Luke Hanson, Academic Advisor and postbac at University of Alabama at Birmingham, Capsule Contributor
Stress. I think it’s fair to say we’re all feeling it right now, whether that’s over Coronavirus, the markets, deals been pulled out, job uncertainty, food shortages… the list goes on. The negative impacts of stress on health are well-documented, having been studied for over 70 years. Stress can cause or exacerbate a myriad of physical issues, including higher blood pressure and blood sugar, increased risk of heart attack, head and stomachaches, insomnia, heartburn, weakened immune system and sexual dysfunction, to name a few.
In a nutshell, stress comes from our brains releasing cortisol and adrenaline when our body tells it we’re in a fight-or-flight situation. Adrenaline bumps our blood pressure and heart rate up, while cortisol increases the sugar in the bloodstream and curbs the function of nonessential-in-the-moment systems, like digestive and reproductive systems. When our ancestors were hunting aggressive woolly mammoths? Great time to have an extra spring in their step.
However, prolonged stress and increased cortisol levels are anything but great. Along with negative physical impacts they can lead to increased mental impacts by impairing memory or concentration.
Capsule’s sixth mission focuses on the mind-body connection, and specifically when the body controls the mind. Or at least tries and is programmed to do so. Even in quarantine, we can do pushups in our rooms to work off the adrenaline. We can use the time saved on commuting on sleeping. We can stock up on frozen veggies instead of crackers: our gut health has a big impact on our stress.
Stress is our reaction to external situations. The virus is one massive external situation that has created myriad additional ones and, yeah, they’re stressful. Numbers of positive tests and deaths are going up daily. But while stress gets a substantive and earned amount of notoriety, it does so serving as a harbinger for anxiety.
Anxiety emanates from within. It’s how we as individuals respond to stress. We generate it based on our brains and experiences.
I’m stressed about my gym being closed. I’m anxious about never being optimally healthy, or happy with my body, or losing any gains I’ve made or, ultimately, being accepted.
I’m stressed about the dollars and percentage drop in my retirement account. I’m anxious that one day I won’t have any type of safety net and be truly helpless to provide for myself.
I’m stressed about my campus being shut down and working from home. I’m anxious about the health and well-being of my students, and about letting something fall through the cracks and being the thing that fails them during these times and in general.
I’m stressed about being a carrier for corona and unwittingly infecting others. I’m anxious about being a cancer to society and, in particular, my parents.
This is one of those times where it’s beyond ok to feel the stress. But it doesn’t have to be one where it totally dictates your life and your physical and mental well-being.
A foundation of practicing cognitive behavioral therapy is, as helpfully outlined in Capsule’s first mission, controlling your behavior and thoughts. It involves retraining your thoughts from anxious extreme ones (i.e. “We’re all going to die, the world will never be the same” to something a little more neutral, like, “We are taking all precautions,” or, “The world has gone through these crises before and come out fine on the other end.”
Here are some other practical ways I’m de-stressing.
I’m talking and listening to people more by unplugging from what doesn’t matter as much right now. I’ve spent more time on my phone (as an actual phone) in the past week than the rest of the year combined.
I’m being more cognizant of my surroundings. Sure, this includes distancing and washing my hands even more, but I’m also trying to remain more aware when I leave my apartment of the scope, opportunity and beauty of my community.
I’m walking my dog more. It’s not the gym, but music and podcasts are great, and Bourbon is a great low-impact exercise buddy. He’s going to be incredibly spoiled when this is all over and he goes back to three-ish good walks per day, but he’s keeping me focused and grounded in the meantime and helping me appreciate this alternative to lifting weights.
I’m not eating out, making me more mindful of my food. I have a horrible habit of making the poor health and monetary dietary decision out of convenience and taste, and am using this time as a challenge to take control of my diet.
I’m figuring out impactful ways to engage with my coworkers while our office is closed. It’s allowing me to think like a manager and further develop and grow non-traditional communication skills, which I can’t imagine will ever be a bad skill to have.
I’m focusing more on crafting daily schedules, from big-picture goals to items as small as making sure I drink enough water. I take for granted that an office routine helps me function in this manner, and while working from home want to build more independence around this scheduling and self-care skill.
I don’t mean to downplay the state of the world or anyone else’s experience right now. I understand that things are bad in general and horrific for some individuals. To get through this, I’m trying to focus each day on my stressors, where they come from and how to utilize them to help me come out of this better than I was going in. That’s a huge ask to put on anyone, but if you’re amenable to it then it may allow you to flip the script on your own stress and make you the driver to better outcomes once our world goes back to some semblance of normal.
If possible, don’t run away from your thoughts and feelings right now. Use self-awareness to understand and manage them. It won’t just help you navigate the situation, but thrive in it.