Stress and COVID-19: how to cope and stay mentally healthy

Science shows that too much stress can lead to all sorts of body and mental issues, including weight gain, panic, high blood pressure, anxiety, stress, diabetes, and not being able to concentrate.

Meditation during COVID-19 - dohealthwell

First, let’s take a look at our body’s biological reaction to stress.

When put under any level of stress, our bodies naturally react to it by releasing cortisol, your body’s built-in alarm system.

Research has shown that a triangle-shaped organ located on top of your kidneys, called the adrenal glands, make cortisol. Also called the stress hormone, cortisol is released as a “fight-or-flight” system during a crisis.

The Mayo Clinic states that when encountering a perceived threat, your hypothalamus, a tiny region at your brain’s base, sets off this alarm system in your body.

“Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, this system prompts your adrenal glands, located atop your kidneys, to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with the brain regions that control mood, motivation, and fear”.

Anyone can tolerate short periods of stress, like somebody cutting you off in traffic or if a person you care is mean to you. However, staying on a high state of stress releases too much cortisol and shuts down other vital functions, including your digestive and reproductive systems.

Moreover, it spikes your blood pressure, alters your immune system, and puts you at a higher risk of contracting a virus of any kind.

Too much stress (cortisol) carries potential physical and mental health problems, including:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Disrupts your sleep cycle
  • Anger
  • Heart disease
  • Memory loss
  • Unable to focus
  • Digestive issues
  • Insomnia
  • Cushing’s syndrome, which leads to rapid weight gain, skin that bruises easily, muscle weakness, diabetes, and other health problems.

Monitoring your own physical and mental health is more important than ever during the COVID-19 health crisis.

Know the signs of stress

Have you suffered any emotional or behavioral change lately? Have you been told to calm down or stop stressing out? Or, have you suddenly woke up several times this week, unable to get a good night’s sleep?

I can’t blame you.

COVID-19 has altered our normal life and impacted travel and tourism, jobs, our families, our health system, our families, and the economy, just to name a few topics.

Want to know if you are under a higher state of stress? Read below and check:

  • Increased appetite and weight gain

Are you eating four or five more meals or snacks than usual? It turns out cortisol increases appetite and signals the body to shift your metabolism to store fat.

  • Tiredness

Stress interferes with your sleep and disrupts your usual sleep cycle and makes you feel tired all day.

  • Brain functions

Cortisol release also interferes with brain memory and contributes to mental cloudiness. If you are always forgetting things, you might be under high stress.

  • Infections

Higher states of stress shut down your immune system and make you susceptible to infections from viruses, because your blood pressure slightly shifts away from your core and relocates in your arms and legs, ready to “fight or flight.”

  • Anger

If your kid drops a glass and you suddenly go from 0 to 100 miles and quickly explode, maybe it’s time to check back with yourself. It is an evident sign of too much stress flow.

How to cope with stress during COVID-19 and staying mentally healthy

Stressful events like a worldwide pandemic are facts of life; are, but still factual.

What’s on your control is to apply social distancing, maintain proper hygiene measures, and follow best practices to avoid being infected.

Besides that, you have a responsibility to stay mentally healthy for the good of your family and yourself.

Here are six fundamental topics for stress management during the COVID-19 health crisis:

Get enough sleep

The length of your sleep influences your stress levels.

A quality good night’s sleep, and having a consistent schedule helps decrease your stress.

On the contrary, sleep deprivation and inconsistent sleeping patterns cause an increase in your stress hormone levels.

A study published in the US National Library of Medicine states that insomnia causes high-stress hormone release for up to 24 hours. Interruptions to sleep, even if brief, can also increase your levels and disrupt daily hormone patterns.

Some ways that to optimize your sleep include:

No caffeine at least three hours before bedtime

Limit exposure to distractions and avoid bright light (cellphones, TV, computer)

Instead, substitute with healthy habits like reading a book or listening to soft, relaxing music, like jazz.

Pinpoint stressful thoughts

Stressful thoughts are an essential signal for cortisol release.

Thinking about past stressful experiences increases stress. On the other hand, thinking about positive life experiences or plans for the day helps decrease cortisol levels.

What can you do? Apply mindfulness-based stress reduction.

It’s a strategy in which you become more self-aware of stress-provoking thoughts and emotions by acknowledging and understanding stressful thoughts.

Other signs involve an increase in your heart rate and heavy breathing.

The first thing to do after recognizing that you are stressing out by thought alone is to step away for a few minutes, manage your breathing, consciously calm yourself down, maybe get some water, smile, say out loud some positive affirmations, and get back on track.

Healthy diet and supplementation

Nutrition can be your best friend or play against you when it comes to stress.

The pathway is as follows: stress influences your eating habits and makes you eat more, sometimes when you are not even hungry, and most unhealthy foods.

According to a study published in the US National Library of Medicine, sugar triggers cortisol, the stress hormones released. If you eat sugary foods, then just by eating, you have high levels of stress. Combining lousy eating habits with environment inducing stress can be a time bomb.

But, not everything is lost. A once in a while, comfort food, like your favorite meal or dessert that you get after you have accomplished something, can reduce stress. Think about it as a stress-reducing treatment that you can have weekly, if not twice a month.

Additionally, other natural sources of sugar and certain supplements helps reduce stress.

  • Water

Drink water! Dehydration increases stress.

A research performed by the Human Performance Laboratory, from the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Connecticut, showed that cortisol levels are higher if you are dehydrated.

“Studies have shown that being just half a liter dehydrated can increase your cortisol levels,” says Amanda Carlson, RD, director of performance nutrition at Athletes’ Performance, a trainer of world-class athletes.

