Natural stress soothers

Expert advice on how to ease anxiety and fear during the coronavirus pandemic

Stress and anxiety levels are at an all-time high across the world as we struggle to adapt and cope in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. It can be very hard to remain calm in the face of fears about the disease, self-isolation and loss of jobs.

“This pandemic has many repercussions beyond the actual virus,” says clinical hypnotherapist Sheila Granger (www.sheilagranger.com). “One is the potential impact on mental health and wellbeing as people try to manage an increasingly stressful situation.”

“It’s very important to keep the normal routine as much as possible when it comes to sleep, nutrition and exercise, particularly in people with existing mental health problems,” adds Daniel Mansson, clinical psychologist and co-founder of Flow Neuroscience (flowneuroscience.com). “Good quality sleep is a form of overnight therapy and increases the chance of handling strong emotions. Try to wake up and go to bed at the same time every day. Achieving eight hours of sleep, taking a hot bath, setting the bedroom temperature to 18 degrees and having no screen time two hours before bedtime will also help.”

Daniel adds: “Anxiety is likely to increase during the current crisis, but a well-nourished body is better at handling stress. Traditional Mediterranean food, sometimes referred to as the ‘anti-depression diet’, for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, includes whole grains, vegetables (particularly green leaves), fruit, berries, nuts (including almonds), seeds and olive oil.”

“To some degree it’s natural to worry, and we all do it – it’s how our brain handles problems or potential problems,” says Sheila. “But it stops being useful if we become stuck in a cycle of negative thoughts about things that are out of our control.” Sheila recommends scheduling a ‘worry window’, in order to better manage any negative thoughts and feelings by containing them in a predetermined time slot, therefore freeing up the rest of the day by banishing intrusive thoughts. She adds: “Even just taking 15 minutes out of your day to focus on yourself, rather than the latest virus news update, can help you regain a sense of balance and focus. It’s all about relaxing your mind, deflecting the negative thoughts, and replacing them with calm, positive ones.”

Self help strategies

Claire Dale and Patricia Peyton are the authors of wellbeing book Physical Intelligence (Simon & Schuster), shortlisted for the Business Book of the Year award and Directors of companiesinmotion.com. Here they suggest some self-help strategies to help ease feelings of anxiety and stress.

Practise paced/recovery breathing

Feelings of anxiety increase our cortisol levels, which creates a toxic environment in our body. At least 10 minutes of daily paced breathing helps keep cortisol levels under control; at the first signs of anxiety, begin paced breathing. Breathe diaphragmatically: in through the nose, out through the mouth with a steady count in and a steady count out. In and out counts don’t have to match (e.g., five in/seven out or seven in/seven out). A longer out-breath helps dispel CO2, which increases cortisol if it builds up in the base of the lungs. (CO2 is heavier than oxygen.) Paced breathing with a longer out-breath is called Recovery Breathing and is especially helpful if you’re feeling panicked.

Try the ‘shake out’

If you’re feeling overwhelmed and having difficulty focusing, in addition to Recovery Breathing, try the ‘shake out’. Bend at the waist with a slight bend in the knees. If possible, get your head below your waist. Shake your shoulders and arms vigorously, punch the air and so on while you vocalise with an ‘ahhhh’ sound. This movement disperses chemicals that move through our body and can get stuck at the base of our spine. It’s like rebooting a computer for our body chemistry. If you’re dwelling on things and need to shift your state of mind, give this a try.

Stay connected

Limited physical contact can quickly decrease our oxytocin levels, leaving us feeling even more isolated and stressed.

When oxytocin drops, cortisol rises, negatively affecting our immune system. 24/7 news cycles and social media can take us away from people rather than connecting us to them if we spend hours watching/scrolling silently through posts and negative stories. Resting and relaxing become more difficult, further increasing our stress levels. Instead, we need to stay engaged with our support network and weave restorative activities into our daily lives. To boost oxytocin, stay in touch with your support system, communicate more openly, use more appreciative words, and build trust by being even more considerate of each other than usual. Who can you reach out to right now?

Find your yoga style

The robustness of our nervous system and heart–brain function relies on our physical fitness. Body movement enhances brain function and improves mental focus. Yoga, which benefits all bodily systems (vital organ function, muscle and bone stability, nervous system, lymph system and cardiovascular system function) is particularly helpful.

  • If you have a busy mind, learn Iyengar Yoga (a series of stretches in still poses).
  • If you hold too much tension, try Hatha Yoga (breathing and gentle movement).
  • If you live a static life and want a dynamic yoga class, try Ashtanga Yoga (powerful breathing, stretching and movement sequences only to be tried under guidance as they can be very intense).

Helpful herbs

“Managing anxiety is key to my work just now,” says medical herbalist Pamela Spence (www.pamelaspence.co.uk). “Luckily there are many herbs I can turn to. Some support stressed adrenal glands to get us out of fight, flight or freeze. Others improve mood, regulate neurotransmitters, ease palpitations or improve digestion.” Here are Pamela’s top herbs of the moment:

  • Ashwagandha – a traditional Ayurvedic medicine, Ashwagandha supports the adrenal glands that pump out adrenaline and cortisol when we are anxious. It also supports sleep which is vital to build resilience to stress.
  • Lemon balm – this fragrant member of the mint family is easy to grow. It is great for anxiety and supports digestion so it is key if you have IBS that gets worse when stress levels are high.
  • California poppy – this is perfect for anyone who overthinks things and just can’t get out of their heads. If your inner radio station is playing all day and through the night this is definitely a herb to consider.
  • Valerian – this herb has a long history of use as a relaxant and even, for some people, as a mild anti-depressant. It slows the breakdown of the neurotransmitter GABA. Low levels of GABA are linked to anxiety and poor sleep.

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