Calm within the Storm
In The Eye Of The Hurricane
How to Build Resiliency in Stressful Times?
In the wildest of hurricanes, the eye of the storm is strangely calm. After the hurricane washes over land, clear skies and calm winds often follow. I think we can all agree that so far 2020 has been a cataclysmic hurricane filled with anxiety, fear, and uncertainty. We are experiencing a frightening pandemic, economic decline, social injustice and unrest, and an unprecedented election season filled with volatility and polarization of our nation. It’s been a lot to handle!!!
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For many people, these stressors have led to a significant increase in anxiety, depression, isolation, and substance use. In a CDC survey of 5400 participants conducted in June 2020, approximately 31% of people experienced symptoms of anxiety and depressive disorders. Over 13% of the participants either started or increased their substance use as a way to cope with the stressors related to COVID. Approximately 11% of the respondents reported serious suicidal ideation in the past month and over 26% of the participants experienced symptoms of trauma or stress-related disorders due to the pandemic.
I think we would all prefer this ongoing storm to subside, or at least not have such an impact on all our lives. Unfortunately, we don’t have the power to control what happens around us very much. This realization on its own can feel daunting. However, focusing on what is within our sphere of influence can also make a big impact on our day to day survival. How we take care of ourselves as we weather this storm matters.
By eliminating or significantly reducing certain behaviors and replacing them with self-care behaviors, you can have more control over your mood, and more readily embody the calm within the storm.
SOCIAL MEDIA: In a 2018 study in The Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, college students who limited their social media exposure to 30 minutes a day had less anxiety, less FOMO, and decreased levels of loneliness and depression. Similar studies have shown excessive use of Facebook contributes to depression and loneliness. Social media sites that invite social comparisons generally led people to feel less worthwhile about their own lives. This can take a huge toll on self-esteem and mood.
SUGGESTION: Be mindful of your social media usage. Track the relationship between your social media exposure and your mood. You can experiment by significantly reducing or deleting social media apps from your phone, have a trusted person change your password to favorite sites, or use apps such as Moment, Appdetox, and Offscreen to help monitor and regulate your screen time.
NEWS: No matter what side of the political fence you lean towards, the news can instill a good amount of anxiety into your day. The news cycle is repetitive and it’s easy to get sucked into the rabbit hole of breaking news. However, these stories often activate our sympathetic nervous system responsible for releasing stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. A 2007 study in The International Journal of Behavioral Medicine showed that 15 minutes of news could more negatively impact the participant’s overall mood compared to those in the study who had no news exposure.
SUGGESTION: Notice the impact of watching the news has on your mood. Experiment with limiting how much news you allow yourself to watch or change the format in which you get the news. Select a few news articles to read so that you can still feel informed. If these changes don’t provide much relief, consider finding a more balanced news feed to follow. Or take a break from the news altogether for a few days and monitor your mood. This news diet can really make a difference!
CELL PHONE USAGE: Numerous studies have found a direct and clear relationship between cell phone use and depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Partly this is due to the fact that our cell phones are often the easiest ways to access social media and the news! However, games and searching the internet are also easily accessible on our cell phones and can lead to hours lost in distraction. Most families report a struggle related to cell phone usage taking the place of in-person connection with each other.
SUGGESTION: Use your smartphone’s ability to track your screen time to help monitor how much time you are spending on your device. Notice the relationship your cell phone usage has to your mood and begin to make a conscious plan to manage your time. Experiment with not using your phone as your alarm clock so that it’s not the first thing you see in the morning. You can set a time at night, approximately an hour before bedtime, to shut off your phone, so it’s not the last thing you see at night. Instead try reading, cuddling with your pet, taking a bath, or engaging with family. Consider deleting games and apps that easily grab your attention and drain your energy and time.
EXERCISE: Studies have shown that exercise can be as good as antidepressant medications in helping to reduce depressive symptoms. Epidemiological studies have demonstrated that active people suffer less from depression than inactive people and that when active people stop exercising, they are more vulnerable to depression. NOTE: Sometimes antidepressant medication and exercise are both needed to manage mood symptoms.
Exercise is a powerful depression fighter for several reasons. It helps release hormones, namely endorphins, which energize you, boost your mood, and reduce pain. Exercise also promotes calm and can provide a reprieve from the cycle of negative thinking common in depression.
SUGGESTION: Start exercising today! Go for a walk, a run, or get on your bike and hit the trails. Find a workout that feels appropriate to your fitness level and jump right in! Use a chart or journal to track your days of exercise and the impact it has on your mood. Even a few minutes a day can make a difference. Note your excuses and exercise anyway!
NATURE: Japanese culture has a term for taking in the benefits of being in nature. It’s called Forest Bathing. Studies have demonstrated that a natural chemical released by trees and plants called phytoncides actually boosts the immune system. Other studies have shown that time spent in nature helps reduce depression, anxiety, and stress. Being in nature has also been shown to reduce blood pressure and heart rate as well as decrease the production of stress hormones.
SUGGESTION: Find a nature walk or hike and open your awareness to the sights, sounds, smells, and sensations of the scenery that surrounds you. Close your eyes and take deep breaths as you feel the wind or sun connect with your body. Notice the different trees and plants that surround you. Notice the different shades of color and textures. This sensory exploration in nature, even for a few minutes, can help you feel more relaxed and rejuvenated.
MEDITATION AND YOGA: Connecting your mind and body has been shown to have tremendous benefits to well-being. The Mayo Clinic noted the following emotional benefits of meditation: gaining a new perspective on stressful situations, building skills to manage your stress, increasing self-awareness, focusing on the present, reducing negative emotions, increasing imagination and creativity, and increasing patience and tolerance. Meditation and yoga have also been shown to help decrease symptoms of anxiety, depression, reduce inflammation, and improve sleep.
SUGGESTION: There are so many ways, even during the pandemic, to start meditating or start a yoga practice. There are tons of articles and videos online to guide you on this, at times, an intimidating endeavor. Apps such as Calm, Ten Percent Happier, and Headspace are wonderful apps to begin a practice to apply these skills daily. Start small and don’t expect Buddha-like focus. Meditating for a minute makes a difference and these apps have short meditation sequences. Remember you definitely know how to breathe, so you are halfway there.
BE SOCIAL: You might be wondering, “How can I be social in the midst of the pandemic?!”. This is an understandable concern. However, there are creative ways to connect while staying safe. Humans are social by nature, and the pandemic has clearly shown us that being connected to others is vital to our well-being and mental health. Finding ways to connect with friends and family through laughter is priceless! Connections with pets can also be critical in managing your mood.
SUGGESTION: Ask yourself, “What can I do to connect with others and still feel safe?”. Can you go for a nature walk with a friend? Grab a socially-distanced cup of coffee? Schedule a weekly zoom lunch date? Find a park and have a socially-distanced picnic? I know these are likely not our first choices, but we all must find creative ways to foster connections within these new parameters.
The times we live in are challenging and promote a lot of uncertainty and fear. With this said, people are very resilient and have the capacity to find ways to have meaningful lives, one day at a time. I believe you can incorporate these activities in your life to create moments of calm in your life!