The longevity of the COVID pandemic is an enormous challenge to many of us. Our capacity to adapt to acutely stressful situations such as natural disasters has been severely depleted by the long-term nature of the pandemic. Our surge capacity, an adaptation mechanism that helps us survive short-term difficulties, is not designed to get us through long term disasters such as the pandemic.
There is no handbook for functioning in a pandemic however it’s apparent that we need to accept that life will probably be different for some time. Putting in place strategies that maintain our personal wellbeing is now a priority.
Ironically, many of us are denied self-care activities as a result of the pandemic. For many people coffee with friends, a massage or a visit to the gym are the types of self care activities that are now out of reach, so flexibility and resourcefulness is needed.
Here’s some researched-based strategies to practise at home that will help develop feelings of equilibrium and calm.
Take some deep breaths
Neuroscience shows us how breathing shifts the brain into different states. Short, sharp breaths send a message to the brain that we are moving, even though we may be sitting in a chair. Conversely, slow, rhythmic breathing tells the brain that we’re calm and feeling good. It’s the quickest way to engage the body’s relaxation response.
Make regular deep breathing part of your day. Choose a time of the day that suits you to practise and stick to it. Consider linking deep breathing to regular activity such as before the start of the day, during lunchtimes, or when you take a daily walk.
Create mindful moments
The human mind is restless, wandering all over the place. This is exhausting, particularly for anxious personality types. Mindfulness is a simple way to make your wandering mind rest and settle into the present, closing the fight or flight response in our amygdala, the part of the brain which plays an important role in emotion and behaviour.
Mindfulness can be practised anywhere, anytime, such as when we’re eating lunch, taking a walk or sitting in a chair at home. It can be done in short two to five minute sessions, which means it can be squeezed in between many regular commitments.
Exercise is a healthy way to improve mood, relieve tension and prepare for sleep. Endorphins, the feel-good chemicals that increase feelings of wellbeing, are released which explains why many people get hooked on running, walking and other forms of movement.
Exercise can easily be set aside when life pressures mount, unless it’s embedded in your lifestyle. A Penn State University study found 30 minutes of exercise a day has a significantly measurable impact on a person’s effectiveness and wellbeing. The study’s founders recommend that people make use of hidden moments such as power walking from place to place, standing and moving around more, turning wait time into movement and stretching time, and getting up ten minutes earlier to exercise and set the movement tone for the day. These are simple measures that every person can do regardless of how busy they are.
Science supports the impact of green time on our mental health. Researchers have found a direct correlation between time spent in natural environments and a lowering of cortisol levels, the stress hormone that helps maintain our anxious states. The human brain was designed to cope with outdoor living, so it feels most comfortable in that environment.
Visiting the bush or beach may be out for now but a daily walk in a park, garden, or backyard will bring similar wellbeing benefits. Bring some green inside with some indoor plants strategically placed at home. Regular green time is a wonderful natural remedy for anxiety and stress and a natural antidote for many of the mental health problems caused by increased screen time.
If you’re already practising self-care then set aside any feelings of guilt and simply enjoy the calm it brings. If looking after yourself has never been a high priority then now is a great time to start. Begin with small steps – pick one or two activities and build from there. The key is to make these wellbeing treats habit-forming behaviours so that they become a regular part of your daily life.