Right now, many of us are living lives very differently. We are experiencing changes that we never imagined. Whether we are working long hours in front line services, unemployed, furloughed, working from home, home schooling, caring for others, volunteering, being shielded or have been sick or bereaved, the changes have been sudden and in most cases, quite drastic. Change can feel liberating, exciting, peaceful but it can also be stressful as our bodies and minds deal with the new normal and process the thoughts feelings and emotions that these circumstances create.
Stress is a fact of life, it’s natural and it can be helpful and constructive in the short term but extremely harmful to our mental and physical health if it continues and becomes long term, or chronic. In this current health crisis, managing our levels of stress has never been more important, because chronic stress weakens the immune system. At this time, our immune system is the one amazing thing we have to fight this virus. Even those that are hospitalised and given oxygen and drugs to stabalise their condition are treated this way to give the immune system time to work, ultimately, it’s the body/mind that kills the virus, just like it does with many other pathogens. And we can do so much to allow the immune system to do it’s job well. What we eat, drink, how we move and sleep all affects the cells needed to do this incredible job. And so does how we manage stress. When we are stressed for long periods of time, the body cannot heal itself the way it was designed to do.
So, what happens when we’re stressed? When a stressful, worrying or anxious situation occurs, we activate the ‘fear centre’ in the brain that triggers a cascade of hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline into the bloodsteam that prepares our bodies to fight or flee. So, for those wonderful health and social care staff who are dealing with patients on the front line, stress hormones can be very useful and will give them the burst of energy, the concentration, clarity and speed needed to care, treat and make decisions. This is our natural defense that is a vital part of our survival in times of trouble. We used to use it to run away from saber-toothed tigers, now it’s helpful, not just for the key workers dealing with the pandemic, but also when we do a presentation, play sport, take an exam and so on.
However, when we don’t ‘switch off’ and we stay in a state of stress for long periods of time we become chronically stressed. In a state of chronic stress, we overwork the adrenal glands and the body becomes unable to function properly, mentally, physically and emotionally and we are less able to rest, digest and heal.
“…over time, stress hormones will weaken your immune system and reduce your body’s response to foreign invaders. People under chronic stress are more susceptible to viral illnesses like the flu and the common cold, as well as other infections. Stress can also increase the time it takes you to recover from an illness or injury.” https://www.healthline.com/health/stress/effects-on-body#7
The good news is that we can learn to manage stress in a way that is helpful and empowering and good for our long term health and wellbeing. We can recognise when the hormones of stress are being released and learn how to switch them off, replacing them with a cocktail of chemicals that give us access to feelings of calm, contentment, peace, love, joy, compassion and so on. And it is in this state that our immune system gets repaired, renewed and stimulated, we are able to digest food effectively, think rationally and sleep well and therefore heal.
Here’s a few ideas of how we can manage stress and help build immunity:
- Recognise the signs of stress, whether it’s a fast heart rate, feeling tense, exhausted, shaky, anxious, tearful, moody. angry or unable to sleep, eating too much or too little, having headaches or poor concentration. These are just some of the signs that you are still in fight or flight mode. When you become aware of how you feel, you can change it.
- Take a deep breathe. This allows the mind a moment to pause while you consider all the things you can do to interrupt the pattern of stress and take a conscious decision to change it. You see it’s how you perceive and then react to any situation that determines whether you ‘switch off’ the state of stress or not. The mind doesn’t know the difference between real and imagined and so when you focus on the worst that could happen, go over and over something bad that has happened, you stay in a state of fear, even if the situation has passed or what might come could be better. So take a breath, focus on the present and make a decision and know that instead of allowing ‘it’ to happen to you, you can, in this moment, take responsibility for how you react to any situation. You have a choice to believe you can control your feelings or that you are at the mercy of them.
- Physically move to distract the brain. When it’s 3.00 am and you’re wide awake, worries can seem far worse than during day but lying there trying to sleep won’t help, so get out of bed, stretch, make a warm drink (avoiding caffeine), read, or do something relaxing that will distract both your mind and body (avoid screen time though!) and get into the moment, telling yourself you are safe and warm right now. The same applies during the day, if you’re sitting, get up and move, and if you can get do some aerobic exercise, you’ll not only feel energised but the benefits to your mental health both in the long and short term are widely known. If you’re charging around in a state of stress, just stop what you’re doing, take a breath and find something else to look at, hear, do to distract yourself. It brings you into the present moment and gives you that time to choose to take control of your feelings.
