleaning. There has never been a better time for Spring Cleaning.  It is a great time to organize closets, drawers, pantries, garages, digital files and attics.  Wash linens.  Deodorize fabrics.  Besides eliminating clutter, cleaning and disinfecting has the added benefit of making everything germ-free, which is great during a pandemic.

Why not combine a few of these activities.  Clean out drawers.  Take old school t-shirts and combine squares from each one to create a quilt.

6.  Start a Journal. Writing is a great way to get fears and negative thoughts out and onto paper.  Once written, these thoughts often lose their power to paralyze and torment.  If journaling is a bit vague, write a Gratitude Journal, listing one item per day.  For those who are better writers, perhaps write a story, poem or novel.  There are plenty of idea generators out there too, if one doesn’t come to mind.  By putting pen to paper, we are able to express – and purge – that which is preoccupying.

7.  Play Games. Soduko.  Words with Friends.  Scrabble (if you have someone else to play with).  Crossword puzzles.  Chess.  Games keep the mind engaged and help stave off degenerative diseases.

8.  Support a Charity. There are ways to do volunteer work for an organization completely online.  For example, the UNV program is the United Nations’ online volunteering platform and offers dozens of online opportunities globally. Like the rest of the UN’s efforts, the UNV strives to boost sustainable human development.  Finding a project through this platform means doing truly meaningful work.

If none of this resonates, then figure something else out.  But, don’t just sit and worry.  Nothing is gained from fretting about what will be.  As the adage goes, “Never borrow sorrow from tomorrow.”

Quote of the Week

“There are often great lessons to be learned at the roots of stress. Don’t let the magnitude of the circumstance blind you to the value of the lesson.” Steve Maraboli


© 2020, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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