Is the new coronavirus lifestyle leaving you more tired even though you theoretically have more leisure time? If so, you’re not alone, the new normal can have a larger effect on mental health and energy levels than you might imagine. Even though the daily commute, weekly yoga classes, and weekends out are being curtailed, it could be that your brain forgot to get the message! According to some experts, even when the body is doing less physically, the brain can still go into overdrive.
Short-term stressors have a useful purpose. In the case of swerving when a car cuts in front of you or running away from a threatening situation, stress makes us focus and problem-solve. But the long-term stress we can build up over time, in some cases due to events such as COVID-19, should not be underestimated as it can wear down the mind and body without us being aware of it.
Psychologist Craig N. Sawchuk, of the Mayo Clinic, says, “People face challenges that really activate the sympathetic nervous system, so it’s kind of a classic fight-or-flight response. You get the hormone release to help keep us going like adrenaline and cortisol―those are good. It’s really adaptive that our body can flip that switch. But it’s not meant to be a constant burn, either. And that’s where we run into these physical problems.”
Sawchuk goes on to say that with long-term stress, the brain is always trying to adapt. It must navigate fear, uncertainty, and challenges and, over time, the body itself gets tired from trying to juggle the emotional stress overload. “And that’s where you start to see some of the energy problems starting to happen where we’re fatigued,” Sawchuk said. “We may be actually resting a lot more, sometimes unintentionally so, but it’s not a restorative type of rest.”
Sawchuck notes that humans expend energy adapting to new challenges, processing emotion, regulating feelings and cognitions, and worrying. It may help you to conceive of this process by imagining, “physical, emotional and mental energy all drawing from that same pot, so we can think of multiple systems in our lives are constantly ‘on’ and in turn, are constantly draining and wearing away at us,” said Sawchuk.
Coping With Long-Term Stress
So, what can we do about this energy drain? It is always good to have the support of a therapist or psychologist, especially if you have been diagnosed with a substance use disorder. Johna Hansen is a licensed clinical social worker in New York City. She recommends several strategies to her clients for managing stress levels at home and we’ll list some major ones here.
Grounding: First off, Hansen suggests practicing grounding your thoughts. Just how is this done? According to Hansen, “Find an object that is familiar (i.e. your feet) and just notice the object for a minute to help ground yourself to the moment,” she said. Deep breathing can also help ground you. “Take 10 deep breaths on the hour or whenever you think about it,” Hansen suggests.
Diet: She also reinforces the idea that a healthy and well-balanced diet can go a long way toward managing stress levels. Hansen recommends eating three healthy daily meals around the same time and drinking lots of water. Those meals should also ideally be fresh whole foods and not processed foods.
Exercise: You can eat all the fruit and veg in the world, but unless you’re engaging in a healthy, balanced exercise routine, you’re not maximizing the effects of a good diet. If you are allergic to exercise, do something physical that serves a dual purpose, like cleaning out a closet or the garage, bike or walk when possible. Even just getting outside and enjoying the fresh air and the wonders of nature will get you going.
Unconditional Self Love: It’s all too easy to amp up stress levels if we get down on ourselves when we don’t meet our expectations. Remind yourself that failing to meet a goal can be a lesson learned, and skip the harsh self-talk. In other words, “Cut yourself some serious slack,” Hansen says.
Sawchuk echoes this sentiment by saying, “We have to watch out when we’re making unfair comparisons to people that we think are just doing great. Our goal isn’t to be perfect. Our goal is to be good enough. Being good enough is being kind to ourselves. There may objectively look like there’s more time available, but that’s not necessarily a good thing nor does it mean that we’re going to be more motivated or efficient. It’s about adaptation.” Don’t hesitate to seek help when you need it. As Hansen notes, “A mental health professional allows you to speak with someone who can focus specifically on your needs.”
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