Sharing how you feel with others is like unloading boxes
filled with bricks, you have been carrying all week.
Removing the weight of that heavy emotion
frees you and gives you hope – Shonelle George
As human beings, we carry stressors that add to the physical weight of the things we are already juggling. The psychological and emotional weight of loneliness, childhood trauma, anxiety, depression, and hurt weighs on our well-being, often activating our stress receptors (Dhabhar, 2011). These stressors become a threat to homeostasis (balance between psychological and physical processes) and trigger internal and external forces in a fight or flight response (Chovatiya & Medzhitov, 2014). Once those stressors are unleashed and left unmanaged, they counteract the body’s healthy physiologic and behavioral processes responsible for developing optimal functionality.
Our bodies become storehouses for unresolved and dysregulated emotions. When left unaddressed, these emotions can become toxic, chipping away at our physical and emotional stability. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has triggered internally generated feelings of worry, fear, externally generated realities of uncertainty, and helplessness that unfortunately contribute to the growing psychological distress cases. The emotions we now carry due to this pandemic weight more than our bodies can handle. For many of us, the weight of our stress has become too burdensome to carry.
During these difficult times, it is essential to remember that our emotions matter and we are not alone. The following coping strategies provide practical steps to lessen the emotional weights we have been carrying:
- Self-Care. Two simple words that can profoundly transform our health. The concept of self-care intentionally requires us to put ourselves first. This can be difficult for those who are natural caregivers and nurtures. For the mother who has just given birth to a baby, or the person caring for a sick family member, putting oneself first seems selfish and impossible. However, the concept of self-care is the ability to find space within our daily activities to bring our bodies and minds back into balance. The weight of our responsibilities generates heavy loads for us to carry. Self-care activities help to reduce stress. It does not have to be extravagant or costly. Simple things like:
- reading your favorite book, diffusing calming essential oils
- with your feet elevated in a cozy spot, sipping on a drink of your choice,
- watching your favorite tv show or listening to music (uninterrupted),
- taking a bubble bath or extended shower (add scented candles for effect),
- getting a Mani/Pedi (try a different color), or a massage
- ordering in from your favorite restaurant
Your self-care activity is about spending intentional and uninterrupted time doing something that helps YOU care for YOU.
- Social Support. Social support during these times can be challenging. Thankfully, technology allows us to connect with the people who love and care about us. Perhaps scheduling a google hangout game night, Netflix watch party, Facetime, or Zoom call (for those dealing with zoom fatigue– this can be counterproductive so make it as light and non-threatening as possible) with positive friends and family will help stay connected while having fun. Any contact with cheerful and fun-loving supporters can boost your spirits and create the social engagement you need to improve your mood. Talking to someone you can trust, who loves and cares for you will also help you through difficult days. Social distancing should not be social disconnection. Scrolling through social networking sites is not the most helpful either; this can become depressing, distracting, and anxiety-producing. Monitor your exposure and focus on people who are positive and add value to your life. Connection with others allows us to thrive even in challenging times.
- Positive Thinking and Positive Self-talk. Our thoughts have power and give life to how we handle the stressors we carry. While we need to take time to process the realities of uncomfortable situations, staying too long in a place of negative thoughts paralyzes our ability to escape from the damage negative thinking creates. Positive thinking and positive self-talk provide liberation from those internal and external irrational and negative thinking. When you practice positive affirmations, they help improve self-confidence, self-efficacy and lowers blood pressure. Used as a stress management tool, positive self-talk, has been shown to lessen feelings of distress, negative thought patterns, and improve coping skills. Positive thinking and positive self-talk exercises include:
- posting your favorite quote in an area that is visible throughout the day
- repeating affirmations particularly when negative thoughts and emotions flood our minds
- taking time to laugh (watching or reading comedy)
- being kind and gentle to yourself
- reconnecting to our faith and spiritual sources of empowerment
In situations where you typically respond negatively, think about the positives and speak those positives affirmations out loud. You can say things like,
- I capable
- I am beautiful
- I will get through this
- This is hard but I have been able to survive before; I can do it again
Think of some more affirmations and write them down; when challenging situations arise, say them aloud and let them circulate in the atmosphere. Remember, positive thinking and self-talk give life and lessen the burdens of the weights we carry.
