Many of us have had our world turned upside down since the World Health Organization declared SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, a global pandemic. Given the major disruptions to nearly all aspects of our routines, along with panic over scarce resources and information overload, it’s understandable that you might feel overwhelmed or afraid.
Even before the Coronavirus pandemic entered into our awareness, nearly half of young adults said that they were “extremely anxious” about meeting their basic needs, like paying bills or keeping themselves and their family safe and healthy. In fact, a study conducted by the Harvard Medical School found 31% of all adults suffered from an anxiety disorder at some time in their lives, making anxiety the most prevalent mental health condition in America.
Stressful and traumatic events affect everyone differently. Some common signs that you may be having difficulty coping with distress are:
• Feelings of numbness, disbelief, anxiety, or overwhelming sadness
• Difficulty concentrating or thinking clearly, forgetfulness, ‘brain fog’
• Increased irritability, anger, frequent arguing, or difficulty communicating or listening
• Changes in appetite, including loss of appetite, nausea, or overeating
• Disruptions to sleep, like insomnia, inability to stay asleep, or nightmares
• Physical issues like headaches, jaw tension, stomach or digestive upset, or hives
Fear, stress, and anxiety all produce inflammation and release hormones into the body that weaken the immune system. During this rapidly changing and unprecedented time of transformation on the planet, odds are that you or a loved one are trying to cope with more stress and anxiety than usual. Here are some suggestions from Vital Leaf’s CEO, Christina Sasser, to reduce anxiety and develop lasting resilience.
Nine Tips for Managing Stress & Anxiety During Difficult Times
1. STRESS REDUCTION TECHNIQUES ( MEDITATION | YOGA | TAI CHI )
A simple 10-15 minute daily meditation practice can have powerful mental and even physical effects. Metta, or Loving Kindness Meditation, has been shown to change areas of the brain that are involved in social awareness and emotional regulation, as well as improve the condition of our parasympathetic nervous system. While having a long term consistent practice is ideal, results can be achieved more quickly than one might think! This has been demonstrated by University of Oregon researchers who have observed that after only five days of mindfulness meditation, study participants reported having more positive feelings towards themselves. There are many free guided meditations available online, like those from author and psychologist Tara Brach.
Yoga & Tai-Chi are proven to reduce anxiety through the combined power of physical activity with mindfulness, or inner attention. Yoga increases GABA neurotransmitters, which create a feeling of calm or serenity, while Tai-Chi helps balance the heart rate, thus stimulating vagal modulation.
While restorative practices can feel like a warm cocoon of bliss, it’s also important to balance those practices with more activating forms of exercise, like running, hiking, and biking. Physical exercise has been shown to decrease stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Plus, it’s beneficial for your brain to actively transform anxious energy into feelings of courageousness. Using nervous energy like this can have long-lasting effects on your neurochemistry. When movement primes your brain to be social, hopeful, or brave you’re training it to adapt to a new reality.
Dance is uniquely capable of reducing anxiety and elevating mood, through brilliant creative expressions of emotions through the body. The American Dance Therapy Association centers the belief that there is a fundamental connection between mind and body; what happens in the body effectively influences the mind and vice versa. Dance often brings about feelings of joy and primes our brain for connection. Even when you dance solo, it still produces the neurochemical changes in your brain that make it more likely for you to connect with others, whether that’s your family, friends, or someone waiting behind you at the grocery store.
3. STIMULATE YOUR VAGUS NERVE
When we are in stressful situations, the sympathetic nervous system gets activated, preparing the body for fight or flight. It’s crucial to nurture the parasympathetic nervous system, or the “rest and digest” system, which regulates immune response, heart rate, digestion, and other critical functions. We can do so by stimulating the vagus nerve, the longest nerve in the body and main part of the parasympathetic nervous system.
Studies have shown that stimulating the vagus nerve, thereby increasing vagal tone, helps regulate stress responses and contributes “to resilience and the mitigation of mood and anxiety symptoms” as well as inhibits cytokine production, indicating its immunomodulating effect. Along with exercise, yoga, and meditation, here are some other ways to stimulate your vagus nerve:
1) Diaphragmatic breathing. Simply breathing deeply may be the most readily accessible and easy technique to start practicing as soon as you begin to feel anxious.
2) Cold exposure. Try ending your showers with 30 seconds of cold water!
3) Singing, humming, and gargling. The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal chords and the muscles in the back of the throat, and doing any of these activities can stimulate it.
