As we head into what was supposed to be the fall recovery, the world is still reeling from Covid-related anxiety. It shows up in tepid job recovery and stock market tremors as well as in disagreements over masks and vaccine requirements in our schools and communities.
It’s not just Covid–19 that’s stressing us out. Violent crime is up. Historic heat waves and floods have devastated regions of the United States. And research shows that depression and anxiety in youth around the world has doubled compared with levels before the pandemic.
For advice on how to cope this fall, we turned to stress management expert Dr. Cynthia Ackrill, an editor for Contentment magazine, produced by the American Institute of Stress.
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
CNN: As we head deeper into the fall and winter months, what should we be mindful of when it comes to stress?
Dr. Cynthia Ackrill: One underlying driver of all kinds of stress is the mismatch of our expectations for what should be happening and what we perceive is happening.
Some of these are unique to this year: “Covid is going to be over, and the world is going to return. We should be coming out of this. We shouldn’t have so much uncertainty ahead.”
And yet here we are, still in kind of a mess. We’re each, at our own pace, having to grapple with the reality that the new normal is change. The new normal is that we’ve got to figure out how to do self-care and how to negotiate the challenging world of work during Covid.
There are so many things to give us hope out there, but it’s just a little harder to hold on to them right now and imagine how are we going to emerge from this stronger.
CNN: How can we move out of stress as stronger, more resilient people?
Ackrill: The coming months offer a great opportunity to reflect — whether as a family or a team at work or a group of friends — on what have we learned in the last year or so and how do we apply it to the future.
How do we hold on to what matters? How do we stay grounded? How do we keep building our awareness of when we’re OK and not OK? How do we keep up our energy to face life challenges?
And it will be different for each of us. When we are stressed, there is an input to our brains from the external or internal world that our brain reads as a dangerous signal.
Now, whether you read this input as a danger signal and I read it as a delight depends on our genetics, on the stories of our lives, the circumstances, the context of the moment. What stresses me may not stress you and vice versa.
So, once you decide you are facing stress, there’s the “Can I handle it?” assessment. And that is a critical point, because if I can handle it, this stress may actually be motivating and good for me. Not all stress is bad.
We all need it to grow. Stress we have the “coping confidence” to handle is not toxic to us in the way stress that overwhelms us is.
CNN: What tips can you give us to cope with chronic stress?
Ackrill: I like to talk about this in easy steps you can use to identify and then treat your stress triggers:
Step 1: Awareness building. Learn more about the physiology of stress and what that means for your best health and happiness. Use reflection to learn a little about your relationship with stress. What are your “go-to” stories about your stress?
What matters most to you? What makes you strong? What typically triggers you, and what typically helps you in stressful situations? What mindsets work best for you?
Take a few moments to jot down your reflections. Knowing your motivators, strengths, needs and what works best for you will help you work with your brain during stressful times.
Step 2: Learn to calm yourself. There are some simple “Calm Down to Power Up” skills you can learn, such as breathwork, to shift your stress levels or your mindset in the moment.
Using breath to calm your physiology improves your brainpower to handle the situation. There are a myriad of choices out there — mantras, guided visualizations, progressive relaxation and more.
The key is to learn one or two and practice them until they are always in your resilience tool belt. This is a great team or family activity.
Many different versions of breathwork are helpful. Whenever you bring your attention to your breath, slow it down, and bring it down to the bottom of your lungs (soft belly breathing), you trigger the parasympathetic nervous system (recovery system), resetting your physiology and bringing more blood flow back to your executive brain function.
For adults, there is a lot of research around a rate of about six breaths/minute, so counting five in and five out is a great start.
There are so many apps to talk you though breathwork, progressive relaxation and a number of ways to find calm in the moment.
In recent years, there also has been a growing number of technologies to give you feedback to know whether you are effectively changing your physiology. These offer a way to really train your ability to reset.
For example, learning to raise your heart rate variability — a measure of the subtle changes in heart rate that occur with your breath — is a good indicator of balancing your system and reducing health risks. There are programs to measure and train skin conductance, breath rate, temperature, etc., and many require only your smartwatch or phone.
Step 3: Build resilience habits. Brainstorm what drains you and what energizes you physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. (And by spiritually, I mean how you connect or get meaning from the bigger picture of life).
How can you minimize the drains and maximize the rechargers? Get creative! Build in fun. Pick one or two small habit shifts to “play” with over the next few weeks. Consider partnering with a buddy to keep each other accountable in forming new habits.
Make sure to pick things you can do easily — small steps in the direction of more energy. Maybe try going to bed 15 minutes earlier, drinking one full water bottle before lunch, checking in with two friends each week or walking outside at lunch. Your success with the tiniest of choices will empower you to feel more in control.
Small tweaks in how you are spending and recharging yourself can add up to much more energy and resilience. Approach your chosen behavior shifts with curiosity, creativity and compassion. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Trial and error are part of the journey.
Step 4: Put YOU on your calendar. Schedule a weekly meeting with yourself to check in on what is and isn’t working, proactively schedule self-care and recharging, and stay accountable to what really matters to you.
You can also do this as a family or team. Once a week, compare schedules, capture anything outstanding, discuss energy management and realistic goals for the week. Then, build in fun and celebrations of successes.
The good news is that you can continually tweak your habits to grow stronger, happier and healthier. Covid has certainly illuminated what isn’t working in our society, systems and personal lives. Let’s use that data to build resilience.
Step 5: Reach out to others. Stress can make us feel alone or shameful, like somehow others are coping so much better than we are. But the truth is when we reach out and connect, we are healthier and happier. Research shows that meaningful social connection supports resilience and longevity. It’s not about being popular, but more about being present and open with others.
No one may be in your exact situation, but in working with so many “successful” people, I’ve learned that we share much more of the full range of human experience than we know. Here’s hoping that one silver lining to Covid is that we’re learning to discuss our very human feelings and vulnerabilities in ways that make us all stronger.