Welcome to our new stressor: Coronavirus

In America, and globally, levels of stress, worry and anger have been on an upward trend for several years. As if that’s not enough of a concern, we now have the outbreak of Coronavirus arriving in the midst of these already-high levels of stress and anxiety. Given the situation, it would not be alarmist to ask yourself if you have the mental and emotional resources to cope with yet another stressor. 3FD2D89B-6B21-44CE-8A37-648FCD91557E

We can’t isolate Coronavirus from the other stressors in our lives. Its impacts – especially to the economy – may intersect with, and exacerbate, other existing stressors such as worries about job security, the election, health issues, and our children’s futures. When we don’t know exactly what will happen or how bad it will be, what can we do to calm our worries?

For any kind of stressor, there are usually two main ways of handling it – either through a problem-focused approach or an emotion-focused approach. The problem-focused approach asks, “What actions can I take to either eliminate or change this stressor?” The emotion-focused approach doesn’t change the stressor, but may change how you think about it, how often you think about it or how you interact with it.

With Coronavirus, there aren’t many problem-focused steps to take. Why? Because the spread of the virus really isn’t in any individual’s ability to control. The actions we can take are simply those we’ve read about in the press for the past couple of weeks:

  • Wash your hands, frequently and well. See how here.
  • Don’t cough or sneeze on other people.
  • Keep clear of people who seem sick.
  • Don’t go to work if you are sick.

With such a limited ability to act, the only way to keep our worries under control is to look at the emotion-focused strategies we have available. These kinds of strategies help us refrain from catastrophizing, they distract us, they help us reframe our thinking about the virus. Luckily, there are a lot of these kinds of tools available:

  • Tune out the noise on social media. Get your information straight from the CDC here.
  • Reframe the story – instead of focusing on the numbers of cases, think about the billions of people who are well.
  • Express your worries – either to friends or family; or by writing them down  in a journal.
  • Distract yourself – watch a movie, play a game, start a project.
  • Relax with meditation, prayer, or simple breathing practices.
  • Get outside in nature.
  • If necessary, say “STOP” when you find yourself obsessively focusing on the negative.

The difference between the problem-focused and the emotion-focused strategies reminds me in some ways of the concept of effort vs ease in yoga. Effort (or sthira) is about steadiness and strength, while ease (sukha) is about feeling light and balanced. It’s about when to step on the gas (take action) and when to ease off the pedal (find relaxation). We need both of these for managing stress so that we can regain a steady state where we have that sense of balance.

While we may not feel completely easeful until the danger has passed, we can do a lot to calm anxiety by using the tools we have. We may not be in control of this virus, but we are most definitely in control of how we react to it. As Henry Ward Beecher wrote, “Every tomorrow has two handles. We can take hold of it with the handle of anxiety or the handle of faith.”

 

 

 

 

 

It’s no magic wand, but it is a plan

Most of us can probably rattle off any number of things on a daily basis that stress us out. So when you hear that April is stress awareness month, you’re probably asking why you need a special month to let you know something so obvious. But it is one thing to see the path you’re on, and something quite different to envision where you’d like to be and figure out how to get there.

magicwandWe get so used to living with our stressors that they become like old shoes we don’t even notice are wearing out – until the sole falls off or the heel breaks. To find a new way to live calls for paying attention to that old shoe before it breaks. It requires a heightened awareness of stress, some self-exploration, and a commitment to change. I don’t have a magic wand that will whisk away stress, but I do have a 6-step plan for identifying your stressors, seeing how they affect you, and learning ways to lessen their impact:

  1. Just how stressed are you? Assessment is always a good place to begin, and the Perceived Stress Scale is one way to do that. This scale has been the foremost instrument used in self-reported stress studies for years. It’s quick and easy to score, and you can even see how you compare to averages for your age group and sex.
  2. What are your stress symptoms? Stress affects all of us differently, but there are some common physical, mental and emotional symptoms that are often related to stress. Perhaps that nagging back ache, or the irritability you feel sometimes, are related to stress. Use a symptoms checklist to see how you are faring.
  3. What are your triggers? Is your stress mostly related to the hassles of daily life, such as traffic and time pressures, or do you have bigger issues like chronic illness, relationship problems or financial worries?