4) Laughing! Laughter is a natural immune booster, and it also has a positive effect on the vagus nerve. Watch Stand-Up Comedy or a favorite comedic film. Seek for and celebrate moments of lightness and humor.
4. EAT WELL AND STAY HYDRATED
The power and influence of diet can’t be underestimated. Consuming too many or too few calories can increase anxiety symptoms, and poor diet may lead to moodiness, fatigue, abnormal blood sugar, inflammation, and even weight gain. Stress tempts many of us to turn to sweets, processed foods, caffeine and alcohol for a feel-good fix, but being sure to incorporate healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, and lean protein into your diet can go a long way toward staying healthy.
When overwhelm takes over it can be tough to get inspired to cook. Making a list of your favorite easy, comforting, healthy meals can be a good way to stay on track. Eating foods rich in probiotics, B vitamins, calcium, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids can be beneficial. In mice, diets low in magnesium were shown to increase anxiety-related behaviors. Magnesium-rich foods may, therefore, help people to feel more calm. Sources of dietary magnesium include leafy greens like spinach and, surprisingly, dark chocolate!
Along with good nutrition, it’s important to stay hydrated and drink water. Dehydration increases cortisol levels and can have other negative consequences like dampening your mood, fatigue, headaches, and slowing the pumping of blood to your brain and vital organs. The human body is composed of 60% water, and the lungs are a surprising 83% water, so it’s essential to maintaining healthy function!
5. GET PLENTY OF SLEEP
There is strong evidence to suggest that sleep and the circadian rhythm play a crucial role in immune function. Along with developing healthy sleep habits, research shows that CBD may be helpful in increasing sleeping time and reducing insomnia.
6. SUPPLEMENT WITH CBD
One of the primary reasons that many people turn to phytocannabinoids, like CBD, is to help address their anxiety. At the International Cannabinoid Research Society symposium in 2019, Harvard University scientist Staci Gruber shared promising results from “the first open-label to double-blind clinical trial” designed to examine the impact of a high-CBD sublingual tincture in those who experience anxiety. Gruber stated that preliminary data indicates “significant improvement following four weeks of treatment when compared to baseline. Specifically, findings suggest that the use of a whole plant-derived high CBD sublingual tincture results in less severe anxiety and fewer anxiety-related symptoms.”
7. GET TO KNOW HEALING PLANT ALLIES
Beyond the world of cannabis and CBD, there are so many other healing plant allies. Teas, essential oils, tinctures, and topicals are all great choices for bringing additional anxiety-reducing herbs into your life.
Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb, used in Ayurvedic medicine, that can reduce cortisol and has shown promising results as an alternative to anti-anxiety medications, without the harmful side effects.
Kava, traditionally used by Pacific Islanders for hundreds of years, is rich in kavalactones which, like CBD, work on endocannabinoid receptor sites. Traditionally made into a drink and served in a coconut half shell, it’s inspired many trendy Kava Bars worldwide. But it’s no wonder that this earthy, bitter-tasting medicinal root has become so popular. It has been shown to significantly reduce anxiety symptoms, induce sleep, boost sociability by stimulating dopamine receptors, and may even be neuroprotective.
Other herbs that may soothe anxiety include Rhodiola Rhodesia, St. John’s Wort, Bacopa, Passionflower, Valerian, Lemon Balm, Chamomile, and Lavender. Check with your doctor or naturopath about contraindications or interactions with medications you are on before incorporating new herbs into your supplement routine.
8. FIND WAYS TO STAY CONNECTED
Although we are being asked to socially distance, which for many of us means feelings of isolation and loneliness, remember that you are not alone. Reach out to others, like friends, family, co-workers, or even a counselor offering telehealth sessions. New and old apps like Houseparty, Jitsi, Facetime, and Marco Polo are all platforms to keep us connected even when we’re apart. Finding ways to be of help or be of service to others can also boost feelings of connection. Check in with neighbors, friends, or family that might be extra vulnerable during this time to see if there is a way that you can support them.
9. PRACTICE RADICAL SELF-LOVE
Lastly, as you move through life in the days and weeks ahead during this particularly strange and stressful time on the planet, be gentle on yourself and others, and practice radical self-love. This means accepting yourself as you are, including the current situation, your mental health right now, and your life, without question or blame. When you begin to notice your critical monkey mind start to spin, Ram Dass’ mantra, “I am loving awareness”, is a powerful one to repeat to yourself with diaphragmatic breathing.