This isn't the way I planned to launch this blog, but I feel called to put out something that will help people weather the storm through which we're currently navigating.
There is a lot of tension, worry, fear and anxiety out there right now. It's world-wide, and I doubt very many of us are immune to it at this point. It seems to have come upon us very suddenly, and that has created panic in some quarters.
I'm sure I don't have to tell you that panic isn't helpful, and is in fact counter-productive. So, how does one stay centered and sane when the whole world around us is going nuts?
The key here is stress reduction.
Stress is that point where physiology and psychology meet up and intertwine. I'm not a psychologist, and I don't play one on TV. Nor am I a doctor or a scientist. So I'm not going to share specific recommendations here in dealing with this virus. There are official websites and outlets for all of that, and I encourage you to monitor those as necessary.
I want this post to be helpful not just in this current crisis, but for years to come. I want to give you advice that will stand the test of time; that you can come back to over and over again, even when it's just YOUR little piece of the world that's going crazy. Sound good? Great. This is a long one, so settle in.
1. Stop scrolling.
I'm always an advocate of spending less time on social media, but even more so in these extraordinary times. Social media is poison at times like this. It's a cesspool of false information and half-truths intermingled with real truth. The more time you spend on Facebook and Twitter in particular, the more panic you will feel. Everything is amplified, the algorithm filters out almost all non-pandemic related posts, and overwhelm is the inevitable result.
Most of it Is. Not. Real.
I'm not saying you need to avoid social media completely, but if you can, stick to 5 to 10 minutes, perhaps twice per day, and that will go a long way towards dampening the panic. The less oxygen we give to a fire (and I'm referring here to your own internal fire), the more slowly it burns and the smaller the flame. Use social media wisely - to get real information from credible sources such as the CDC, the WHO, Health Canada or your local government Health Department (i.e. not a meme that's been shared around a bazillion times). Use it to check in on friends and family, to ensure they are safe and to share the happy things that are still going on all around us (and yes, there are plenty of good news stories all over the world, they're just getting lost amid all the noise).
2. Cut down on or eliminate caffeine consumption
Whether you realize it or not, the caffeine in your system is putting your body in "fight-or-flight" mode by elevating your cortisol levels, and if you ingest it daily, you could be in that state chronically. It may also be making you more irritable, contributing to anxiety, restlessness, insomnia, and even raising your blood pressure or causing heart palpitations - all things you can do without in an already- stressful time.
If you substitute plain old water with a squirt of lemon or lime juice, or non-caffeinated herbal teas, I'm betting you'll notice a difference physiologically, if not emotionally, within a day or two. Note: you may want to reduce your caffeine gradually over a few days, in order to mitigate the very common "caffeine-withdrawal headache".
A personal anecdote here: As I've been working from home for a few days now in response to the directive for "social distancing", I've been making a larger pot of coffee than I normally would, and drinking it throughout the day. Last night when I went to bed, my heart was pounding, and that was my own personal wake-up call that I needed to cut back on this drug - yes, it's a drug!
3. Get more sleep.
There are so many reasons a good night's sleep is vital, particularly in times of stress.
Your body's organs go through a detoxing process every night, which helps your immune system function better. That process takes about 12 hours, and most of it happens while you sleep, so getting a proper rest helps ensure you are completing the detox cycle, your organs are under less stress, and if you get sick, you'll have an easier time fighting it off.
Your brain reorganizes itself, encodes memories and cleans out its own "waste" during sleep. You need both REM sleep (i.e. dreaming) and Non-REM sleep, which is deeper, in order to complete that process. One sleep cycle, which incorporates both Non-REM and REM sleep, lasts about 90 minutes, and you need 5 to 6 cycles (7.5 to 9 hours) in order for brain health and emotional stability. Getting a full night of sleep can prevent increased irritability, improve your capacity to handle stressful situations, and help you make better decisions in the moment.
Routinely getting a good night's sleep also keeps cortisol levels in check, which is important for eliminating chronic inflammation and stabilizing insulin levels. Translation: it helps prevent heart attacks and strokes, Type 2 Diabetes, and weight gain.
Meditation has obvious benefits. It helps calm you down both physiologically and emotionally. It helps you focus on your breath, which in turn activates the parasympathetic nervous system. It centres you. It slows you down. It also can be almost as restorative as sleep, so if you suffer from clinical insomnia or difficulty falling asleep due to worry or any other reason, give meditation a try.
I like to incorporate a 15-20 minute meditation into my morning and evening routines. I also inject little 5-minute meditations in between activities during the day. This practice helps me better manage my energy, as well as improving my focus.
If meditation is new for you, here are some recommended places to start:
Brendon Burchard has an excellent (and FREE!) video on YouTube called The Release Meditation Technique. The first part of the video is Brendon giving some background information and an explanation of the practice, after which there is a full 20 minutes of music and occasional guided practice. You can bookmark the video to start at about the 10:50 mark after your first time through, so you can come back to it anytime without the preamble.
Apps for your phone or tablet that provide guided meditations are everywhere today. The most commonly known ones are Simple Habit, Headspace, and Calm. They all have both free and paid subscription options, and some have a lifetime membership option as well, so if you find one you really like, and plan to use it long-term, it may be worth it to select that option.
