Nothing about this time is normal. Worries about COVID-19, our jobs, our families and just the general disruption of this new way of living have all added to our stress levels. And we know that stress causes our immune system to become unbalanced, making us susceptible to illness.
We’re all grappling with this in different ways. We’re having daily chats with friends over Zoom, throwing ourselves into our work (if we’re lucky!), watching Netflix, baking up a storm – whatever we can do to find support and a little distraction from the news.
However, anxiety is our body’s way of telling us that something is out of balance. So, now is the time to get still and listen. Here are some key tips that are proven to be effective in lowering stress and minimising anxiety.
During times of stress, it’s normal to reach for sugary, processed food as a form of comfort. As tempting as it is, junk food depletes our immune system and causes inflammation in the body, whereas a healthy whole-foods diet will help keep your anxiety at bay. Focus on antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, well-sourced proteins, whole grains and complex carbohydrates like sweet potatoes.
When you eat is also essential. Skipping meals causes your blood sugar to crash, which makes your body produce cortisol (the stress hormone) and adrenaline. The reason that missing a meal often makes you feel jittery is because your body goes into an all-out stress response, worsening any underlying anxiety.
Sleep is the best stress medicine. It’s genuinely one of the most important things you can do to bolster your immune system and, as you know, a strong immune system can fight off infection.
A healthy amount of sleep is six to seven hours a night, but that isn’t as easy as it used to be! Our circadian rhythm (a.k.a our body clock) is cued by light, so it’s important you get strategic about it and turn off all of your screens (yes, that means Netflix) at least 30 minutes before bed, dim the lights and create a calming nighttime ritual. Try picking up a book or listening to some soothing music. Getting your body into a regular bedtime and wake-up schedule is vital.
Getting at least 30 minutes of exercise during the day is vital to fighting disease and reducing symptoms of anxiety. Not only does it produce endorphins, but it also improves sleep, energy, mood, brain function and alertness. Studies have shown that even a short amount of exercise can deliver several hours of relief, similar to taking pain medication for a headache.
With that said, not everyone wants to do a HIIT class or go for a jog because it may be too intense and actually trigger anxious feelings. Sometimes gentle yoga or a long walk is best. It’s important to listen to your body and find what works for you.
Research shows that mindfulness meditation is a great way to reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety. If you’ve never tried it before or never had the time, well… opportunity knocks!
Meditation helps you focus on your breathing and stay present, which allows you to engage the rational parts of your brain better. Start by practising deep breathing and meditation for 10 minutes a day and then strengthen it little by little. It doesn’t matter if your mind wanders – just showing up is the goal, so pat yourself on the back and schedule in time for it again the next day.
Research shows that walking in nature has a calming effect. If you can, get outside for at least 30 minutes a day and soak up some vitamin D – it helps support your immune system to fight off respiratory illness. A lack of exposure to sunlight can alter your mood and cause psychological distress.
Spending time in nature can also help your perspective and also has the potential to balance the autonomic nervous system and reduce your body’s stress response. Plus taking time for yourself to slow down and relax is so important right now.