The world is currently in the grip of a major health crisis. The corona virus has caused more disruption than any other event I can remember in my lifetime. Staying healthy right now is at the forefront of everyone’s mind, but the more we worry about getting sick, the less capable our immune system is to deal with the virus.
The trouble here lies with cortisol, often called the stress hormone. Cortisol inhibits your lymph system which is a key player in fighting off viruses, so in order to stay healthy in stressful times, stress management is a really powerful tool. Here some of the tools for stress management I’ve found work best for me and my clients.
This is a well known tool for stress management, our nervous systems are inextricably linked to our breath. As a species we have evolved to deal with a huge range of physically and mentally stressful situations. Evading predators and bringing down potentially very dangerous prey to name two. When our bodies are under stress, our breathing rate increases to keep up with the demand for oxygen. However, modern habits can mean that our breathing rate is high even when we are not at any physical demand or risk. However it is as if the nervous system still interprets the increased breathing rate as a potentially life or death situation so background stress levels rise.
Simply noticing what your breath is doing can have a calming affect, how long do you inhale and exhale for? which parts of your body are involved in the movement of breathing? Beyond this intentionally bringing your breathing rate down can be very effective Try counting the length of your inhales and exhales, and gradually stretch them out. Keep it comfortable, trying to take it to extremes could have the opposite effect! Also it is best to keep them the same length, you may find it easier to do a long inhale than exhale, but this might not always have a calming effect.
These days we can get by in lif with a whole lot less movement than we were hunter gatherers. We don’t need to travel distances on foot to find food or exert ourselves to catch it. However, our Nervous systems (and our bodies in general) haven’t necessarily adapted to this. Rest is a great way for the body to recover and absolutely necessary for health, but extended periods of very little movement is going to stress your body and your mind. Joints require movement for lubrication and mentally movement and exercise releases endorphins and serotonin and helps us feel calm and combat anxiety. From an evolutionary point of view our nervous system is wired to think it should be out and about trying to find food, give your body what it needs by doing at least some light exercise every day.
Crucially for fighting off viruses however, our lymphatic system (responsible for transporting infection fighting white blood cells has no pump of it’s own and requires our bodies to move to stimulate the flow. Keeping active is more important now than ever, I’ll be releasing a video of a few great movements for the lymph system soon, so stay tuned for that…
This is perhaps the most challenging topic in the light of the current situation around physical distancing but this can also be an opportunity to renew or work on physical contact within your own household. Physical contact with other people (and even pets) has been shown to release the neurotransmitter oxytocin, which is strongly linked to greater relaxation along with reduced stress and anxiety. At the same time it helps create feelings of trust, good will an generosity, which are probably going to be needed over extended periods of inhabiting the same space. Even if you live alone self massage has been shown to help.
So the easiest way to get your oxytocin? hugs. A good long squeeze is best, rather than a brief embrace. It’ll lower your stress levels and so give your immune system the help that it needs, so go on, indulge yourselves.
Doing something just for the fun of it, particularly something new and challenging can work wonders for stress levels. Its is more than just distraction, free play is another thing that releases endorphins, lowers cortisol and creates strong bonds between people. it doesn’t have to be a recognised game, in fact I would advise having a go at making up something totally new and just let yourself get absorbed in it. just grab a ball or something similar and see what comes up, if you’ve got a partner, even better!
The key is to experiment, try new things, if something is becoming frustrating, just drop it. It’s play, if it’s not fun, you’re doing it wrong. It can be whatever you want it to be but I would recommend non screen based games to get the most benefit. The reason for this is that in video games you are always playing by someone else’s rules, you are limited by the imagination and skill of the programmers, outside the screen you set your own boundaries.
Our minds have lots of different ways of focusing and operating, and our evolution has led us to be very good at a particular narrow focus on interpreting and analysing symbols. Reading this page you are analysing the symbols of the alphabet which have a defined meaning to you which helps you to unpack what I’m thinking as I write it. One theory goes that we developed this skill of symbolic analysis from our ability to track animals through the marks that they left on the landscape. Through analysing those in the same way we could infer what the animal was doing as it left those marks.
This is a pretty amazing skill that has allowed us to achieve all kinds of things, but it comes at a bit of a cost. This narrow focus has been shown to put us into the beta brainwave state, a highly productive but potentially stress inducing state, especially when it is used almost exclusively as we are often encouraged to do in our lives. The neuroscientist Les Fehmi discovered away to counteract this however, by shifting our awareness from definite symbols, to open space. For example, you can try right now by changing your focus from these words, to the white space of the page behind them. Try and take it all in at once. Or try widening your awareness to include everything either side of the screen you are reading on. You most likely found it a challenge, which is kind of the point. Our minds can’t define the edges and boundaries of open space like they can with symbols and things we perceive as definite objects. This open focus helps us slip into the alpha brainwave state, associated with relaxation and stress relief.
This last one is perhaps a bit of a sore point for many confined to their home right now, but one thing that can combine with and compound the effects of everything above is just being outdoors. Studies are now coming thick and fast about the health benefits of being outdoors and even specific practices like the Japanese art of ‘Forest Bathing’ are becoming popular. I have way I love for tuning in with the wider world I’ll be sharing soon, but You don’t necessarily need to follow any particular protocol to get the benefits. Just hanging out, or doing whatever you would be doing anyway in the open air can be an amazing stress reliever and immune booster.
Maybe you are lucky enough to have a garden that you can still spend time in right now, or perhaps you are only getting out once a day for a health walk. Perhaps this time of being stuck indoors has given you new appreciation of how much you enjoyed getting out and about. Either way a bit of awareness and cultivation of how valuable this connection with nature is right now will carry on into your life once all this is over.
This is far from an exhaustive list, and finishing up now i’m thinking of even more ideas but i guess they’ll have to wait for another post… Stay healthy and stress free everyone and see you all on the other side!