- Nature is where we are meant to be. We are part of it and studies prove that when we see, hear, smell and experience nature, we generate the release hormones such as dopamine and seretonin that help us to feel calm and at peace. And when we are releasing these feel good hormones, we cannot continue to be in a state of stress at the same time. So go for a walk in nature if you can. Just 20 minutes in nature can generate calmness that can last for up to seven hours. And did you know that trees breathe out chemicals that boost the immune system? How amazing is that! So you get more than just a feeling of calm when you’re able to breathe in nature. If you live in a city and don’t have access to a large green space right now, just being outside feeling the breeze and seeing the sky will still help. If you can’t get outside, open a window, listen to the birds, watch the trees or tend a pot plant! It’s still better than not acknowledging nature at all. “Research in a growing scientific field called ecotherapy has shown a strong connection between time spent in nature and reduced stress, anxiety, and depression.” https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/sour-mood-getting-you-down-get-back-to-nature
- We all like a whinge, don’t we, and the occasional moan doesn’t hurt anyone. However, when this becomes a habit and you waste time and energy thinking or talking to others about what’s wrong with the world, how bad things are or how others are behaving badly, you’re just ramping up the stress. Remember, real or imagined, the body will respond to what you’re feeding it through the mind. The news and media can feed this negativity, the language of fear and devastation is used deliberately to sell stories, so switch off news alerts and be choosey about how, what and when you access news feeds. There’s nothing that is happening that you will need to know urgently, it can wait until a time of your choosing. There is both good and bad stuff happening without your influence so why focus on the bad? Ask yourself, can you do anything about the bad stuff? If not, forget it, it will happen with or without your disapproval. If you can do something about it, do it, help, educate, inform, support. All of these altruistic acts signal the release of feel good hormones, give you a sense of achievement and empowerment and might just help the world become a better place.
- Write a very specific list of how you want to feel and what you can do to create those feelings. This might seem a bit much, but when you’re feeling stressed it’s hard to think of specific things that will help to make you feel better, it can seem overwhelming and we can get stuck with how we don’t want to feel, and what we don’t want to do and this just keeps the cycle of stress going. So having a go-to list is like getting some great advice from some wise person that loves you and is your best friend! Energy flows where focus goes, so focus on what you can do and how you want to feel instead. Naming those emotions is really important to train your brain to connect with what you want to feel. Language is the code to our thoughts and feelings and studies show that we use far more emotional words connected with worry, stress, anxiety than we do those that generate calm and happiness. You can consciously change this. https://www.tonyrobbins.com/mind-meaning/change-your-words-change-your-life/
- Thinking about these things and feelings and writing them down is a start but unless you act on them, nothing will change in the long run so once you’ve made the list, decide which things can become part of your daily or weekly routine and which are there as a tool for when you need them.Those things that you’ve decided can help you to enjoy life and feel the way you want to could be incorporated into your life in whatever way works best for you. This helps to keep you consciously in control. When we feel in control, we feel empowered, when we feel empowered, we feel we have a sense of purpose (to keep well) and when we feel like this, we cannot stay in a state of chronic stress.
- To truly feel those emotions you want and not just think about them you have to use strong ‘anchors’ – these are the triggers that allow you to experience them. For example, music has always been a powerful anchor for me. I have playlists for different moods – calming, uplifting, energising, joyful etc. If I’m finding it tricky to shift worry or stressful feelings, I have a place near where I live that I go to and put on a playlist that always starts with Peter Gabriel’s ‘The Book Of Love’ and I can literally feel my heart open, my energy change and I feel both calm and uplifted. So I’ve physically moved, walked amongst nature and anchored my senses to a song that triggers pure joy. Other anchors might be videos to make you laugh, images that remind you of good times, activities such as gardening, cleaning or exercising to give you energy or meditation, yoga, or a mantra to help you to feel calm and safe.
- Whether you live alone or with a houseful of people, in these times of forced isolation, you may not be able to be with those that help you to feel better about life ‘in the flesh’ so making time to have a virtual catch up, even over coffee or dinner can help. If you have someone close to talk about how you feel then don’t be afraid to offload. When you acknowledge how you feel it can help to calm you and the feeling of being listened to is therapeutic. Sometimes it’s good just to get confirmation that what you are feeling is normal and that, if you then put into place some of the other suggestions here, it will pass. If it doesn’t, then it’s also OK to seek professional help. When you’re ready to change how you feel, consciously connect with those that create positive energy and make you smile and spend as little time as you need to with those that bring you down. This includes social media. Notice how it makes you feel when you scroll through your news feeds. If it doesn’t feel good, be more selective about what you access. Take time out to be alone if you live with others and nerves are beginning to fray. Explaining that you want time alone may actually be a relief to those around you too!
- Drink plenty of water. This might sound obvious or may seem unrelated to stress and the immune system, however, most of us are dehydrated and some of the signs and symptoms are the same as those we feel when we’re stressed, such as fatigue, poor concentration and irritability so it’s worth eliminating this as a cause of how you’re feeling, plus, water helps to rid the body of toxins that create inflammation and stress within the body.
- Eat well. When you’re stressed, you often crave foods that actually make it worse. It’s because the body is craving foods high in sugar to prepare you for running away from a saber-toothed tiger! As that’s unlikely, it just increases the amount of sugar in the blood, which disrupts the endocrine system and so increases stress. Sugar and processed foods are the ones to avoid, despite your cravings. Eating plenty of vegetables and foods containing B vitamins will support your central nervous system and bring your hormones back into balance. For more information on foods that support the immune system, take alook at my previous blog. https://alisonharriswellbeing.co.uk/2020/04/01/food-is-medicine-how-to-boost-your-immune-system/
- And lastly, be kind to yourself, don’t beat yourself up for feeling stressed. We are living in strange times and so rememb that stress is natural, it’s designed to protect us, we just have to learn how to make it work for us instead of against us. And learning takes practice. So, practice self compassion and remind yourself of all you have to be thankful for right now. Wishing you peace, health and happiness.