We are living in a tsunami of stress.
Hospitals are flooded with patients as Covid-19 cases surge to unprecedented heights. Over half of all Americans know someone who has been hospitalized with the virus or has died. Small businesses are drowning. Millions are unemployed. Unemployment benefits are trickling away while Congress is in deadlock about what to do. And parents are at their wits’ end while trying to teach and work.
Could it be worse? Yes, because it’s the holidays. In normal times, that alone would be enough to overwhelm our coping skills. But this is 2020 – and on top of everything else, we have a duty to protect our loved ones despite our need for togetherness.
“I think it could be even more of a challenge than what we saw with Thanksgiving,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN’s John Berman Monday.
“I hope that people realize that and understand that as difficult as this is, nobody wants to modify – if not essentially shut down – their holiday season, but we are in a very critical time in this country right now.”
Pressure-cooked brains also don’t work well, sending less blood flow to such frontal-lobe executive functions as creativity, compassion and emotional regulation. Those are the cognitive functions we need in order to manage uncertainty, take productive action and remain hopeful.
But there are ways to short-circuit feelings of panic and helplessness, even in a pandemic. Here are five expert-vetted ways on how to put an end to stress and take back control.
1. Simply stop and breathe
Just stop and breathe – but deeply.
“We can stop the physiology of stress dead in its tracks by ramping up our parasympathetic nervous system,” said stress management expert Dr. Cynthia Ackrill, an editor for “Contentment” magazine, produced by the American Institute of Stress.
“If a man’s chasing us with a knife, we probably don’t want to do that,” she continued. “But if we’re creating most of the stress between our ears, we can reverse that with slow deep breathing and progressive relaxation – things that invoke the relaxation response, which is your parasympathetic nervous system pushing you back into balance.”
There are a variety of deep-breathing techniques experts recommend, but “the best research is behind six in, six out,” Ackrill said.
Take a deep breath to a slow count of six, making sure that you can feel your stomach rise with your hand as it fills with air.
“When we’re stressed, we tend to be breathing at the top of our lungs, and we’re not using our full lung capacity,” Ackrill said.
“One of the important things is you want to use what is called soft belly breathing. To soften your belly, let the diaphragm descend, push out on your belly a little bit and bring the breath down into that part,” she said.
Release your breath to the same slow count of six. Pause and begin again. Repeat until you feel your body relax.
2. Learn your triggers
The best time to practice deep breathing or other relaxation techniques is before you’re in full panic mode. That means learning your body’s telltale cues – the early signs that stress is taking hold. Perhaps your shoulders get tight, your neck tense, your stomach sours or you have the beginnings of a headache.
“You want to back up from the crash to the beginning of swerving into the wrong lane,” Ackrill explains. “We’re not used to checking in with our bodies so it takes a bit of practice. But learning your subtle signs is a really lovely skill that lets you adjust on the fly.”
Not sure what your stress face looks like? Ask your kids or partner.
“They can probably tell you the minute you start to slide off the rails,” Ackrill said. “Oh, oh, Mom’s doing that thing with her eyebrow. Don’t ask Mom for that right now.”
3. Move in slow motion
One way to interrupt the stress circuits in the brain is to literally slow down your movements, according to Michelle Anne, a certified professional coach with training in neuroscience and leadership.
“And when I say slowing down I mean, you’re talking slow, you’re walking slow, you slow your thinking down, too,” Anne said.
Doing so allows your body to move from the sympathetic system’s fight-or-flight to the parasympathetic relaxation mode, Anne said.
“Slowing down is the most profound thing that can heighten your awareness,” she said.”Otherwise your brain is in that default mode network, and it’s just going to respond automatically with words or actions you’re not even thinking about.”
4. Stay in the present
Another way to interrupt the stress response is to ground yourself in the moment.
“Feel your feet on the floor. Feel your bottom on the chair. Be aware of the heaviness,” Ackrill said. “It brings you back to the present. It feels grounding.”
Another technique Ackrill recommends requires focusing on all five senses.
“Acknowledge five things you see around you, four things that you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste,” Ackrill explained. “What you’re doing is completely coming into the present … by focusing your brain on a kind of interesting but nonthreatening task.”
Anne recommends pressing your right arm across your chest until it presses against your left shoulder, as if you’re doing a stretch. It’s especially useful in interpersonal conflicts when you feel yourself losing control.
“If you press your arm against the left shoulder, your brain now cannot fully engage with what the other person is saying. Your brain is more concerned about the sensation in the body,” Anne said.
“Then the second thing I have people do is just relax their shoulders. The brain always does what you tell it,” Anne added.
“It brings you back into the body versus having you completely absorbed in what they’re doing or what they’re feeling. It’s a way of taking back control of yourself.”
5. Make a list
There’s just too much to do – so much that your brain can’t store it all. You can feel the pressure rising as you ping-pong from one task to the other, frightened that something is falling through the cracks.
“My mother calls it hopscotching when the brain jumps from one thing to the next,” Ackrill said. “Whatever you call it, it translates into ‘I don’t have what it takes to manage the stress.’ And that’s when it’s toxic.”
Fight back by making a list of all the items on your to-do list. Separate by work, home, school or whatever makes sense for you – and keep it by your side to add each new chore. The act of getting those items onto paper and out of your head is freeing, and there is the added pleasure of accomplishment when you cross off each chore from your list.
“I call it the stress dump,” Ackril said. “First you get calm, then you get clear of what you were doing – you’re making your list. Then you can start to get curious about how you’re going to get it done.”
That might mean asking others for help – which is not failure, she stressed.
“You get the courage to ask for what you need, or push back on a deadline,” Ackrill said. “You give some compassion to the people who are dealing with you, and you give some compassion to yourself for having to do this.”
Get CNN Health's weekly newsletter
Sign up here to get The Results Are In with Dr. Sanjay Gupta every Tuesday from the CNN Health team.
Practice makes perfect
Still feeling stuck? One way to process your feelings is to write them out until the emotion feels captured on paper and you feel the emotional charge lessen. You can also reach out to a friend or loved one “you trust to hold you safely” – and choose carefully. Ackrill suggested asking yourself: “Is this person truly helping you cope with the emotional load?”
Of course, the best way to make these techniques a part of your stress reduction toolkit is to practice them as often as possible. In other words, make them a habit.
“Many of us were brought up thinking there’s just a pill for everything and got us away from practicing some of the skills,” Ackrill said. “When you learn the skills, you’re ramping up your coping confidence, you’re pushing yourself up that curve.”