- Breathe. The respiratory system is comprised of a network of organs and tissues that help us to breathe. Taking deep breaths allows your body to exchange incoming oxygen with outgoing carbon dioxide. Taking slow deep breaths lowers or stabilizes blood pressure, reduces tension, and anxiety, particularly in stressful situations. Deep breathing also improves concentration and memory. By practicing slow, deep breathing, your mind will calm down, and your body begins to relax, returning you to homeostasis (balance). Paced diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing is one of the easiest ways to produce a relaxation response, optimize breathing, and improve heart rhythm. Breathing enhances our capacity to manage stress. Here are some tips for practicing deep breathing:
- Find a comfortable place
- You can opt to play soft relaxing music in the background (but not necessary)
- Breathe in through your nose, allowing your body to fill up with air
- Breathe out through your nose
- As you breathe in, feel your belly rise. As you breathe out, feel your belly lower
- Visualize yourself breathing in a stressful situation
- Breathing out the stress while allowing yourself to let go of the things that weigh you down.
Breathing allows you to regain control. While there are some things and situations you did not have control of before. In this present moment, let your breath take control. Breathe in and allow your body to breathe out the stress, exhaustion, anger, hurt, pain, sadness. Focus on centering your thoughts on positive thinking. Regain control through your breath. Let the rhythm of your breath soothe you, ground you, affirm you, support you, and empower you. Stop now and breathe.
- Exercise/Physical Activity. Physical activity is a preventative measure used to decrease the development of premature diseases. Physical activity reduces stress, increases mental and emotional wellness, and regulates body function. The center for disease control (CDC) recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic and anaerobic activity per week to lower the risk for diseases (CDC, 2020). Some medical providers even consider exercise to be a useful adjunct (complement) to antidepressant medication. With some level of supervision, both aerobic and anaerobic exercises can produce a good antidepressant response after some time. Simply put, exercise improves mood and holistic wellness. Exercise does not have to be intimidating. Walking in the park, jogging, lifting light weights, dancing to your favorite song (on repeat) can support your physical activity goals.
- Watch What you Eat. Your food habits impact your health and wellness. Foods high in sugars and carbohydrates make you sluggish and tired. Introduce healthier options into your meal planning. Foods rich in fiber, protein, and daily consumption of vitamins work to improve your energy and digestion. Consider replacing high carb foods with green and purple leafy vegetables. Drink lots of water, it is recommended that you drink half of your body weight in ounces per day (I know, insane right! But it works). Staying hydrated improves your body’s ability to function by flushing out toxins. Eating healthy also boosts your immune system and aids in disease prevention. You can snack but avoid options that are processed, high in sodium, sugary, and high in fructose corn syrup. Talk with your health care provider about healthy food options and vitamins that support immunity defense.
- New Day, New Skill. It is time to bring your creativity to the surface. That hidden talent you have kept locked away! It’s time to unleash it. That’s righ! Participating in skill-building and talent enhancing activities support holistic wellness and lower stress. Do it yourself (DIY) projects, baking, sewing, knitting, decorating, and space remodeling will help to keep you active. Harvard University has been offering free online courses, this may be the perfect opportunity to learn a new skill or trade.
- Reach Out for Help. Some emotional burdens cannot be managed on our own. If you are experiencing feelings of loneliness, sadness, grief, anger, distress, or unhealthy thoughts, please reach out for help. The following resources are here for you. Call your healthcare provider if stress gets in the way of you being able to complete your daily activities. Free and confidential resourcescan also help you or a loved one connect with a skilled, trained counselor in your area.
So, as you reflect on the things you are carrying, remember, the healthiest you is the best you. Allow yourself to carry healthy emotions, coping skills, and a positive outlook. As you look around, know that many of us are facing similar challenges, you are not alone. Your self-care does not have to happen in isolation. You can care for yourself while you are being cared for and supported. You can also care for yourself while helping others. The gift of self-care (yes it is a gift for those who have genuinely experienced it) is also a reflection of communal care, in that, we care for ourselves while caring for others and vise versa. Because together we will survive this!
For additional resources:
Find a health care provider or treatment for substance use disorder and mental health
Want to find out your stress levels? Take this short self-evaluation. Find the Holmes- Rahe Stress Inventory by clicking here: https://www.stress.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/stress-inventory-1.pdf
Central for Disease Control. Physical Activity. https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/index.html
Chovatiya, R., & Medzhitov, R. (2014). Stress, inflammation, and defense of homeostasis. Molecular cell, 54(2), 281–288. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.molcel.2014.03.030
Dhabhar, F. S. (2011). Effects of stress on immune function: Implications for immunoprotection and immunopathology. In R. J. Contrada & A. Baum (Eds.), The handbook of stress science: Biology, psychology, and health (pp. 47–63). New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.
Gold, P. W. (2015). The organization of the stress system and its dysregulation in depressive illness. Molecular Psychiatry, 20(1), 32–47. https://doi.org/10.1038/mp.2014.163
Harvard University Free online Courses https://online-learning.harvard.edu/catalog/free