“Health is not just about what you’re eating. It’s also about what you’re thinking and saying.”
A virus is spreading across the globe. Schools are shut down. People are out of work. Grocery stores are empty.
Weddings, graduations, vacations, a day in court—canceled.
This is the ultimate test in emotional resilience.
Uncertainty is one of the main reasons we stress, along with a lack of control, and right now we’ve got it in truckloads. I’ve spent the last decade building my mental and emotional resilience to stress and adversity, and yet fighting off the anxiety is still a challenge.
I’m putting all the tools in my toolbox to good use.
And they are working. So I want to share these tools with you.
1. Talk to someone, but limit the bitching.
It can be cathartic to share with others the fear, panic, and challenges we’re experiencing. It makes us feel not alone. It validates our feelings and makes us feel connected. So talk to someone about what is stressing you out right now.
But set a time limit to focus on the negative. Maybe ten or twenty minutes each to share. Then it’s time to change the conversation.
Here are some cues:
- What is going right?
- What are you proud of yourself for?
- What are you grateful for?
- What are you looking forward to?
- Despite the hardships, how are you coping?
- How can you encourage and praise your friend?
When we only focus on the negative, we forget what is going well and then all we can see is the bad.
I also find it incredibly helpful to notice how differently my body feels when I’m complaining, angry, and blaming than it does when I’m grateful and optimistic. One feels tight, hot, and heavy. The other feels lighter, looser, and freer.
And as I listen to my husband, mother, or friends share their pain with me, I always make it a point when they are done to change the conversation and ask them what’s going good. I can hear the tone in their voice change as they bring their thoughts to the positive.
2. Be generous.
This doesn’t need to be a gift of money!
It can be a roll of toilet paper. It can be an hour Facetiming your grandmother who is held up in her nursing home with no visitors right now. It can be offering to pick up and drop off groceries for a neighbor or making them a plate of enchiladas.
I have a three-month-old and am blessed with an ample supply of breastmilk, so donating some of my freezer stash costs me nothing, but can mean so much for a needy mother and child right now.
Generosity can even come in the form of well wishes or prayers for others dealing with difficult times.
Giving is scientifically proven to be good for your emotional health.
It activates regions of the brain “associated with pleasure, social connection, and trust, creating a ‘warm glow’ effect. It releases endorphins in the brain, producing the positive feeling known as the ‘helper’s high.’”
Giving has been linked to the release of oxytocin, a hormone that induces feelings of warmth, euphoria, and connection to others.
It’s been shown to decrease stress, which not only feels better, but lowers your blood pressure and other health problems caused by stress.
What can you give right now?
3. Take a mental break.
It’s so easy to get stuck in mental go-mode all our waking hours. Especially since our brains crave being busy or entertained.
Even when we rest, we flip through Facebook, watch TV, or daydream.
These past few weeks I haven’t been making the time to take my mental breaks. I usually meditate daily, but with a baby who doesn’t yet have an eating and sleeping schedule, plus with all the extra stresses right now, I’ve not given my mind a break!
So I could feel the anxiety creeping in. It started in the body. I felt the tension in my muscles. My jaw was tight. Breathing was shallow. And I was irritable!
I know it’s time for a mental break when something as simple as my husband leaving another towel on the banister makes me want to file for divorce. (Or end up on an episode of Dateline!)
So I put my husband on baby duty, ran on the treadmill trying to focus on my breath and not my to-do list, took a shower, and brought my attention to the warm water instead of worry over how I will get clients. Then I meditated for fifteen minutes zoning in on my breath every time my thoughts turned to worry over daycare and the coronavirus.
I felt like I’d washed my brain. The tension was gone, my mind was clear, and I no longer wanted to strangle my husband.
From our anxious place, we catastrophize as we spin out in our negativity bias. All we can see is the negative.
We need these mental breaks to create space from these ruminating thoughts. We need to hit the reset button.
A mental break is taking anywhere from thirty seconds to thirty minutes to consciously turn our attention inward, away from outside influence, as well as our flow of thoughts.
