Here is an excerpt from an article written by Michelle Bihary for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.
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It’s not just Covid-19 that has reached pandemic proportions in 2020. Stress too, has spread like wildfire throughout the world. Changes to how we live and work, lockdowns, social isolation, and worry about our finances and health are triggering us and exacerbating existing problems.
Of course, not all stress is bad. Research shows that short-lived stress is what helps keep us alive and alert. But what many of us are feeling right now is not short-lived.
What can we do about it?
Common internet advice tells us to get out of our heads, go for a run, get some fresh air, go to the movies, or change our environments. While these words of wisdom were easy to follow pre-pandemic, how do we de-stress when we can’t safely go outside?
With a background in mental health, applied science, and occupational therapy, I have spent the last decade helping thousands of people manage their stress and anxiety. Through 2020, I’ve dedicated my time specifically to workplaces and employees. Here are some tactics that I’ve seen work across the board.
1) Move, move, move
There is a reason so many health experts encourage us to exercise when we’re feeling down. Any exercise is a fantastic stress reliever. Whether we take a run, go for a walk, or play a sport, moving our bodies pumps us up with endorphins, the feel-good neurotransmitter, improving our moods and reducing physical pain. Before the era of Covid, strolling to the bus stop or the store, even small efforts like meandering around the office, were ways for us to get into motion. We had the freedom to move, and many of us did it constantly in small efforts throughout the day.
Now that many of us are limited to the confines of our houses or apartments, we need creative ways of replicating those motions. This will be easier for some than others. If you have a backyard, a home with multiple rooms, or an apartment where you can move freely without worrying about disturbing your roommates, consider yourself at an advantage. If you are in a studio, confined mostly to your room, or have limited access to outdoors, your challenge is probably greater — your space is limited and you may have to make a conscious effort to get your body in a regular flow.
No matter what your home looks like, however, there are ways to get those endorphins. The internet is full of simple exercise routines that can be done in small areas, and surprisingly, make you sweat. Get creative! Dance, yoga, and stretching are all easy, effective ways to relax your nervous system.
If you don’t have time for regular exercise, there are smaller things you can do to add steps to your day. (Research says we do our best when we take 10,000 of them.) If you have a printer, move it across the room so you need to get up to grab your papers. Replace your wired headset for a Bluetooth one and walk while you talk. If space is a big constraint, try standing at your desk to improve your metabolic health. Alan Hedge, professor of ergonomics at Cornell University, recommends using a 20-8-2 breakdown to guide you: 20 minutes of sitting, 8 minutes of standing, and 2 minutes of moving for every 30 minutes at work.
2) Train your mind
When we are stressed, our thoughts often start bouncing all over the place. This typically happens when we feel under threat. Our survival instincts set in, and to protect us, the lower, more primitive parts of our brains take over. Though our minds have good intentions, our “flight-or-fight” response to stressful situations can make it difficult to concentrate. And when it’s difficult to concentrate, it’s difficult to relax, find moments of peace, and recall important things.
To reduce stress, you need to learn to tame your mind. This can be done from anywhere, even your studio apartment. It helps to think of your brain as a muscle (though anatomically speaking, it is not actually a muscle). Just like we can train our bodies to be faster, stronger, and more balanced, we can train our brains to think in ways that will help us let go of circling thoughts and manage our anxieties.
A simple practice is to take five deep breaths, five times per day. When you concentrate on breathing deeply (as we do in yoga), you’re disengaging yourself from distractions, lowering your heart rate, ingesting more oxygen into the lowest part of your lungs, and stabilizing your blood pressure — in turn, lowering your stress level.
This short 10-minute meditation can also help interrupt stress that may be building up inside you. Apps like Smiling Mind, Calm, Insight Timer, and Headspace are great ones for meditation, and they use guided visualizations that anyone can access and practice.
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