If you want to try meditation just on your own, check out Leo Babauta's excellent blog post, Meditation for Beginners.
5. Get outside
If you're not currently quarantined, getting fresh air and sunlight is one of the best things you can do to stay healthy. Sunshine leads the body to produce Vitamin D (which is actually a hormone), which shores up your immune system. As Mark Sisson notes on his blog, Mark's Daily Apple:
[Vitamin D] plays a massive role in the immune response, activating and “arming” the killer T-cells for defense against infections and bacteria.
And yes, you get the benefits even on a partially cloudy day! But if you live closer to either of the poles and getting adequate sunlight is difficult, make sure to supplement with a bio-available form of Vitamin D. For more information, check out this informative article.
If you're cooped up indoors, one way you can still reduce stress AND improve your health at the same time is with laughter. No joke! Watch comedies on TV, listen to humourous podcasts, read funny books, play a silly game with family or friends (online is fine if "social distancing" is a requirement right now). Here's an article from the Mayo clinic on the many benefits of laughter.
7. Cuddle your fur-babies
If you have animals, and particularly dogs or cats, spending more time with them is a great way to manage and reduce stress. We've known this for years - pet therapy programs now exist world-wide in nursing homes, hospice care, and cancer centers. Many Universities now set up "puppy rooms" at exam time to help students cope with heightened stress. The purr of a cat has even been shown to physically reduce blood pressure, and cat ownership reduces mortality from heart attack and stroke!
Make sure you hear me - I'm not suggesting you go out and get a pet if you don't already have one, just in order to help you deal with the current crisis. Pet ownership is a big responsibility, and a long-term one. But if you already have a "fur-baby", now is a great time to snuggle and play with them.
8. Get physical
I will let you interpret this one how you will, because any interpretation is healthy and helpful. If this means having sex with your partner, go for it! That's a great way to inject some oxytocin, the so-called love hormone, into your system, and it also has physiological benefits, including lowering blood pressure and boosting your immune system.
If your mind didn't automatically go "there", then yes, I also mean getting some exercise - go for a walk or a run, a bike ride, or lift some weights. In the current climate of "social distancing", going to the gym probably isn't an option, but you can still use body weight exercises in your own home, such as the Primal Essential Movements.
9. Listen to music
Music has been clinically proven to help with stress reduction, helping you relax or increasing feelings of joy and optimism, depending on the type of music selected.
Go for some upbeat rock n' roll, modern jazz, latin, reggae, dubstep or hip-hop to cheer you up and get you moving if you're cooped up indoors - it's great as background while you houseclean, and you can get the whole family involved and on their feet!
Reach for classical, soft jazz or indigenous tunes for a more relaxing, meditative result. The meditation apps mentioned in point 4 above all have non-voiced musical background options to choose from, and you can also find such resources on YouTube.
One of the amazing things about minimalism is that decluttering has a certain cathartic quality about it. If you're cooped up indoors anyway, why not tackle that garage, basement or hallway closet you've been meaning to get to for so long? Studies show that the less clutter we have in our spaces, the more calm we are. If you're living in a mess, and you are having to spend more time in the midst of that mess due to "social distancing", that's a recipe for ramping up your stress level. So whether you chip away at it bit by bit, or go full Marie Kondo and pull everything out to deal with at once, I can almost guarantee you'll feel better with a calmer environment around you.
Pro tip: don't bother trying to sell everything that's not going in the trash, even if money is an issue for you right now. Trust me, I've been down that road, and it doesn't pay. Larger items that still have significant value, you can consider posting online for sale, but wait until the current situation is past so you're not exposing yourself to strangers who may be contagious (obviously). If you can't get to the charity shop right now with the rest, just find an out-of-the-way corner of your garage or basement to sequester it until things calm down.
11. Double down on a goal
This great advice comes from one of my mentors, Brendon Burchard. Focusing your attention and your mind on a goal that you already have in place is great at a time like this, because it keeps you proactive and centred. Eventually, life will settle into a "new normal", so if you keep moving forward and don't stall, you'll have a head start when things settle down again. Be the one still moving forward, so you don't have to start again from a place of complete inertia.
The goal you choose can be in any arena - career/business, health, relationships, etc. Personal growth and educational goals can get a big boost right now with online learning platforms being so readily available. If you're reading this on your own computer, tablet or phone, then you already have everything you need to engage in online learning!
And if you don't normally set goals, here's a great place to start!
12. Avoid looking at your investment portfolio
Unless your retirement is imminent, there should be adequate time for the markets to recover from the current downturn. Speak with your investment adviser, of course - I'm not qualified to give out specific investing advice - but checking the value of your stocks and mutual funds every day as the markets crash is not helpful, and could lead you to make rash decisions that ultimately make you worse off.
Here is some helpful advice from the pros on this topic.
13. Engage in hobbies
Pick up that knitting project that you abandoned a couple of years ago. Do some woodworking. Write some poetry or fanfiction. Sing. Play an instrument. Rediscover the joy of creativity.