We can’t stop the flow of thoughts, but we can notice when they’ve taken our attention, and purposefully redirect that attention to something in the present moment like the breath, a mantra or sound, or a visualization.
Here are a few ways to take that mental break:
- Time in nature
- Walking, exercise, or dancing
- Practicing mindfulness
- Listening to music
Simple mental break breathing:
- Start with a re-calibrating big, big inhale, hold it, and breathe out all the way.
- Now breathe in slowly to the count of four, then hold for a second.
- When you hold, hear the silence between the breaths.
- Then breathe out to the count of four and hold for a second at the bottom.
- When you hold, feel your mind clearing as you listen for the space between inhale and exhale.
- Repeat until you feel relaxed.
4. Allow all the feels.
This stress and anxiety feel terrible. And it can be hard to muster up the strength and will to try out some of the items on this list to make yourself feel better.
But what tends to happen is we want to run from the discomfort, try to suppress it with distraction like TV or social media, or numb it with wine, food, or drugs.
It’s normal to want to avoid pain. We’re naturally geared to avoid it. However, when we block this pain from flowing, when we don’t allow ourselves to feel our emotions, they get stuck.
Emotions are energy in motion. If you stop it, it just bottles up. It doesn’t disappear.
Try this exercise to allow your emotions to flow:
- Take a moment to close your eyes and sit in a quiet space or block out distraction as best you can.
- Take a deep breath in and slowly breathe out.
- Notice the physical feelings of stress. Where are you holding it in your body? What does it feel like?
- On your next exhale, release as much tension as you can.
- “I am allowing these feelings to be present.”
- “I let these feelings flow through me.”
- “These feelings are causing me no harm.”
- Now scan your body starting from your head, jaw and neck. Shoulders and hips. Down your legs and feet. Release any tension you find along the way.
Once you’ve allowed these feelings to exist and flow, the following tool is a fantastic next step toward emotional health.
5. Express gratitude.
We humans have a natural negativity bias. It’s a mechanism in place designed with the intention of keeping us safe.
Being on the lookout for danger, in theory, might be a better tactic to keep us alive than ignoring any signs of danger for the sake of focusing on pleasantries. Like being on alert for a mountain lion instead of enjoying a bed of flowers.
But 99 percent of the time, or more, our lives are not in imminent danger. Yet the negativity bias remains.
As it turns out, much like generosity, gratitude is also scientifically proven to be good for our emotional health.
It’s shown that people who express gratitude are more optimistic and feel better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercise more and have fewer visits to physicians than those who focus on sources of aggravation.
In some studies, it’s also shown people immediately exhibiting a huge increase in happiness scores, as well as improved relationships.
Here are some ways to express gratitude:
- Write a thank-you note or email
- Thank someone mentally
- Try a gratitude journal
- Pray or meditate on something you are grateful for
6. Ask for help if you need it.
I am so proud of our communities coming together, staying home, helping each other out. If there is something you need, there are whole groups of people ready and willing to help a stranger out. I see it all day on my Facebook feed, people offering up formula or diapers, services to drop off food, or offering homeschooling tools and advice.
Thankfully, this pandemic has come during a time of advanced technological capabilities, allowing us all to connect digitally.
Doctors, teachers and coaches are now available online. From the comfort of your socially distant home, you can find help right at your fingertips.
Ask. It doesn’t make you look weak. You aren’t impositioning anyone. People inherently like to be helpful.
Especially if you need help dealing with the anxiety of our current situation. We don’t make good decisions coming from a place of fear. Now more than ever it is essential to have emotional resiliency to get through this tough time and come out the other end whole and ready to move forward.
We’ll get through this. Together, even though we’re physically apart. Wishing you much love, luck, and light on your journey.
About Sandy Woznicki
Sandy is a stress and anxiety coach and mindfulness meditation teacher helping women who deep down don’t feel good enough and are overrun by stress or fear. Her coaching and free resources like the Stress Detox Course help women to live more fully and freely. She’s happily married to her goofy husband and loves connecting with nature in beautiful Maine.