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How our bodies and minds respond to stress, and ways we can reduce it and stay healthy

By Leslie Barker Garcia
5 minutes

Let’s just state the obvious here and get it out of the way:

The world is a much weirder place than it was six months ago.

With all the uncertainty of COVID-19 — lost jobs, closed businesses and schools, political strife that’s overtaking the serious and straightforward concerns about health, ongoing when-will-this-end? questions — plus issues of race inequality, which are leading to riots and protests, plus whatever we all have going on in our own lives anyway ... how can we not be anxious?

“In January, before this all began, 1 in 5 American adults had diagnosed anxiety,” says Rachelle Reed. She’s director of fitness science for Orangetheory Fitness and earned a doctorate degree in exercise physiology. “Now it’s an even bigger concern.”

According to recently released data from the Census Bureau, a third of Americans now show signs of clinical depression or anxiety.

That's understandable, University of Pennsylvania professor of psychiatry Maria Oquendo told The Washington Post. “This virus is not like a hurricane or earthquake or even terrorist attack. It’s not something you can see or touch, and yet the fear of it is everywhere.”

Some stress is beneficial, Dr. Reed says. “It can increase our awareness and alertness and, in the short-term, allow us to make decisions quickly.”

Dr. Shannon Odell, a neuroscientist on the medical advisory board of Orangetheory, explains further: “When your brain detects something as dangerous, this triggers your body’s ‘fight or flight’ response, which begins in the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain,” she says.

The amygdala, in turn, sends a signal to the hypothalamus, which then sends a signal to the adrenal glands to release adrenaline. This hormone causes your heart to pump faster, delivering oxygen to your muscles whether you need to run away or to stay and fight. Next up: the release of cortisol.

“This hormone helps the brain and body remain on high alert after the adrenaline boost has dissipated,” Dr. Odell says.

All of which is well and good — until the body stays on high alert. That leads to chronic stress, which, Dr. Odell says, “has a deleterious effect on the brain and the body.”

If, for example, you don’t allow yourself down time or if you can’t stop watching or reading the news, you may be having a hard time sleeping or focusing. You may be crabbier or more short-tempered than usual. You may seem to be catching more colds, or feeling run down.

Your body is probably telling you “STOP!” Or at least to slow down the stress because it could be having detrimental effects on your heart, your blood pressure, your immune system.

How can we stay sane as this emotional pandemic runs parallel with the physical one? That, says Dr. Reed, “is the million-dollar question. One thing we obviously hope our members are able to do right now is to remember that prioritizing their own health is so important.”

Taking care of yourself helps reduce your own level of anxiety. And a calmer you tends to help those around you be less anxious as well.

Here are some basic, uncomplicated ways to help reduce your level of anxiety. First and foremost though, if those feelings are overwhelming, or if the suggestions below don’t help, talk to your doctor.

Stick to a schedule. One negative part about working from home is that you’re available pretty much 24/7. But, says Dr. Reed, “no separation between your work and personal lives can lead to immense stress and anxiety.”

So have a set place to work. At the end of the day, close the door to that room or simply close your laptop and don’t open it till tomorrow.

Exercise. Truly, don’t you always feel better after even a walk around the block?

“Exercise may lead to stress resilience, meaning you may feel less affected by stress in your daily life,” Dr. Odell says.

Movement also leads to the release of a molecule called BDNF. This “fertilizer for the brain” leads to the birth of new brain cells and thus to a brain more resilient to the effects of stress.

If you’re having trouble getting started, Dr. Reed says, start with a 10-minute walk. Maybe enlist an accountability partner; with social distancing, instead of being together in person, you can connect via FaceTime while you’re both working out.

Meditate. No need to surround yourself with candles or sit on a mat for an hour. You can simply stay in bed five extra minutes while you focus on your breath.

“It’s really effective because you are setting aside time for yourself to only focus on you,” Dr. Reed says.

In addition, Dr. Odell says, research shows that meditation can “dampen your fight or flight response as well as lead to a decrease in resting cortisol levels.”

Where to start? Check out these top-recommended meditation apps.

Sleep. This was a tough one for a lot of people even before the pandemic hit, with 30 to 35 percent of the population reporting acute or short-term insomnia. Now, with schedules disrupted and so much to fill our minds in a dark quiet room, it’s affecting even more of us.

“Not consistently getting enough sleep is a form of chronic stress in itself,” Dr. Odell says.

Exercising can help improve sleep quality and help us go to sleep more easily, Dr. Reed says. Also, eliminate technology 30 minutes before bedtime, and have a bedtime routine, whether it means walking the dog, watching TV or reading a book. And go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.

Keep a journal. “For people who have anxiety, especially at the end of the day, one strategy related to cognitive behavioral therapy is journaling,” Dr. Reed says. “You can get thoughts out of your mind and onto paper, which can alleviate the feeling of anxiety before bed.”

Some people write down what they did that day. Others write about their emotions. Still others write down one or two reasons they’re grateful. Dr. Reed makes a list of three things work-wise she wants to do the following day, and three things for her personal life — even something as simple as buying milk for AJ, her 2-year-old son.

“I find when I don't do that, I lie in bed for such a long time,” she says. But when she does, she finds her anxiety level lifted and she wakes up ready to take on a new day.

Laugh. These may not seem like particularly amusing times, but there is always something to laugh at. Besides, a dose of the giggles is good for you, says Dr. Odell who, while a neuroscientist, is also a comedian in her spare time. "Research has shown that laughing, and in some cases just hearing laughter, can reduce feelings of stress, elevate mood and, in the short term, reduce levels of stress hormones."

About the Author
Leslie Barker has written about and lived her passion — health and fitness — for decades, most recently as senior writer for The Dallas Morning News. Her essays, tips and ways to find joy in even the simplest of circumstances have inspired couch potatoes to start moving as well as more experienced exercisers to keep moving.