People with hobbies are generally more able to manage stress and pursuing a hobby can actually make you more productive in other areas of your life! Hobbies foster a greater sense of wholeness to your identity and can put you into a state of "flow".
14. Go for a drive
Yes, I know the climate activists will be jumping all over me for this suggestion, but hear me out. I'm not advocating this as a daily activity, but if you're cooped up indoors, particularly with an elderly relative, it can be very therapeutic to get in the car and drive through the countryside for a bit once in awhile. You are still practicing "social distancing" while being able to enjoy the outdoors. Open the windows a crack to let some fresh air into the car, enjoy the view, don't rush. Pull over to let the speed-demons pass you when they show up on your tail. Soak in the beauty of nature.
I used to do this with my Mum at the weekends, and it's one of my most treasured memories of our time together. It relaxed us both, got her out of the house, and it was fun to get temporarily lost and then find our way home again, discovering new aspects of our region along the way.
15. Continue to eat and drink in a healthy manner
This one should be a no-brainer, but I'm putting it in here anyway. One of the best ways to mitigate physical stress in our body is to feed it the right foods for optimal wellness. We also now know that about 70% of our immune system is connected to gut health. So how do you promote a healthy gut?
Follow the Primal Blueprint. Cut out sugar. Cut out grains and legumes. Avoid alcohol. Avoid junk food. Avoid inflammatory and partially-hydrogenated oils such as canola, soy and so-called "vegetable oil". Eat lots of veggies (locally grown if possible), low-glycemic fruit such as berries, good quality meat and high-fat dairy if you can tolerate it. Add in fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi for better balance in gut flora.
I can hear the protests now - how can I eat this way when I'm supposed to stay home all the time? I know it's hard; just do the best you can. Yes, you may have to resort to canned vegetables rather than fresh if you're quarantined, and the farmer's markets have been closed down for now, but grocery stores still have plenty of fresh veggies if you can get out to shop. If you can afford it and have freezer space, buy club-size packages of meat, separate it and freeze in single-meal packages.
That said, we do have to be flexible in these difficult days, for logistical reasons if nothing else. I myself bought lentils, beans and rice as a contingency if I have to be quarantined for a bit, and I do have frozen, gluten-free dinners on hand in case I get sick and don't feel like cooking. But... I'm saving these as a last resort. For as long as I can, I'm trying to eat fresh, healthy and gut-supporting food, and I encourage you to do the same.
16. Reach out and help others
Do you know someone with an illness or chronic condition who's afraid to leave their house to shop for essentials? Why not offer to shop or run other errands for them? (Note: I'm not suggesting paying for the goods, necessarily, although if you can afford to and want to help out a vulnerable person, it will surely be appreciated). If you're worried about face-to-face contact, have them leave the money in an envelope in their mailbox, and when you return, leave the items on the porch and ring the doorbell before you leave (or text them if they are tech-savvy!).
Pick up the phone and call someone to make sure they're ok. Do a Zoom call or Facetime them. We can stay connected even in the midst of "social distancing", and our loneliest citizens will feel even more lonely and desperate if we're all focusing on ourselves at this time and ignoring them.
But this suggestion also has selfish benefits. Taking time to think of others and do a good turn for them takes the focus off ourselves and our own problems for a time, and as such helps us manage and reduce our own stress.
17. Maintain (or establish) a great morning routine
If you're into personal development, this advice may seem almost cliche at this point. If you're not, it may be completely new to you. Regardless, it's a timeless and proven game changer.
Taking control of your day before it starts prevents you from drifting through the hours and being buffeted by every crisis and piece of bad news that flies in your direction. You get to decide how you spend your time, instead of living in reaction.
Many thought leaders and influencers, such as Mel Robbins, Hal Elrod, Tim Ferris, Rachel Hollis, Brendon Burchard and others have shared their own morning routines. Find one that fits your personality and lifestyle, choose one as a base and customize it, or start from scratch and create your own.
Think of this as an anchor that keeps you moored when the swirling seas of chaos are buffeting you around. Sticking to a daily routine, and in particular one that starts your day off by putting you in control, means you're expending less psychic energy during the day trying to decide what to do and when to do it, and leaves more reserves of decision power and motivation to tackle the challenges the day will bring.
18. Wind down well in the evening
We are often our own worst enemies when it comes to preparing ourselves for a great night's rest, even at the best of times. Here's how to wind down well, so you can get a great night's sleep...
Stop watching the evening news. In fact, no news after dinnertime is a good rule to adopt, even when there isn't a gong show going on out there. Instead, try unplugging from TV and digital media entirely. Turn the lights down low in the house. Listen to soft music. Read. Play board games. Meditate. Pray. Do yoga. Play with the kiddos before their bedtime. Cuddle with your sweetie in front of a fireplace (if you don't have one, check out YouTube!)
You may have noticed that a lot of these recommendations have been mentioned individually in the points above. That's no coincidence. Most of us are accumulating stress throughout the day, and by evening time we are wound up as tight as a spring. Is it any wonder we can't sleep?
The more of the above strategies we can put into practice in our lives, the better equipped we will be to weather not only this current turbulent time, but any situation where our life feels like it's spinning out of control.
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