By: Esther Sternberg, MD
The COVID-19 pandemic is causing massive infection rates and with it the need to stay at home to prevent the spread of the virus. Together, these are fueling stress on a worldwide scale.
Are you seeking ways to cope with the pandemic? If so, you are certainly not alone, as billions of people are experiencing the same thing. To combat stress, you can do what a Navy fighter jet pilot once told me he was taught to do: Harness your stress response and make it work for you.
Take control of your stress
The brain’s stress response is a funny thing – the same brain pathways that make you feel stressed also give you the energy to fight or flee, to accomplish the task at hand and to perform at your peak. So how do you shift from feeling stressed to feeling exhilarated? Gain control!
When I asked the fighter pilot whether he felt stressed when he was landing his plane on an aircraft carrier in a storm in the middle of the night, he told me that he felt all of the things we associate with stress – he was sweating, his heart was beating fast and he wanted to run to the bathroom. But he was trained to listen to his stress response and make it work for him. He knew that it was telling him to “change course.” As soon as he adjusted the flight path, he felt in control, and he shifted from feeling stressed to feeling exhilarated.
Elite athletes are also trained to do this to help them stay in the zone. And you can do the same. Even if you can’t do anything about the virus, you can fool your brain into thinking you are in control, and then actually gain a little bit of control.
Help others to help yourself
Research shows that altruism not only lowers stress but also boosts those feel-good “reward pathways” in the brain. I once asked the Dalai Lama whether he uses meditation to reduce stress. At first, he shook his head and wouldn’t answer – “stress,” he said was not a word in the Buddhist tradition. When I asked him, then, why he meditates, he answered with one word: love. And love, it turns out, tunes down the brain’s stress response while boosting the brains feel-good hormones.
Make your skills available to help people, even if it is online. Science tells us that by doing good and helping others, you can reduce your stress and make the world a better place, even in these most difficult times.
Reduce your stress – it is possible
It has been scientifically proven that chronic stress worsens the severity and frequency of viral infections, including influenza and the common cold. In addition to gaining control and helping others, there are many other ways to lower the stress response by using integrative and mind-body techniques.
- Cultivate social support: Social support has been shown to be an effective way to reduce the stress response, while social isolation increases it. You can lower your stress response by staying virtually connected with friends and loved ones, so that even if we are physically isolated, we are not emotionally and socially isolated. Watch out for too much screen time, though: eye strain, headaches and more stress can result. If you are working from home, try to take a short break after each video conference call. One friend told me she cleaned out a drawer or part of her closet after each work call, and that reduced both her clutter and stress.
- Eat healthy: Eating fresh, nutritious foods is important to keeping healthy and boosting your immune system’s ability to fight infections. There are many online ordering services you can use to purchase groceries from local stores. I found the process daunting at first, but my daughter, who lives in a different city, got on a Zoom call with me and walked me through the process. She reminded me that when she was little I took her shopping, and now she was doing the same for me. We laughed a lot, and it went a long way towards lowering my own stress.
- Move: Gentle physical activities that combine mental relaxation, such as tai chi, yoga, and walking outside while maintaining physical distancing, can boost your mood and lower stress levels. I know a children’s ballet teacher who is carrying on her classes online. The kids love dressing up in their ballet outfits while following the dance steps online at home.
- Get some sleep: Getting a good night’s sleep “knits up the raveled sleeve of care” as William Shakespeare so eloquently wrote in Macbeth. One way to ensure a good night’s sleep is to turn off the news and stop looking at social media at least one or two hours before you go to bed. Try taking a warm bath or shower before bedtime, practice relaxing breathing, keep your feet warm with cozy socks, take some melatonin, and inhale fragrances like lavender, which have been shown to induce sleep and relaxation. Gentle massage has also been shown to activate those anti-stress nerve pathways of the relaxation response.
- Keep a routine: Change and uncertainty are universal stressors, and we are all experiencing both on a global scale. To counter that, stick to some of the routines you used to follow before the crisis. I like to have my oatmeal outside on the patio every morning, and when I lived in Washington, D.C. after 9-11, I had breakfast on my deck every day. Pray or join in prayer, virtually, with members of your church or synagogue or mosque. Plan a Zoom Easter Sunday or Zoom Seder for Passover, to bring all your family together virtually.
Doing some or all of these things can’t rid the body of a viral infection, but they can help reduce the stress response, and by doing so, allow your immune system to do what it does best: give your body its best chance to prevent, fight and reduce the severity of infection. After all this is over and things are back to normal, the silver lining may be that we will all have found ways to find our balance within!
Esther Sternberg, MD, is an internationally recognized pioneer in mind-body/brain-immune interactions, sweat biomarker detection, and design and health. She is the research director of the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine, the founding director of the UArizona Institute on Place, Wellbeing & Performance, the inaugural Andrew Weil Chair for Research in Integrative Medicine, and a research professor of medicine and psychology in the College of Medicine – Tucson.