For many of us, the feelings of stress and anxiety often ebb and flow depending on external circumstances. But the circumstances we are living in now; the compounded negative effect of stay-at-home orders, unemployment, and the threat of illness for ourselves and our families, is creating a constant barrage on the efficacy of our body’s biological response to fight anxiety.
In an April 20th, 2020 article published by The American Journal of Managed Care, “nearly 7 in 10 employees indicated that the COVID-19 pandemic is the most stressful time of their entire professional career” and that “88% of workers reported experiencing moderate to extreme stress over the past 4 to 6 weeks.” That translates into a loss for employers through declines in productivity, creativity and effectiveness. Not to mention the impact on employees’ personal lives.
Already, even in our pre-COVID-19 era, a lot of mind-share was devoted to awareness of the negative impact of stress on our health and well-being. And now that we’re in a new paradigm of a global health threat that currently doesn’t have a cure, or even a preventative, the knowledge of the impact of stress, I think, is even more timely.
When we experience a stressful event like physical trauma or even the mere rumination of a potentially stressful event in the future, our body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated. It’s commonly referred to as our “fight-or-flight” response. The activation of that system releases a variety of chemicals and hormones like cortisol into the body. Chronic, continued activation of the sympathetic system, and those accompanying hormones, is associated with high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
In contrast, we also have a natural system in place that restores our body to a calm and relaxed state — the parasympathetic nervous system. And just as various physical and mental triggers activate our stress response, we can also intentionally shift our body into its relaxation response.
Each of our body’s five senses provide a variety of opportunities to relax and manage stress.
Immerse yourself in the natural world — gaze intently at the landscape, the park or even just the clouds and sky above. Stare for a few minutes at a single tree and really notice the colors and texture of the bark and leaves. The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health reported experimental results that demonstrated a lowered level of stress after just looking at photographs of nature.
Many of us listen to music while working to help us stay focused and relaxed. As an alternative, try listening to Gregorian or Buddhist chant. Simple, natural sounds like falling rain can also be deeply relaxing. One of my newest finds has been listening to the sounds of “singing bowls” made from brass or crystal. YouTube is a great source for these.
Light a scented candle, apply fragrant hand lotion or diffuse essential oil into the air with atomizers or nebulizers. Lavender, vanilla and lemon are some of the typical scents that provide relaxation. But any particular scent you love, makes you happy or that brings back good memories can help reduce stress. For me, the scent of clover immediately reminds me of my childhood — specifically the summertime laundry that was dried outdoors on the clothesline and took on the scent of the surrounding hayfields of my family’s farm.
As a response to stress, it’s common to compensate with eating — we naturally crave salt, fat and high calorie foods. But eating these foods can create imbalances and spikes in blood glucose that cause irritability and ultimately a cycle of even more stress through increased cravings. Specific nutrients and chemical compounds found within particular foods, however, can actively assist in stress reduction. Salmon, yogurt, oatmeal, nuts and berries are all good choices. And perhaps the ultimate win-win just might be dark chocolate — at 70 percent cocoa or higher, 1.4 ounces of chocolate per day can lower levels of cortisol.
Another great tutorial to walk through on YouTube is “tapping”, also known as Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT). It’s a series of gentle taps of your fingertips onto specific points of your face and upper body that help relieve tension and stress. It’s a technique that has even been adopted by professional golf, football and baseball athletes.
An important fact to remember is that any one of these techniques can make a difference in stress management. Don’t give yourself an additional burden by committing to too many. Try just one or two. When it feels right you’ll enjoy the process and more likely continue, and ultimately feel the better for it.
ELDER CARSON / CREATIVE DIRECTOR