This year has not been an easy one for most people and time seems to be warped and weird. How is it already September when it feels like it was just March? Did summer even happen? On the other hand it feels like 2020 has lasted about 20 months, not just 9ish. I completely missed writing a blog for August, partly due to my misunderstanding the passage of time and partly due to my inability to think of something helpful to write when everyone seems to be struggling. I read the news from around the world and I read about personal experiences in my own community and I am struck silent by how much stress everyone is enduring. Unless you are a really skilled Zen practitioner, you likely have been experiencing more stress than usual this year. Sure we’re all in this together, but that doesn’t really help us feel much better — so what will? Before we take a look at some methods to relieve stress, let’s review some of its symptoms so you know what to be on the lookout for.
Symptoms of Stress
Let’s start with some of the physical symptoms of stress to watch out for, sometimes we don’t even realize that we are experiencing some stress or anxiety until we notice them start to pop up. In my case I might think I am handling life well but then start to notice my jaw hurts from clenching my teeth all the time. Other physical symptoms might include: trouble sleeping, general malaise, headaches, stomach aches/upset stomach, dry mouth, fidgeting, sweaty palms/soles, loss of libido, tense muscles and the most scary sign in times of Covid19 — frequent colds or infections! Even if you think you’re handling the pandemic pretty well, take stock of your physical condition and if you’re having any of those symptoms you might be more stressed than you thought.
Besides physical symptoms, stress can cause deterioration in your mental condition. If you are experiencing high levels of stress, you might find it hard to concentrate or you might become forgetful and disorganized. You might find yourself constantly worrying or ruminating and becoming more prone to pessimistic thoughts than usual. This can lead to emotional symptoms such as feeling overwhelmed or agitated and having difficulty relaxing. You may find yourself avoiding others, not because you are practising social distancing, but because of you’re feeling overwhelmed. If the stress continues your self-esteem might go down and you might move beyond feeling stressed into experiencing depression.
Experiencing stress puts you at risk for behavioural changes, such as lashing out at loved ones, forgoing activities you normally take pleasure in, and procrastination. You might also try to self-medicate with drugs, alcohol or cigarettes in order to try and feel better. Changes in appetite may also signal that you’re not handling stress in a healthy manner. Eating too much or too little, or using food as a means to exert control over your life can be signs of stress.
How to Deal with Stress
Now that we know the signs of stress to watch out for, it is time to take a look at healthy ways to help us feel better. First of all, I think it is important to accept that there are events in life that you cannot control, especially at the moment. The pandemic means we are all riding the rollercoaster of ever-changing health-protocols — sometimes we need to stay home and there is no school, sometimes the schools are open and we can go out, travel restrictions are evolving, clusters are popping up in our neighbourhoods, the research on and knowledge about Covid19 is constantly expanding. Acknowledging that these are facts of life now and they are out of our control is an important step in starting to handle your stress. Focusing on the things you can control can help you begin to feel better. Things like hand-washing, mask wearing, following guidelines and taking care of your body by eating well, drinking water and getting some exercise are things you can do during this pandemic to exert some control over your well-being. Your body will be able to fight stress better when you take good care of it.
If you find yourself having trouble concentrating, try making lists and setting calendar reminders in your phone. This will help prevent any added stress you would get from missing an important deadline or forgetting to buy something on your once-a-week trip to the store. Do not be afraid to say no to requests that would create excess stress in your life at the moment. If you are not comfortable going out to eat in a restaurant while Covid19 is happening, it is ok to turn down an invitation to lunch. Do not feel guilty if your comfort level is different from that of your peers, it is ok to protect yourself in a way that you feel good about. If you are questioned about it, try to clearly assert yourself without being aggressive, angry, defensive — everyone is on edge right now and small differences can explode like friendship-bombs. However, you do not need to explain yourself if you do not feel up to it and you are free to take a step back from any relationship that is causing more stress than support in your life right now (or at any time).
Investing some time in learning various relaxation techniques in order to find one that works well for you, will pay off now and for the rest of your life. Do not be afraid to try new things like meditation, yoga, tai-chi or forest bathing even if they sound strange or unappealing. I recently tried a sleep-meditation podcast to help me fall asleep, something I thought sounded a bit silly. When I first heard the slow quiet voice of the host I thought it was totally cheesy and there was no way it was going to work for me, but surprisingly I found myself sinking into relaxation and fell asleep faster than I have in months! I was happy to find this new way to fall asleep because getting enough rest is so important in helping your body heal from stress. Besides trying new stress-relieving activities, do not forget to make time for old hobbies and interests that you may have been neglecting recently, or maybe even have neglected for a long while. Instead of zoning out on Netflix every time you have a spare hour, why not return to an old activity that you once loved? Loved art in High School? Why not pick up some cheap art supplies at Daiso and have fun? Haven’t picked up your guitar in a while? Dig it out of the closet (or try and find a second hand one somewhere if you don’t have one anymore). Miss sports? Get active!
Once you have thought of ways you can handle stress on your own, supplement them with social support. It may be hard to spend time face-to-face with friends and loved ones at the moment, but try and keep in touch via zoom, skype, messenger or on social media forums. Humans are social creatures and we need to connect to feel good. Having a supportive community is important to your mental health, even if it is an online one.
Last but not least, if you are struggling to cope with stress do not be afraid to seek professional help with a psychologist or other mental health practitioner, in person or online. A person trained in stress management or biofeedback techniques to help you learn healthy ways of dealing with the stress can make a huge difference in your well-being. If you do not know where to find someone, you can reach out to your community for advice, consult your doctor or give TELL a call.
It is so important that we take time to find ways of relieving our stress because long term/ chronic stress can have serious health impacts, from triggering mental illness to cardiovascular disease, menstrual problems, skin and hair problems, digestive disorders and sexual dysfunction. Here at AFWJ we are all feeling the effects of the pandemic and unfortunately we have extra stress created by worrying about our families who are separated from us by borders that we cannot easily cross at this time. Luckily we also have our community that can understand what we’re going through — thank goodness for the support we can give each other during this time and always! We hope you have the support you need to get through this stressful period. Please try to stay healthy, both physically and mentally.