We all experience stress and anxiety on occasion (some of us more than others as our personality predisposition), but there are situations in our life that can raise our stress levels, such as a divorce, death of a loved one, challenges at work or a job loss, unexpected health diagnoses or simply doing too much and trying to be a superhuman day in day out. Often, we might turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with our emotions, such as drinking, smoking, avoiding exercise, overworking or overeating unhealthy comfort foods or sugary treats. During this global COVID-19 outbreak where our everyday lives are disrupted, we can also feel a sense of ongoing anxiety from the unknowingness of what the future holds for ourselves and our loved ones. While we can recognize lives aren’t always predictable, we can still take our health and wellness into our own hands and a few simple steps to manage our mindset to get through times of uncertainty, overwhelming stress and anxiety.
1. Focus on Gratitude
When we feel a sense of irritation with a disruption of our schedules or a sense of scarcity due to fear of the unknown or a loss, it can be more difficult to feel grateful for what we DO have in our lives. Focusing on what we can be grateful for, even if it’s the simplest of things, can be an easy, immediate tool to take us out of our “woe is me” spiral. Sure, everything might not be particularly rosy one hundred percent of the time, but life’s ups and downs are a part of life. How to put this into action? You can keep a gratitude journal where you write out your thoughts, or you can compile a simple gratitude list. You can tell other people why you’re grateful for them by sending them a note or a card. You can post daily on your social media pages to be a positive inspiration to others. Or, you can create a gratitude jar with slips of paper with notes of what you’re grateful for each day. Seeing how many things in your life you are grateful for add up is an instantaneous boost to your mood.
2. Turn off the News and Social Media
It’s wise to remain aware of what’s happening in the world but taking a break from the constant feed of doom and gloom and negativity can bring us back to the present and realize what’s really happening in our own lives. Taking a certain level of detachment can be helpful, looking at the situation from an objective observer’s lens. Plus, you can’t act on your own health and wellbeing goals without taking time to disconnect from the media messages to focus on YOU and your own reality. Find ways to get accurate information (as much of what is displayed in the media may not be the facts), take what works for you and disregard the rest.
3. Schedule Time to Worry
Most of us have experienced repetitive thoughts that take us in a spiral of worry. As a result, we usually have a difficult time focusing during the day and sleeping at night when we’re concerned about a situation or encounter. Meditation, yoga, exercise, participating in a hobby or craft, getting out in nature or engaging with others in a phone call or FaceTime chat can all be helpful healthy strategies to divert our attention during times of anxiousness. Distractions can be useful strategies to take our mind off the issue that’s making us uneasy, but in addition, intentionally scheduling time to process these thoughts and getting to the root cause of our emotions so they don’t continue to damage our mental wellbeing can be ironically liberating. Ideally, this “worry
time” will not be right before bed, but if you do find yourself waking up in the middle of the night with anxious thoughts, you can keep a small notebook at your bedside to write them down to get what’s on your mind out during the night. (Usually, when you wake up in the morning these fears are much less monumental.)
If you find it impossible to sort through your worrisome thoughts or anxious feelings yourself, working with a licensed counselor or a trained Health Coach can be beneficial, as we can help you identify the underlying issues and a positive plan to move through them with ease.
4. Practice the Pause
Stress, anxiety and worry not only raise our cortisol levels, causing weight gain and obesity1 along with a myriad of other chronic health issues, so it’s not something to take lightly if you find yourself in this state the majority of the time. If your stress is tempting you to turn to unhealthy comfort foods, high in refined carbohydrates and added sugar, you’re only fueling the cycle of cravings. The perceived dopamine hit you get from carbs and sugar is unfulfilling and short-lived and usually makes us feel terrible about ourselves afterward.
While following a specific dietary plan may be the perfect solution to give you the structure you need to manage your healthy eating choices, you don’t have to add more stress to your life to eat healthfully. My personal mantra is that “Being Healthy Doesn’t Have to Be Hard” and that small changes can add up to BIG results.
In my opinion, emotionally eating is a strategy that is nuanced and not always “bad” – truthfully, I feel it’s more about your awareness and intentions when eating certain foods that matter most. When you find yourself craving sugary foods when you’re stressed out, or in the midst of a sugar binge without thinking, you can take a very simple step and practice a 4-step PAUSE. Put the food down, tune into your Awareness, Understand the real cause (i.e. your boss just sent you an urgent email with an impossible deadline), State your feelings and Engage in 4 deep breaths to put a stop to the mindless eating you started. Providing our bodies with nourishment from real, whole unprocessed foods is a form of self-care, which is needed most during times of stress and anxiety. Buffering your emotions through food is never the satisfying solution and tuning into your actions and the reasons behind them are the first step to ending the cycle of self-sabotage.
In addition, if you’re overeating (or undereating) due to stress and anxiety, you may want to consider keeping a food journal for a short period of time to be more mindful of your intake and nutritional choices. Or, you might want to follow a more personalized or formalized meal plan working with a nutritionist to take the impulse option off your mind. If you need accountability to keep you on track, working with a Health Coach is essential as a guide and partner to stick with your healthy habits!
5. Focus on what you CAN control
It’s human nature to want to have control over our lives for a sense of security, but it’s not possible to control everything that touches us as human beings. If you DO have control over something that’s making you anxious or unhappy, then you need to own up to it and take action to change it. The power IS within you to create the life you want and hiding behind your excuses will only
continue to hold you back from the health and happiness you deserve. On the other hand, if you are overly anxious about aspects outside of your realm of control, which is often the case, it’s better to realize that fact and let them go because the weight of the world will literally bring you down if you allow it.
In closing, as a member of The American Institute of Stress Community, please rest assured you are not alone on your wellness journey. We all need support systems from time to time and staying connected to others can be the difference between staying stuck where you are or living the life that you’re meant to live as wellness warriors.
Beth Romanski is Director of Professional and Continuing Education at Maryland University of lntegrative Health and a certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach and founder of MyHealthyTransitions Health Coaching, where “Being Healthy Doesn’t Have to be Hard.”