We’re all feeling stress. People are sick. Businesses are shuttered. Each day brings new restrictions on our daily activities. And worst of all, we’re not quite sure what tomorrow will bring. We don’t know how bad it’s going to get, or when it’s going to end.
In the past few days, I’ve fielded numerous questions from readers and clients about how they can keep themselves from getting too stressed in the wake of the Coronavirus. In this article, I’ll share some of the steps I offered them, which can help anyone keep their cool when they’re feeling stress.
We can’t wave a magic wand and make the Coronavirus go away. And we may legitimately worry about our health and our livelihoods. But there are some quick and easy tools you can use to regain your focus, your sense of calm, and possibly your sanity – just when you need it most.
How to Keep Your Perspective
The best thing you can do for yourself and those closest to you is to develop the ability to stand back and keep a larger perspective. We’ve all seen the empty store shelves, the toilet paper hoarding, the shopping carts loaded up like the apocalypse is tomorrow.
It turns out that there is no food shortage, and none anticipated – at least in the U.S. The possibility that people will be scrounging for food with none to be found is close to zero.
Yet, thousands have rushed to the stores, desperately trying to get ahead of a food and toilet paper shortage that doesn’t exist.
Meanwhile, to address this non-existent threat, they’ve put themselves in close proximity to hundreds of other shoppers, exposing themselves to much greater risk of contracting the Coronavirus – a threat that decidedly does exist.
In any crisis situation, or even a merely stressful situation that contains unknowns, it is human nature to panic. We all want to feel like we’re doing something, anything to deal with the situation. The problem is that, when people begin to lose their cool and stop taking in the bigger picture, they often do the wrong things and make mistakes – sometimes deadly ones.
So how do you keep your perspective? An exercise I often give clients in stressful situations, based on the work of Dr. Les Fehmi, with whom I trained, is to take in the space around you. This can be extremely relaxing, will often quiet the stressful voices rattling around inside your head, and can give you the calm you need to address the situation in front of you productively rather than from a state of panic.
There are many variations on this method, and I use it with clients in some advanced and nuanced ways to address a host of stress and focus issues. But for our purposes, here is a simple version of it you can use that will help you get on track when you begin to feel yourself pulled in by the stress of the moment:
Simply stand back. Notice the space that exists between you and the wall in front of you, or an object in front of you if you are outside. Notice the space in back of you. To the left and the right. Above and below you. If you are outside, pick an object or landmark far across the horizon (or if you’re inside, an object as far away from you as possible), and simply notice the space between you and the object. After about 20 seconds, allow your awareness of that space to gradually widen in each direction. Continue to notice and feel the space all around you for another minute or so.
This is a deceptively simple exercise. But the truth is that it’s much more difficult to feel panicked when you are noticing the space around you. Stress occurs in a state of contraction. Relaxation requires expansion.
Once you’ve done this for a few minutes, only then begin thinking about whatever decision you needed to make. You will most likely take a more reasoned and rational course of action borne out of a larger perspective than you otherwise would have. And you are far less likely to wind up with 417 rolls of toilet paper in your cart.
How to Keep Your Cool
In addition to giving you a more healthy perspective, noticing the space around you can do wonders for controlling your stress levels. But if you need a few more ideas to stay calm when everyone around you isn’t, here are a few:
Breathe. Take slow, measured breaths through your nose. Inhale and exhale through your nose at a rate of 5-6 breaths per minute – or whatever is the slowest pace you can reasonably manage. This engages the parasympathetic nervous system and sends a signal to your body and brain that this is not the time to freak out.
Breathing may seem even simpler than noticing space, but it’s similarly very powerful. And there is significant research to support the calming effects of deep breathing. Deep breathing protocols have even been used successfully with PTSD veterans. If it can help people with PTSD, it surely can help you.
Get Enough Sleep. Sleep deprivation and stress go hand in hand. When you’re struggling to keep your eyes open, it’s hard to feel good or think clearly. Now more than ever, getting proper rest is a must. And just as important as getting a proper amount of sleep is going to bed and waking on a regular schedule.
Limit your news and social media consumption. Scrolling through your Facebook feed for the 14th time to see the same Coronavirus memes and shocking photos simply isn’t going to help you or anyone else. Nor is checking your news feed every 10 minutes. It’s a must to keep on top of the news right now. But it’s not a must to take in more than you need and keep obsessing over it.
Ask Yourself Questions. When your mind starts racing, or you find yourself getting stressed over the latest Coronavirus news, start asking yourself questions. Does this thought that I'm having right now serve me? Does it serve any useful purpose? Is the action I’m about to take going to make things better or worse?
You may come up with other questions that more specifically address your own situation. The main point is that you slow yourself down just long enough to start questioning the freight train of stressful thoughts running through your head. Questions can quickly help you gain control over your thoughts rather than be a victim of your thoughts.
How to Keep Your Sanity
By keeping a sense of perspective and keeping your cool, you will go a long way toward keeping your sanity and not giving in to the panic of the moment.
Additionally, one of the best things you can do for yourself right now is to keep a routine. This can be especially challenging for workers who have been directed to work at home, which is now filled with children whose schools are closed.
If your regular routine has been involuntarily changed, it is that much more important to create a new routine. Schedule exercise into your day. Schedule break times. Schedule times that you will accomplish certain tasks. And the critical part – stick with your schedule.
If you are continuing to be productive based on a schedule you have set, you have far less opportunity to entertain the stressful thoughts that might otherwise derail you. You will have far less opportunity to take in too much news or social media. And you’ll have far less opportunity to engage in binge eating or drinking, impulse shopping, or any other counterproductive activities.