Opinion: Self-care is important to relieving stress and anxiety
Dr. William Elsass and Dr. Meredith Smith
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
The kids are now at home, demanding your attention and time while you are working from a home office. Perhaps you are not working at all at the moment, due to a forced layoff or business closure. Or, you could be working long hours as a caregiver, healthcare professional, first responder or other essential employee.
Regardless of your situation during COVID-19, you are probably like thousands of other Americans, struggling with increased stress and anxiety during these trying times. The added weight of financial burdens, job demands and caring for children can have a significant effect on both our physical and mental well-being.
Stress can cause mild to severe symptoms, impacting some people in a more extreme way than others. On the physical side, stress can cause headaches, an upset stomach, muscle tension, rapid heartbeat and insomnia. Mentally, increased anxiety or depression can occur, along with lack of motivation or feelings of anger or frustration.
Failing to understand and deal with stress can have lasting impacts on our health and relationships. So how can we best keep our stress under control?
Make time for yourself. As parents or co-workers, we often put our needs on the backburner, taking care of others before taking care of ourselves. If you were on an airplane losing oxygen, you would put your own mask on before helping others. In times of stress, it is not only OK to take time for yourself, it is essential. Throughout the day, simply taking 10 or 15 minutes of “me time” can calm nerves and relieve tension. A short walk through the neighborhood, working in the garden or meditating for 10 minutes just twice a day can be a game changer. If your home environment is one where finding private space is difficult, try taking a long bath or shower as a way to carve out your alone time.
Make peace with what you do or do not have control over. Stress often comes from not having control over our environment or certain situations, like COVID-19. There are some situations we simply cannot change, but we can look at them from positive perspectives. We cannot go out to eat to our favorite restaurant right now, and that is disappointing. We can look at the positive sides of not dining out, which is we are possibly eating healthier at home or we are spending quality time with our loved ones preparing meals together. In other words, try to look at the donut, not the hole.
Breathing exercises. Breathing is the essence of life, and something we often don’t give much thought to. When experiencing stress, we tend to take quick, shallow breaths that come from the chest, which can cause our blood to not be properly oxygenated, potentially sending a stress signal that contributes to a panic attack. A simple breathing exercise to help in anxious situations begins with inhaling slowly and deeply through your nose, keeping your shoulders relaxed. Exhale slowly through your mouth, keeping your lips pursed and your jaw relaxed. Repeat for several minutes until you feel more relaxed.
Proper sleep hygiene. It can be a vicious cycle. You are stressed, so you cannot sleep. And, when you cannot sleep, it increases your stress. Adopting a proper sleep hygiene regimen can help you fall asleep quicker and sleep more soundly. This includes creating a sleep space that is just for sleeping. While in bed, don’t watch television or be tempted to finish up that report for work on your laptop. As little as 10 minutes of exercise during the day can help improve your sleep; however, try to not work out too close to bedtime. Establish a regular, relaxing bedtime routine, such as taking a warm bath, reading a book or some light stretching or meditation before going to bed at the same time each evening. Avoid screen time a few hours prior to heading to bed and consider using white noise techniques, such as ocean sounds on a phone app or turning on a fan.
Limit alcohol consumption. After a long, stressful day, it can be tempting to gravitate to a glass of wine. While having an alcoholic beverage may initially make us feel relaxed, alcohol causes higher levels of cortisol, the body’s “stress hormone.” Increased levels of cortisol can adversely affect sleep, as well as have long-term negative impacts on blood pressure, memory and focus, weight and the body’s immune system.
Remember, kindness, empathy and understanding during these stressful times will not only allow us to help others stay resilient, but will allow us to deal with our own anxiety and stress. Take care of yourself and each other.
Dr. William Elsass is the chief medical officer for Mind Spring Health and works out of the mental health provider’s Frisco office, and Dr. Meredith Smith serves as program director for Mind Springs Health’s Summit County practice.
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