  • Dark chocolate

As noted on WebMD, researchers found that eating the equivalent of one average-sized dark chocolate candy bar (1.4 ounces) each day for two weeks reduces levels of the stress as well as the “fight-or-flight” hormones known as catecholamines in highly stressed people.

  • Fruits and vegetables

According to a study published in BMJ Open, lower rates of psychological distress are associated with a moderate daily intake of fruits and vegetables in middle-aged and older adults.

These include:

  • Blueberries
  • Green leafy vegetables
  • Pistachios
  • Avocado
  • Cashews
  • Papaya
  • Kiwi
  • Pineapple
  • Strawberries
  • Grapefruit
  • Cantaloupe
  • Mango
  • Cranberries

Australian researchers at Sydney University found that “moderate consumption of 3 to 4 portions of vegetables daily is associated with 12% less psychological stress than that associated with the consumption of 0 to 1 portion”.

  • Black and green tea

A study led by Andrew Steptoe from University College London found that black tea has an effect on stress hormone levels in the body.

The research, published in the journal Psychopharmacology, found that those who drank black tea decreased their stress levels in response to a stressful task, compared to a caffeinated drink.

  • Probiotics

According to a study performed by the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Alpert Medical School of Brown University, “the ingestion of probiotics modulates the processing of information that is strongly linked to anxiety and depression and influences the neuroendocrine stress response.

  • Fish oil

Fish oil is one of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which may reduce cortisol.

Fish oil prevents the adrenal activation elicited by mental stress in healthy men.

“Supplementation with n-3 fatty acids inhibits the adrenal activation elicited by mental stress, presumably through effects exerted at the level of the central nervous system”, concluded research done by the Laboratoire régional de nutrition Humaine, Hôpital de la Cavale Blanche, in France.

Meditation

According to a study published by the Shamatha Project at the University of California, Davis, “focusing on the present rather than letting the mind drift may help to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

The finding, published this week in the journal Health Psychology, showed a direct relation between resting cortisol and scores on any type of mindfulness scale.

Tonya Jacobs, a postdoctoral researcher at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain and first author of a paper describing the work, stated that “the more a person reported directing their cognitive resources to immediate sensory experience and the task at hand, the lower their resting cortisol and stress.”

Also, long-term meditation practitioners have a faster psychophysiological recovery from stress, states research published in Psychoneuroendocrinology.

In comparison to a meditation naïve control group, meditation practitioners experience less self-conscious emotions after social stress.

A previous study, published in Psychiatry Research, individuals with Generalized Anxiety Disorder in the mindfulness group had a more considerable drop in stress-related ACTH hormone.

Self-meditation, guided meditation, and Yoga are a few of the effective meditation techniques you can use to practice mindfulness and reduce your stress levels.

The best time of the day to meditate is early in the morning when everybody else at home is asleep.

Have Fun

One quick and long-term approach to reduce stress is to be happy simply.

You may wonder how to stay happy when the world is going through a global pandemic, and the economic consequences have not yet unfolded fully.

There are individual positive lifestyle choices and experiences that can release chemicals; so instead of the stress hormone, you rather release dopamine, Serotonin, and oxytocin:

  • Dopamine

As WebMD notes, “dopamine is a type of neurotransmitter, and your nervous system uses it to send messages between nerve cells.” It is also called a “chemical messenger.”

Dopamine plays a role in how we feel pleasure.

According to a study published by researchers from the University of Oxford indicated that aversive (stressful) events universally inhibited dopamine neurons.

Dopamine influences mood, sleep, memory, learning, concentration, and motor control.

On the negative side, dopamine deficiency is related to certain medical conditions, including depression and Parkinson’s disease.

  • Serotonin

The body’s nerve cells manufacture Serotonin, scientifically recognized as the natural mood stabilizer and booster. About 80% of it exists in the gut.

“Serotonin connects this superhighway between thoughts, emotions, and defenses. When this info highway becomes dysregulated, you can have a mood or anxiety disorder,” says George Papakostas, MD, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Proper serotonin levels can help you counter depression, OCD, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

You can increase this naturally by getting more sunlight, exercising, and eating more foods that contain tryptophan, such as nuts, eggs, cheese, red meat, turkey, salmon, tofu, and pineapple.

  • Oxytocin

Oxytocin is known as the love hormone and helps you develop a sense of intimacy and trust in any kind of relationship.

According to a study written by the German scientist Kerstin Uvnäs-Moberg, “oxytocin can induce anti-stress-like effects such as reduction of blood pressure and cortisol levels. It increases pain thresholds, exerts an anxiolytic-like influence, and stimulates various types of positive social interaction”.

The hormone acts as “an important component of a complex neurochemical system that allows the body to adapt to highly emotive situations.”

Hugging your family members every morning and getting more intimate with your spouse are two easy ways to increase your oxytocin levels and reducing stress.

Healthy relationships

Not far from the oxytocin subject, maintaining healthy relationships with your friends and family are two great sources of happiness in your life, while it reduces your cortisol (stress) response.

A study released by the Department of Psychology at the University of Wyoming concluded that mindfulness during a stressful interaction could mitigate the physiological impacts of negative behaviors.

The same research showed that nonjudgmental mindfulness or empathy led to a more rapid return of cortisol to normal levels following an argument.

If it wasn’t important enough, Covid-19 has made support from your loved ones a fundamental aspect of wellbeing and happiness.

Staying at home for extended periods may result in conflicting interactions with your romantic partner. The researchers suggest that you should be mindful of it and support one another for good mental health. Learn to forgive and move on.

The takeout

Science shows that too much stress can lead to all sorts of body and mental issues, including weight gain, panic, high blood pressure, anxiety, stress, diabetes, and not being able to concentrate.

If you want to improve your life during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, try to implement these simple lifestyle changes for proper stress management and a healthier life.

Always seek mental health counseling if you feel that you need guidance during these difficult times.