I think it is safe to say that most people are feeling stressed during the current coronavirus lockdown. People are stuck at home. Many have reduced income. Parents are juggling childcare, home schooling, and worrying about family members at risk. Families hunkered down may enjoy precious moments together but are also going stir crazy together.
Everyone feels worry and stress. We ponder questions like: Who will get sick? Am I and my family safe? What will happen to the economy? Other questions weigh on us too, like: What should I make for dinner (again)? How can I keep my children engaged? When will I get a quiet moment? How can I stay healthy and fit while stuck at home? Others are thinking I’m lonely and isolated, I’m bored or I can’t pay my bills.
And the uncertainty. No one knows what will be. How long will this last? How will we get through this? What will my life look like afterwards?
The thing is — we all need to stay as healthy as possible during this health crisis but the stress and recurrent thoughts reduce our immunity.
How does this work?
Stress itself occurs when our life events surpass our abilities to cope. We experience feelings of anxiety, fear, tension, anger or sadness. These emotions lead to changes in our body such as increased heart rate, blood pressure and sweating and are part of our “fight or flight” stress response. This stress response also causes our body to secrete hormones to deal with the stress — most notably cortisol. It’s important to emphasize here that just thinking negative thoughts or feeling negative emotions can create these physiological changes.
Biologically our bodies are designed to handle stress efficiently but the expectation is that the stress will last for a short time — from a few minutes to a few hours. And that then there will be an extended period of recovery — “rest and digest” — where the body can reboot and cortisol levels will return to normal. Resting and slow breathing are great ways to engage the rest and digest system. Then the body is as good as new — or possibly even stronger than when we started. In fact, short term stressors can actually strengthen our immune system.
The problem is that for most of us — the stress of COVID-19 has become chronic and the uncertainty of when it will end leads to more stress. That means that we never really shift out of “fight or flight” and into the “rest and digest” mode after the stressor ends. Instead, we are constantly feeling and generating negative emotions that lead to stress. When our bodies shift into this chronic state of stress the elevated cortisol from the stress response interferes with our immune system and its ability to fight off an invader like a virus.
High cortisol can decrease the number of lymphocytes (white blood cells) that our body produces. It is the white blood cells that spearhead the attack on the foreign invader like a virus — so we certainly don’t want fewer of them. At the end of the day our stressed bodies have lowered immunity making it more difficult to feel good or to fight off a viral infection like COVID-19.
So what can we do to help ourselves?
There are so many paths to decrease stress and boost immunity. I will list some of my favorite ones here but please take into account that this list is not exhaustive.
- Eat an immune-boosting diet to help reduce the negative effects of stress. Cut out sugar, white flour and processed foods. Focus on fresh fruits and vegetables and eat all the different colors to vary the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants in your body. Try to create set mealtimes and if you can eat together as a family — even better. Do not underestimate the power of food.
- Get more sleep. Sleep is the natural time when our bodies rest and regenerate. Sleeping at night helps regulate cortisol in our bodies which combats the effects of stress. Pick a regular bedtime and stick to it. Aim to be asleep by 11 p.m. and to stay asleep for 8 hours.
- Try a meditative practice. Any practice where we stop getting lost in our usual repetitive thoughts, focus our minds, and breathe deeply will help bring our bodies into that all important “rest and digest” mode. This reduces the effects of stress. You can use prayer, hitbodedut, or mindfulness. Try the headspace app on your phone or you can try this simple exercise: Find a comfortable position either sitting in a chair or lying down. Begin a gentle in and out breath, paying attention to your belly. This breath should be quiet yet deep and very relaxed. Count to 4 on the in breath and to 4 or 6 on the out breath. After a few breaths choose a number — I like 25 — and count backwards from 25 to 1 — counting a number at the very beginning of the in breath (the moment when you switch from out breath to in breath) while maintaining the counting from 1-4 on each in breath and out breath. If you lose count from 25 backwards just go back to the last number you remember and continue from there.
- Heart focused meditation — The HeartMath Institute is a non-profit organization that develops tools to help people lower stress and self-regulate their emotions. Their research focuses on the power of positive emotion and the ability of the heart to regulate the brain and emotions. I have found in my clinic that many people find this type of exercise easier to do than the more traditional types of meditation. Here is a simple exercise to try: 1)Take 3 deep and calming breaths, paying attention to your belly. 2) Choose a person, object or place that opens your heart and evokes an emotion like love, gratitude, or compassion (hint: loved ones and pets are great objects for this) 3)Focus on that person, object or place while imagining radiating a beam of that feeling of love, gratitude or compassion towards your chosen object for a few minutes.
- Visualization is the process of imagining a desired outcome often through imagery and it is an effective way to relieve stress as long as you choose your mental imagery carefully. Remember, your physiology responds to the pictures and thoughts you hold in your head. Try this: Take 3 deep and calming breaths paying attention to your belly. Imagine a white light entering through the top of your head and slowly spreading down from the crown of your head to your whole body. Imagine your body filled with light and see this light bringing perfect health to each and every cell of your body.
- Use breath centered movement. Really any movement is breath centered — you just have to focus. It is best to aim for gentle movement for the purpose of combating stress and building immunity. Practices like yoga, qi gong, and tai chi combine gentle movement with breathing. There are plenty of online videos.
- EFT/tapping –– is a self-help tool that was created in the 1970s that consists of gently tapping on specific acupuncture points on the head, trunk and hand combined with therapeutic speech. Recent research shows that simply tapping on the points lowers stress and cortisol and improves blood flow. I recommend 3 rounds of just tapping, with no words, to lower stress.
- Call a friend — social isolation is a huge risk factor for lowered immunity. Focus on the people you have in your life. Think of them. Call them. Or set up a Zoom conference.
The current situation is definitely challenging. But we can use simple (and free) strategies to help ourselves cope with the difficulty. Hopefully we will not just survive this but perhaps, using these tools, we can come out of this coronavirus crisis stronger than when we began.