It’s completely natural to be anxious, upset and angry about the COVID-19 health crisis. You may be feeling disappointed that your favorite activities are being canceled. You may be feeling lonely, unable to interact with friends and family. You may be scared that the disease could affect you or someone you love. Or maybe you’ve lost your job or seen your hours reduced as a result of businesses closing due to the virus.
So much has changed in the past few weeks, and most of the focus has been, understandably, on how to avoid catching and spreading the virus. But while it hasn’t been most people’s main focus, one thing that has become more important than ever is taking care of your mental health.
According to the American Psychological Association, people who are under stress for months, weeks or even days can see their immune systems severely compromised, which can make them more susceptible to illness.
That’s why it’s so crucial, especially now, to learn how to manage anxiety in a healthy way. Lowering your stress levels can keep your immune system strong, which can help you avoid getting sick — either by COVID-19 or another illness.
How Stress Can Make You Sick
Being stressed over long periods of time can have serious, long-term effects on your physical health.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, chronic stress can cause people to develop cardiovascular issues, including a fast heart rate and heart disease, as well as gastric ulcers. It can also put you at greater risk for type 2 diabetes and various cancers. These conditions can lead to complications and put you at greater risk of contracting other serious illnesses, including COVID-19. The video below explains how stress leads to hormonal imbalances that can negatively affect your health.
When you’re stressed, you also tend to sleep fewer hours and less soundly, which can affect your immune system as well. And the combination of exhaustion and stress can lead you to engage in unhealthy behaviors such as eating junk food, drinking too much and not getting enough exercise — all of which stress your body and put you at higher risk of getting sick.
How To Reduce Your Stress During COVID-19
With all of the uncertainty and fear surrounding COVID-19, it’s very important to take proactive steps to maintain your mental health, especially while social distancing. Here are some of the best ways to reduce your stress throughout this pandemic.
Maintain Social Connections & Talk Through Your Feelings
Stay connected with people you care about. Even if you cannot see your friends and family in person, it’s important to stay connected, whether by calling, texting or video chatting. According to the APA, a lack of social support is a large risk factor for depression, and depression can have a significant negative impact on your immune system. Health psychologists at Carnegie Mellon University found that social isolation and feelings of loneliness each independently weakened first-year students’ immunity. Thanks to technology, there are so many ways to stay connected today, so take advantage and continue to connect with people you care about. Organize game nights, happy hours and family reunions. You may find out that this whole experience brings you closer and you actually interact more than you used to.
Reach out to an expert if you’re struggling. There’s no shame in reaching out to a counselor. We’re all going through a traumatic, incredibly stressful experience, and talking to a therapist is a responsible and healthy thing to do for yourself in these uncertain times. You don’t have to go into an office and see a psychologist face-to-face in order to get counseling during this stressful time. Many counselors are now offering teleconferencing options to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. If you aren’t already working with a counselor, using a platform like BetterHelp can be a great way of receiving on-demand, affordable counseling from a licensed therapist. The platform has text, video and phone options, so you can get counseling in the format that’s most comfortable for you. It’s completely anonymous, and you can switch counselors at any time.
New York State is also offering free mental health counseling during the COVID-19 crisis. You can call the Office of Mental Health (OMH) Emotional Support Line at 1-844-863-9314. The Emotional Support Line provides free and confidential support to callers experiencing increased anxiety due to the coronavirus emergency. The Help Line is staffed by volunteers, including mental health professionals, who have received training in crisis counseling. Visit their website for more information.
Take care of yourself and maintain your physical appearance. When you’re stuck at home, it’s easy to let yourself go and not keep to a regular schedule. But maintaining a clean and fresh appearance will help you feel better about yourself and give you a sense of normalcy. This doesn’t mean you have to wear a fancy outfit or put on makeup everyday. But taking the little steps to do things that make you feel good, such as shaving regularly, wearing real clothes and doing a face mask can go a long way in helping you feel less anxious about everything going on in the world.
Take time to relax, especially before bed. Meditating or doing some easy yoga poses is a great way to unwind and calm yourself down throughout the day or before you go to sleep. As much as you can, avoid looking at your phone and consuming too much news, especially before you go to sleep. Staying informed is great, but news overload can just lead to extra worry and anxiety, which can keep you up at night. Looking at your phone before bed can interfere with melatonin production, which can make sleep difficult and lead to feelings of grogginess the next day. Instead, put aside time to relax and do activities that calm you down before bed, and try your best to stay on a regular sleep schedule.
