No doubt about it, the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic has far exceeded our expectations, and many of us have been living in a prolonged state of stress. Reflect back on the beginning of the pandemic, over one year ago. At first, reaction to the crisis was a sense of heroism – the nation set out to buckle down and “do their part” to help mitigate the spread of the virus in hopes it’d soon be a thing of the past. We all quickly made changes to adapt and developed new routines, thinking they’d be temporary. Then this term “new normal” came on the scene, and we carried the pandemic with us into the new year. Things are now improving, but some of us are still operating in a constant state of stress.
According to Dr. Petros Levounis, in Healthline’s article, “Overwhelmed and Stressed? Why You May Be Feeling Crisis Fatigue,” we’ve entered into the “disillusionment phase” of crisis, in which we face what’s called crisis fatigue. (1) Dr. Levounis explains some of the symptoms of crisis fatigue:
- Hyper-arousal, or high anxiety – irritable and easily triggered. Exhibiting disproportionate emotional responses.
- Or on the other end of the spectrum (which is more severe and harder to diagnose) – showing no anxiety or very little concern at all for the crisis.
- In addition, other symptoms include changes in sleep patterns, changes in appetite, and disruption in a person’s normal routines.
I don’t know very many people these days who can’t check at least one (if not more) of the above bullet points. The temporary changes we made out of initial reaction to the pandemic in order to cope and adapt became habitual and are now reactionary. Our bodies seem to be stuck in the fight-or-flight mode. Consistent, intentional changes are necessary if we want to decrease stress levels
Healthy Stress Levels in Medical Staff
Studies have shown that implementing strategies to help cope with stress can improve physical and mental health. Alastair Gardiner highlights one such study in MDLinx’s article, “Here’s How Doctors Can Conquer Work-Related Stress.” The study, published by The Journal of Education and Health Promotion, looked at the stress levels and coping mechanisms of three hundred and eighteen nurses. The results showed that the overall health of the participants directly correlated to the effectiveness of their stress coping mechanisms. Gardiner writes, “[Researchers] concluded that all managers should teach effective training methods to reduce the stress levels of the medical staff, to help maintain their physical and mental fitness. So while we can’t control the ongoing pandemic, we may be able to take charge of our own stress levels.” (2)
A Challenge Worthy of Engagement
Gardiner also writes about the phrase, “Sense of coherence” (SOC), and its effectiveness as a mechanism for coping with stress. He defines SOC as, “[T]he ability to be adaptive in coping with adverse situations,” and explains that it involves being able to understand and contextualize an adverse situation, handle or make sense of it. (2) He references this ScienceDirect article for his research for the original definition of the phrase. However, he summarizes it in his own words writing, “The idea is that people begin to consider their external stressors as comprehensible, manageable, and meaningful – which is to say the challenge is worthy of engagement. Through these means, stressors should become easier to handle, even if there is no change in external circumstances.” (2) He then lists several tips on how to enhance one’s SOC such as spending time outdoors and maintaining mindfulness. These are great recommendations on lowering stress levels generally speaking, and for more information on the matter, feel free to check out our recent blogs here. However, I’d like to zoom in on ways to calm down quickly, in a moment of high stress.
Calm, Productive, and Focused
In their article simply titled, “Quick Stress Relief,” Jeanne Sega, Ph.D., Melinda Smith, M.A., and Lawrence Robinson provide several extremely helpful tips on how to relieve stress quickly, in a single moment. They write, “One of the speediest and most reliable ways to stamp out stress is to engage one or more of your senses – sight, sound, taste, smell, touch – or through movement. Since everyone is different, you’ll need to do some experimenting to discover which technique works best for you – but the payoff is huge. You can stay calm, productive, and focused when you know how to quickly relieve stress.” (3) Despite its length, the article is well worth a thorough read, but I’ll elevate a few highlights here.
Tip 1: Recognize When You’re Stressed:
Do your muscles feel tight or sore? Is your stomach cramping or aching? Are your hands or jaw clenched? Is your breathing shallow? These are all signs of stress. (3)
Tip 2: Identify Your Stress Response:
Do you tend to become angry, agitated, or overly emotional? If so, you’re going to want to target stress relief through activities that are calming. Or, perhaps you tend to become depressed, withdrawn, or spaced out in times of stress. In this case, you’ll want to target stress-relieving exercises that stimulate and energize. (3)
Tip 3: Bring Your Senses to the Rescue:
- Look at a favorite photo or a memento.
- Use plants or flowers to enliven your work space.
- Enjoy the beauty of nature.
- Surround yourself with colors that lift your spirits.
- Close your eyes and imagine a place that feels peaceful.
- Light a scented candle or incense.
- Experiment with essential oils.
- Smell roses or another type of flower.
- Enjoy clean, fresh air.
- Spritz on your favorite perfume or cologne.
- Wrap yourself in a warm blanket.
- Pet a dog or cat.
- Hold a comforting object.
- Give yourself a hand or neck massage.
- Wear clothing that feels soft against your skin.
- Chew a piece of sugarless gum.
- Indulge in a small piece of dark chocolate.
- Sip a cup of coffee, tea, or refreshing cold drink.
- Eat a piece of fruit.
- Enjoy a healthy, crunchy snack.
- Sing or play a favorite song.
- Listen to calming or uplifting music.
- Tune in to the sounds of nature – waves, wind, birds, etc.
- Buy a small fountain so you can enjoy the soothing sound of running water.
- Hang wind chimes near an open window.
- Run in place, or jump up and down.
- Dance around.
- Stretch or roll your head in circles.
- Go for a short walk.
- Squeeze a stress ball.
Tip 4: Find Sensory Inspiration:
The authors suggest finding inspiration around you for identifying sensory techniques that work for you. This can mean reflecting back to your childhood, observing others around you, thinking back to what your parents did to “blow off steam,” or imagining pictures in your head that often inspire you. (3)
Tip 5: Make Quick Stress Relief a Habit:
The authors encourage their readers by writing, “It’s not easy to remember to use your senses in the middle of mini – or not so mini – crisis. At first, it will feel easier to just give into pressure and tense up. But with time, calling upon your senses will become second nature… You don’t master the skill in one lesson; you have to practice until it becomes second nature.” (3)
Tip 6: Practice Wherever You Are:
In this section of their article, the authors provide several different scenarios in which stress is common such as during parties, at work, or even in traffic. They provide several very practical exercises to practice in each scenario to help relieve stress. (3)
Not A Victim
As we wrap up our mini-series on stress, I sincerely hope you feel empowered to recognize and tackle the stress in your life. While many of our circumstances cannot be changed, we don’t have to fall victim to the stress. We can choose to rely on healthy stress when needed and then implement strategies to return to a state of peaceful productivity. Please feel free to share any success you’ve achieved and tips you’ve found helpful in combating stress in the comments below.
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Jerry L. Stone