Slowly, tentatively, the world is opening back up, but some stress about what’s safe will remain. Here’s how to reclaim your calm. 05/20/2020
During CovidTime in New York City, my friend Jennifer took 15 minutes while walking her dog each morning to create a “mandala”—arranging flowers or sticks or stones into a symmetrical, satisfying circle. “Whatever was bothering me when I woke up just melted away,” she told me.
Is your world opening up again? You have choices to make. Is summer camp safe for the kids? Should you sell that stock? If you’re out of work, should you take the first offer just in case another won’t come? Maybe you can’t wait to join the gang at happy hour, but your wife says the crowd is insane.
To make choices calmly, we’ll all need to find our own mandala-peace. Exercise, greenery, play, good nutrition, sleep, and emotional closeness are especially important now.
Outdoor activities like biking don’t require you to share a locker room. Finding buddies or an outdoor class is a good move, as exercise tends to make us feel more connected. One study of older couples found that they felt closer if only one of them exercised, and exercising together was even better (Yorgason et al, 2018). A good workout will make you more resilient, less reactive to stress. The lactate released from your muscles travels to your brain and acts like an anti-anxiety drug (Karnib et al, 2019). Runner’s high, in fact, seems to rely on endocannabinoids, the same chemicals mimicked by marijuana, which can be calming (Fuss et al, 2015). Just be patient if you’ve fallen out of shape and ramp up your reconditioning regime slowly.
There’s accumulating evidence to back the Japanese trend for “forest-bathing” to reduce stress (Antonelli et al, 2019). In an early study (Park et al, 2010), one team walked in the city, the other in a forest. The next day, the teams switched walking routes. Both times, the forest walkers lowered their stress-hormone cortisol, pulse rate, and blood pressure. A good dose of sunlight will also up your vitamin D levels.
Churchill painted to combat the stress of a world war. He was on the right path. Researchers found measurable drops in cortisol when participants spent 45 minutes playing with felt-tipped pens, clay, or collage materials (Kaimal et al 2016). But visual art is only one way to be creative. The idea is to build play – any kind that appeals to you - into your day and not worry about talent or praise.
Stay-at-home may have had you eating nonstop. It's actually good to graze, eating small amounts during the day if you're eating vegetables, whole fruit, or maybe some wild salmon jerky strips. In a study of nearly 20,000 U.S. adults, healthy snackers had better diets overall than the non-snackers and they didn't weigh more (Nicklas et al, 2014). But stress or boredom may have driven you to potato chips and ice cream. Nutrition is especially important if you tend to get depressed or have had serious setbacks because of the coronavirus. In a review of more than 40 studies, researchers concluded that the Mediterranean Diet, rich in fish and vegetables, is a good bet to avoid depression (Lassale, et al, 2018). The Mediterranean diet combined with omega-3 supplements may even help treat depression (Parletta et al, 2017).
Missing even a little sleep can make you more anxious the next day (Simon et al, 2020), so if you picked up insomnia or slipped into odd hours during stay-at-home, make sleep your mission. To turn around night-owl tendencies, try to get sunlight early in the day to reset your circadian rhythm.
Feeling lonely is bad for your mental and physical health, much research shows (Beutel et al 2017). Solo time is fine, but people need satisfying relationships. Acceptance is essential. Your 30-year-old daughter’s ready to go back on Tinder - may she find love. Your 92-year-old aunt is bent on a cruise - God bless her! You may or may not find these decisions wise depending on your own risk tolerance, but remember that even experts disagree on the best course, so be humble before correcting others.
During the shutdown, there was a sense of pause. Even if you had more time, you might have put off tasks that felt hard, stirring up anxiety, confusion, helplessness, or resentment. But procrastination ends up making you feel worse and is linked to poorer health (Sirois and Pychyl, 2013). (By the way, procrastinators are often night owls, and benefit from taking the first productive step later in the day when more alert.)
Acceptance and courage come together. It’s not easy to accept that without effective vaccines we’re all still at risk of infection. Even immunity after a bout of COVID-19 may not last. You may have lost a job or business. In the face of it all, remember that human beings are the most resilient creatures on earth. You can indeed find courage for a do-able challenge, and to practice a calming “mandala ritual” that’s uniquely yours.
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