Try to get outside if possible. As we’ve written before, sunlight has enormous mental health benefits, and not getting enough of it can contribute to depression, which suppresses your immune system. Getting fresh air and being around nature can also help put you at ease and reduce your stress levels. As long as it’s allowed where you live, you should make a point of trying to get outside as much as possible, especially if you’re working out of your home. While congregating in crowded parks isn’t a good idea right now, most people are able to take a walk or bike ride around their neighborhood or hang out in their yard, provided they maintain enough distance between themselves and others. You could also read a book, call a friend or listen to a podcast outside instead of binging another Netflix show to get the mental health benefits of sunlight and fresh air.
Build an exercise routine. Exercise has proven health benefits and is extremely important in a time like this. It can help reduce your stress levels, make you feel happier and prevent disease. According to MedlinePlus, exercise may also help flush bacteria out of the lungs and airways, which can reduce your chances of getting a cold, flu, or other illness. While nothing has been proven with regard to COVID-19 yet, if you were to contract another illness, your body would be put under stress to fight it off, which could put you at risk of contracting other viruses like COVID-19. Here are some simple ways to build an exercise routine at home:
Purchase some home fitness equipment. If the weather isn’t nice or you live in an area that’s too crowded to walk around, consider purchasing some home fitness equipment to exercise indoors or in your backyard. You don’t need to spend a ton of money to be able to get a heart-pounding workout in your home. Consider installing a pull-up bar in a door frame and purchasing some resistance bands, and a kettlebell. For under $100, you can set up a home gym that allows you to get a full body workout.
Stream fitness classes online. Don’t want to purchase fitness equipment or build your own exercise routine? There are tons of free workouts streaming on YouTube and other sites that require no equipment. Many local gyms and studios are also starting to offer live fitness classes online. These usually require some sort of payment or class pass, but they provide the benefit of social connection, the opportunity to ask questions in real time and a set schedule that can help keep you on track with your workouts. In addition, paying for these streaming classes helps support local fitness studios and gyms that have had to shut down due to COVID-19. Some local studios in Buffalo offering live classes include Love In Motion Yoga, Power Yoga Buffalo, Buffalo Barre, Pure Barre Buffalo and Sweat 716.
Avoid binging on comfort foods and eat a healthy diet. One of the best ways to boost your immunity and your mood is to eat a healthy diet. While many people turn to comfort food like sugar and empty carbohydrates in times of stress, these foods can have a negative impact on your well-being in the long term. According to Kaiser Permanente, comfort foods can elevate your blood sugar and trigger pleasure centers in the brain in a way that’s similar to addictive drugs. But later, those sugary and heavy foods can lead to an unpleasant crash and leave you feeling lethargic, anxious and even depressed. In contrast, eating a well-balanced diet helps keep your blood sugar stable throughout the day, helping you maintain your mood and energy levels so that you can exercise and make healthy choices all day. Eating healthy also helps you sleep better, which contributes to better well-being and lower stress levels.
Make plants the largest part of your diet.Some studies have shown that eating meat, eggs and dairy leads to inflammation, which puts stress on the body and makes it more difficult to fight infection. A plant-centric diet rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains provides a wide array of vitamins and minerals known to help fight disease. Since going to the grocery store often during a pandemic isn’t ideal, we recommend stocking up on frozen fruits and vegetables, as well as healthy pantry staples like dried beans, canned tomatoes, rice, pasta, quinoa and nuts. You can create many well-balanced meals with just a few simple ingredients and some spices or herbs. If you want fresh produce but don’t want to visit the grocery store, subscription services like Misfits Market deliver fresh, organic produce to your door for a low cost. Daily Harvest delivers smoothie ingredients so you can always whip up a healthy meal in a blender, and meal kit services such as Purple Carrot can be super convenient for whipping up a healthy plant-based meal for a couple or family in minimal time. Don’t want to cook? Local meal delivery company Eat Rite Foods will deliver healthy, fully cooked meals directly to your door. The meals are prepared fresh and flash frozen 24 hours before arrival to preserve nutrients. They will arrive frozen and can be kept in the freezer after they arrive, so you’ll always have access to a healthy meal that can be reheated in minutes.
What are you doing to maintain your mental health in these stressful times? Let us know in the comments below.