Pandemics are Stressful - Take Care of Yourself & Your Brain
By Holly A. Bardutz, PhD
Our world has changed — our social lives, our work lives… everything. We are bombarded with news, graphs and projections. How we are doing? How bad can things get? We are living in a pandemic, and unimaginably quickly, our lives have changed. We are self-isolating in our homes, working from home and wondering about our economic futures. We hear that we are starting to loosen restrictions and for some people, that is good news and for others, that is scary news. With all this, it is not surprising we are feeling some level of stress.
Stress & Your Immune System
The bad news is that if you are constantly stressed, your immune system will not work as well as it could. Ironically, during a pandemic, it is particularly bad for us to be worried about the pandemic! There is a good reason for this. If you were being chased by a bear, your immediate need is to survive — to get out of there as fast as possible. You need to run! So to survive the immediate danger, the body gets you out of there. The blood goes to your muscles, your heart rate increases, and you get a rush of adrenalin. The body is threatened and basic survival is the priority. Other things are put on hold. Digestion slows down. Fighting a cold at that second is not nearly as important as getting away from the immediate danger.
So now today in 2020, most of us are not fighting bears, but our bodies still work the same. If the brain perceives that there is a threat, the fight or flight response is the same. The problem is if the body never gets a break from what is perceived to be a danger, it never returns to normal function. The natural state and normal bodily functions are kept at bay. When we are chronically stressed, we can’t fight cold, flu and other viruses, such as COVID-19. Our bodies need a break from chronic stress for our immune systems to function optimally.
Some Stress is Good for Us
The good news is that some stress is actually good for us. If we were never stressed, then we would be bored. Another way of looking at being bored is that your brain is not being challenged enough. For optimum brain health, we need to have some cognitive or thinking challenges on a regular basis to challenge our brains a bit so it keeps on its toes, so to speak. If we think of stress as a form of challenge, it is a good thing. It actually helps us to be resilient for future challenges. Ideally, we need some time to be challenged and then take a break from the challenge or stress to get back to a normal state during which we repair and maintain and get stronger for the next challenge.
Taking a Break from Chronic Stress
So what can we do to take control and purposely take a break from chronic stress?
There are in fact some things we can do to increase our own immunity! That is exciting and empowering for the individual and for society because one of the many things this pandemic has taught us is that what we do affects others. Truly, no man is an island.
So, what can we do? We can do things from a thought level and a lifestyle level.
Thoughts & Thinking — Give Your Brain a Break
From a thought level, become aware of the thoughts we are thinking and choose what thoughts we feed into our brains. Our brains do not know if what we are telling it is imagined or real. It just reacts to what we are feeding into it. For example, we can take a break if we notice that watching the news is causing us to feel stressed all the time. Decide for yourself how much you are going to watch the news according to your own self-interest and mental health.
Also, purposely choose the thoughts you are thinking! Be aware of your thoughts and learn to think thoughts that allow you to feel calm, relaxed and positive. Take a break for an hour and choose to think thoughts such as things that are going well in your life, and things you are grateful for and people you love. For most of us, most of the time, we can safely remind ourselves that right now, at this moment, we are okay. This tells your brain it can relax and your body can take a break from stress and work on other things — such as your immunity. Think as positively as you can as often as you can.
Helpful Lifestyle Choices & Habits
On a lifestyle level, there are habits we can adopt in our lives such as meditation, exercising, eating well, and getting enough sleep. Have a sense of humor and look for reasons to smile and laugh. Stay connected in some way with positive people who care about you and whom you care about.
Some micro habits can be done often during the day. Think about your muscles. Are they tense? Try to relax. And breathe. Just breathe.
To keep ourselves healthy as individuals and as a province, do all the things we are being told to do — wash your hands, stay home unless necessary and social distance. And to that list, I would add, purposely take care of your brain.
We live in a great province and in one of the safest countries in the world. That is something we can be grateful for right now!