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  • Kristen Zaleski, PhD, LCS

7 Tips for Decreasing Stress Caused by the Covid-19 Pandemic (Written for Courts Today Magazine)

If you are like thousands of other Americans right now, you aren’t sleeping well, your eating habits are thrown off, and you might be more impatient than ever. With the sudden disruption to daily life, everyone’s body is adjusting, and many were not prepared to stock toilet paper in case of an emergency like this. Though the work commute traffic is lighter than normal, everyday activities that we have taken for granted like grocery shopping and eating out have all been changed at a rapid pace. Stress often gets a bad rap for being a negative experience, but it is actually a very healthy body response to adapting to out of the ordinary, or uncomfortable, experiences. Stress is experienced differently by everyone- constipation, headaches, insomnia are all physical representations of stress being experienced by your body. Emotionally it can involve feelings of restlessness, agitation, anger, nightmares, and even depression. How are you coping with the stress in your body? Here are some simple activities to help your body decompress and do what biologists refer to as “down-regulate your nervous system” from feeling agitated to feeling calmer.

  • Take deep, deep breaths. Anxiety and stress often cause us to only breathe as deep as our chest, but deep breaths involve stomach based, longer inhales. A common exercise to ensure you are breathing deeply is to put one hand on your chest and another on your stomach. Take a breath, is your chest hand rising first and your stomach hand rising second? Or is the only hand rising your chest hand? Try to get both hands to move up and down as you take a breath. Doing this for 60 seconds can have immediate benefits to your sense of calm. Read more on diaphragmic breathing here:

  • Once you master a deep breath from your diaphragm, see if you can slow your breath down and only take 4-5 breaths in a minute. Did you know it is physiologically impossible to have a panic attack when you are taking 4-5 breaths a minute? This is a great strategy for people who suffer from panic disorder and need something to help calm them in moments of real arousal and fear. See more on slower breathing here:

  • On the topic of breathing for relaxation, there are multiple free services that will take you through a simple breathing exercise, guiding each step so you don’t have to do it alone (especially if it's new to you).  Now that the Covid-19 pandemic has taken hold in our world, many mediation apps are offering free trials that you can download and take advantage of. More information here:

  • Taking time to clean out the areas you spend the most time in is a great way to ‘detox’ your environment from the stress in your body. Moving away from meditation, what are other ways you can engage in relaxing your body and mind? Have you tried to clean a drawer? Or the front seat of your car? There is nothing like waking up in a clean bed and clean room to start the day in a relaxed way, right? But don’t get overwhelmed if you have neglected your living spaces for a while. Just start small. There are great guides on how to get started slowly, like this one:

  • Create a to do list that is reasonable with expectations.  Society has slowed down which includes having kids at home and more dishes to be done since no one is eating out anymore. As a result, it might seem like items on your to do list are harder and harder to do. This is the reality of our life right now and being honest with yourself (and those who put expectations on you) is important. What do you do every day already? Home school your kids? Empty the dishwasher? Do the laundry? Put those things in your to do list so you can feel the joy of crossing it off your list. And add one or two other things to help you feel productive for your day. Generally, we can only truly concentrate in 10-20 minute increments, so give yourself lots of breaks and even a reward when you finish a project. Here are some tips on being more productive if you need it:

  • Spend Quality Time with Loved Ones. Who do you really love being around? Are there people in your life you haven’t connected with in a while? This is a unique time across the world because people have more time to write emails and talk on the phone than usual daily life. Reconnect with an old high school friend you have only kept up with on Facebook and relive some memories from your past. If you are single and finding yourself lonely for intimacy, maybe now is the time to set up that dating profile you haven’t had time to do. Tips on virtual connections here:

  • Animal Assistance Therapy. Do you love animals but haven’t had time to commit to one yourself? Now that you are home more than ever, animal shelters are looking for volunteers to temporarily house a dog or cat for the next few weeks. Spending time with animals has been found to be very beneficial for stress relief and even decreasing feelings of isolation and loneliness. Read about the benefits of animal therapy here:

These strategies are simple ways you can start to calm the understandable discomfort our bodies are in during this time. Don’t be hard on yourself for having these feeling and honor your body’s energy levels which may be lower than normal because of the collective stress we all are under. These 7 strategies are designed to be simple, time efficient ways to begin to regulate your stress and also be more in touch with yourself. However, for some of us who have trauma history and significant losses, this time can be very hard. If you need to talk to a mental health professional, reach out! Many therapists are now virtual and available at all hours of the workday. Some states are creating hotlines designed for COVID-19 anxiety and depression so check your local state office to see what is free for you to take advantage of. 

If you, or someone you care about, are feeling overwhelmed with emotions like sadness, depression, or anxiety, or feel like you want to harm yourself or others call 911.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA’s) Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746. (TTY 1-800-846-8517)

Kristen Zaleski PhD LCSW is a Clinical Associate Professor at the University of Southern California Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. She has a private practice in Culver City, CA.

Originally published for Courts Today Magazine on April 7, 2020 found here:

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