Once you know a little more about yourself and your stressors, consider these steps:

  1. Eliminate, or interact differently with, your stressors. The simpler strategies here are delegating tasks and saying no to new commitments. Then consider whether the things you really value are represented in how you spend most of your time – should you make changes to live more in alignment with your values? Another way to change interaction is improving communication – thereby strengthening relationships and perhaps avoiding some conflict-related stress.
  2. Change how you think about your stressors. What’s your story? How do you perceive your situation, your misfortunes, and the hand you’ve been dealt? Practice substituting positive statements for some of the negative self-talk in your mental narration. Use humor to defuse stressful situations. Consider your blessings and express gratitude for them. Bring mindful attention to the people and tasks you deal with.
  3. Live more peacefully with the persistent stressors. Let’s face it – some stressors don’t go away and aren’t that amenable to re-thinking. That’s when social, emotional and spiritual resources come into play. Call on your friends and community for support; cry on someone’s shoulder; talk and laugh with others. Cultivate a spiritual life; feel connected to something bigger than yourself; spend time in nature. And finally, incorporate some kind of relaxation technique into your daily life: meditation, breathing, yoga, and massage are all good choices.Woman in the sun

We can discover santosha (contentment) every day if we look for it. As Walt Whitman said, “Keep your face always toward the sunshine – and the shadows will fall behind you.”

No mud, no Christmas tree?

It’s the week before Christmas, and somehow it seems appropriate that I’m reading “No Mud, No Lotus” at the same time that I’m going around giving presentations to people on holiday stress management! In the book, Thich Nhat Hahn says that, “One of the most difficult things for us to accept is that there is no realm where there’s only happiness and there’s no suffering.” When it comes to holidays, sometimes we set our expectations for only one or the other, not realizing that happiness and suffering must co-exist.

IMG_1262Suffering can run the gamut from everyday stressors like traffic and annoying co-workers, to physical pain and poor health, to anxiety and depression, to the overwhelming grief that accompanies losing a loved one. But it is the “mud” of suffering that makes happiness real and meaningful. At the holidays, if we “get stuck in the mud of life”, wallowing in our pain, we risk turning into Scrooges. Yet if we are too starry-eyed about the ideal holiday, we feel slammed when something turns out differently. How do we find a middle ground and feel comfortable being there?

Here are 5 ways to improve your holiday — body, mind and spirit:

Start by acknowledging the bad along with the good. Thich Nhat Hahn writes, “We have to learn how to embrace and cradle our own suffering and the suffering of the world, with a lot of tenderness.” One of the best tools for doing this is to keep a little notebook near your bed, and use it to write each morning or evening. Write about what you are grateful for, or write about something that causes stress or pain in your life. Be present with the emotions that arise. You will probably gain insight and perspective from the process of telling your story.

Make sure your days are values-driven. How long has it been since you considered what is most important to you in life? Is it family, money, work, service to others? Whatever your core values are, how does your holiday time align with them? Are you spending time each day on the things that are the most meaningful to you? If you plan your day with your values in mind, you will end each day feeling better.

Practice mindful breathing. All suffering manifests in the body somewhere, but by reuniting mind with body, we can relax that tension. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “The great news is that oneness of body and mind can be realized just by one in-breath.” When we focus on the movement of the breath, in and out, our minds are released for a while from their monkey-like tendency to jump from thought to thought.

Communicate. Sometimes relationships get strained around the holidays because of conflicting traditions, past grievances, or differing expectations. We often assume things about other people, their motives, their likes and dislikes. Try approaching a difficult situation with love rather than fear. People may surprise you.

Keep yourself healthy. Sleep long, eat well, and move often to use up stress hormones and negative energy. From No Mud, No Lotus: “…if we don’t have the time and the willingness to take care of ourselves, how can we offer any genuine care to the people we love?” Just as we are instructed on airplanes to put on our own oxygen masks first, before helping others, we need to do the same in everyday life. Only by starting with self-care are we wholly able to care for others.

“If you know how to make good use of the mud, you can grow beautiful lotuses.” How has your holiday grown out of you and your experiences? Perhaps you can see its reflection in the clear water that runs after the mud washes away.