If the uncertainties of the past year and a half have left you on edge, look no further than your mind. “The amygdala, the brain’s emotional center, is activated within a few seconds to respond to threats,” says Dr Rashi Aggarwal, a psychiatrist. “The prefrontal cortex—the logical, thinking part of the brain—takes much longer to react.” By then, your heart is pounding, your blood pressure is rising, and your respiration increases in a fight-or-flight response.

That surge of cortisol and adrenaline was handy when we had to flee hungry tigers. But when we’re not in life-threatening situations and yet our brains repeatedly signal that we are, we run into trouble.

“This type of chronic stress can have physical and psychological effects,” says Dr Neda Gould, a clinical psychologist. “It’s not as simple as saying stress causes illness, but there’s an association.” Studies show that long-term tension is linked with increased inflammation, which plays a role in conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease, chronic pain, high blood pressure, and depression.

Fortunately, when things around you seem to be unraveling, there are plenty of ways to manage the spinning thoughts in your mind. “The tools are different for all of us at varying times in our lives,” says Dr. Aggarwal. “But you can train your brain to react more constructively to stress.”

Besides the usual routine—eating nutritious foods, connecting with friends, and getting enough sleep—building these skills will keep your mind and body in better balance.

Give your brain a break.

Having emotions repeatedly ramped up is exhausting. “When you’re in overdrive, your brain is constantly seeking ways to stay safe. There’s no respite,” says Dr Luana Marques, a clinical psychologist. “The more we keep our emotional brain activated, the more anxiety we have.” You have to give your brain time to shut off and recharge during the day.

If the news is what’s ramping you up, try limiting your exposure to news sites and social media. “This is not optional,” says Marques. “You need to know enough to stay informed, but not so much that you’re constantly in fight-or-flight or freeze mode. We want to activate our ‘thinking brain’ by unplugging.”

You don’t have to eliminate media, but reduce your consumption of it: Check the news once or twice a day from one or two sources instead of doom-scrolling repeatedly through every outlet. Likewise, set boundaries for social media and shut off unnecessary push notifications.

Getting out of your chair also helps your brain hit the brakes, no matter what is kicking your stress response into high gear. Numerous studies have shown that physical activity releases positive chemicals that have anti-inflammatory and antidepressant effects. Just as a car’s battery recharges through use, your body needs movement to get energized.

“When we feel tired and emotional, we don’t want to do anything. But once you get moving, you feel better,” says Marques. Even a quick walk around the block or a few jumping jacks should help.

Do one thing at a time.

Most of us think we’re good at multitasking, but it often leaves us frazzled and distracted. Instead, make a point of concentrating on a single task, which actually has a calming effect. “One way to increase satisfaction in life in general is to practice focusing on the present moment,” says Marques. Consider how a toddler becomes totally absorbed in the one thing in front of them and can be perfectly content with it. With practice, you’ll see that staying in the moment and not letting yourself get side-tracked are actually empowering.

When walking outdoors, turn off electronics and observe what’s lovely around you. If you have a pet, sit and cherish cuddles without turning on the TV or chatting with a family member. When cooking, turn off background noise (such as music or news) and fully experience the scents and textures of the food you’re creating. Eat at the table—not at your desk or while on the phone—to get more pleasure from each bite. “When you practice mindfulness, you recognise that this moment is the only one that’s real, and you can begin to find the beauty in it,” says Gould.

If you happen to plunge into a wave of anxiety, stop before you go on to the next activity and redirect your focus. “Step outside and take three deep breaths to ground yourself in this moment,” says Gould. “Tune in to your senses: sight, sound, touch, and hearing. Small steps can have a major impact on settling the mind, even if it’s a one-minute practice.” There’s no special training needed, and you can do this at any time, anywhere, to lower your heart rate and blood pressure.

Reframe your thinking.

Part of handling tough times well is the way you approach them. “We tend to push away negative experiences, but if we can work through difficulties, that’s how we build resilience,” says Gould. “Try to come up with a more balanced way of looking at things. You may think This is never going to end or I’m always going to feel this way, but everything comes to an end eventually. In the meantime, what can you do to find one small joy every day?”

It’s also helpful to stop rehashing the same worries and step back to re-examine the big picture. “Approach the situation with the attitude of What are the opportunities this gives me or my family? instead of focusing on what’s been taken away,” says psychologist, Dr Vaile Wright. While you’re at it, remind yourself that you’ve overcome many other challenges and you’ll surmount this one too.

Let yourself grieve.

Grief isn’t limited to occurring after a death. It can be triggered by any change or loss, including a layoff, a divorce—or, in the case of the pandemic, month after month of not having the freedom to spend time with family or go anywhere you want. It’s totally normal to grieve over these missing parts of our lives.

“Acknowledge what you’re feeling and accept that it’s been a difficult time. We’re mourning the loss of what otherwise would have been,” says Gould.

Naming and acknowledging your pain can lessen its hold, but be patient with yourself. Grief doesn’t heal overnight or have a specific timetable for resolution. Finding a way to share your grief, whether it’s venting to a friend or speaking to a therapist or a clergy member, may help you process what you’re feeling.

Maintaining some sort of structure and focusing on what you can control, such as planning meals, getting to bed on time, or even cleaning out your overstuffed closet, can also help create some semblance of normalcy during times of loss, says Gould.

Schedule some fun.

When we’re stressed, even fun things we used to do may not seem entertaining anymore, but try pencilling something in on the calendar. “It helps put a label in your brain to tell it you’re relaxing,” says Dr Aggarwal.

Essentially, scheduling something pleasurable ahead of time gives your brain notice and tells it to pay attention because you’re doing something enjoyable, she explains. Plan to see a drive-in movie, or make a reservation for an outdoor dinner. Set up a recurring “family fun” night to play board games or make pizza. Arrange a backyard barbecue with neighbours. Make time for a craft project this weekend. Schedule a phone call with a friend instead of texting. Plan something that really gives you joy.

Practice gratitude.

Another powerful method of short-circuiting negative thoughts is to focus on the good in our lives. Studies have found that gratefulness is associated with lower risk of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and eating disorders. Other research shows that just a few minutes of thinking about things you’re thankful for can improve your mood.

And there are many ways to count your blessings: Keep a gratitude list and write down five things you’re grateful for every night before bed. Write a thank-you note to someone who’s helped you. Or simply close your eyes for 30 seconds and think of all the people for whom you’re thankful. “It’s important to practice gratitude with intent, because the brain tends to focus on the negative during times of stress. We have to override it,” says Gould.

The truth is that upsetting times don’t last forever, and you can discover strength you didn’t know you possessed. “The last stage of gratitude is about being thankful for adversity,” says Dr Aggarwal. “In retrospect, you get an opportunity to grow by overcoming challenges.” Sure, we wouldn’t choose to go through something tough—but we can emerge happy, strong, and healthy.


Is it time to get help?

Sometimes we need extra help to get through hard times. “Stay in tune with your body. Do you have muscle tension? Are you clenching your teeth? This is your body saying, ‘Pay attention to me!’” says Wright.

Other indications: You can’t get out of bed or you feel like you can’t function; nothing brings you joy; your appetite or sleep is disrupted; and/or you feel irritable all the time.

If several symptoms persist for a week or more, talk to your primary care doctor, and check out Anxiety Australia, which has anxiety support services and resources.

 

 

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