UF Health wellness expert and emergency medicine physician talks about how to relieve chronic stress during COVID-19
The challenges of COVID-19 have led to increased stress for many people. Whether it’s struggling financially, losing a loved one or battling anxiety and fear during the pandemic, stress is real and can result in mental and physical illness. Understanding the effects of stress and how to manage it is important to staying healthy during this unusual time.
The good, the bad and the ugly stress
Mark McIntosh, MD, medical director of UF Health Employee Wellness, says stress is the reaction to stimulus that challenges one’s physical or mental equilibrium. When a person becomes stressed, the sympathetic nervous system is activated, triggering the fight-or-flight response in the body. A cascade of physiologic changes take place, potentially giving the body increased speed and strength.
In small amounts or at the right time, stress may allow you to feel more focused, which may lead to increased creativity and improved performance. For example, athletes may feel stress prior to competition, but a healthy level of stress can increase focus and ultimately enhance performance.
However, chronic stress can have devastating effects on the body, leading to mental and physical illness.
Managing the side effects of stress
Since chronic stress can impair the immune system and result in illness, building that system is a good way to manage the negative impact of stress. Getting enough rest is crucial. According to McIntosh, adequate sleep recharges the immune system, enhancing a person’s ability to battle illness.
“When we are stressed and not sleeping well, our brain sends a signal to our adrenal glands, altering levels of cortisol, a hormone that plays a key role in the protection of our overall health and well-being.” McIntosh said.
Good nutrition also supports the immune system. During this stressful season, many may turn to emotional eating to find comfort. Unfortunately, poor nutrition doesn’t help. Instead, establish a healthy, balanced diet with whole grains, healthy greens, fats and protein.
Practicing mindfulness, meditation and breathing exercises are all effective in relieving stress and anxiety. When faced with circumstances out of your control, staying present on the simple things you can control, like your breathing, is helpful to lowering anxiety and relieving stress.
McIntosh says that meditation and breathing exercises help activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which can counteract the damaging effects of chronic stress. The parasympathetic nervous system controls the rest and digest functions of the body contrasting the sympathetic nervous system which activates the fight or flight.
Decreasing screen time and taking breaks from the news are other helpful ways to lower stress. McIntosh recommends keeping a gratitude journal to focus on the positive things that are happening.
Staying active and exercising daily also help relieve stress. Florida recently allowed gyms to reopen with safe protocols in place. However, many people may still feel uncomfortable returning to public fitness centers. In this case, exercising at home and in the park remain effective ways to be active.
McIntosh recommends engaging in any type of outdoor activity you find fun and challenging, such as walking, jogging or biking. High-intensity interval training is an option that can be done in less time, yet still has the benefits of longer workouts. Trying new exercise routines on YouTube and practicing yoga are also good options.
Other outdoor activities that can help to lower stress include fishing, gardening, flying a kite or walking on the beach. For those with children, camping in the backyard is a fun activity to get fresh air while learning new skills.
“It’s important to look for something you enjoy doing,” McIntosh said. “Otherwise, the benefits won’t be quite the same.”
For more tips on stress management, read Keeping Stress at Bay on the Health Matters blog.
Medical Director, Palliative Care; Medical Director, UF Health Corporate Wellness