James Larsen, MA, LMFT (# 99733) – Author
Licensed marriage and family therapist
Member of the Board of the El Dorado Community Foundation
The emergence of COVID-19 has had a profound impact on the health and well-being of most Americans. For many of us here in El Dorado County, this has been a challenging time in the financial, physical and psychological fields. Stressed parents and children have had to navigate distance learning, isolation from peers, friends and family, and the insecurity surrounding the COVID-19 threat. Many, especially in marginalized communities, have lost jobs, housing, and contacts with important community support systems. For those infected with the virus, or who have lost someone to it, the level of suffering may seem unbearable.
All of this has contributed to our already increased response to stress to local and global events. Stress itself is a natural part of our nervous system, but if prolonged, it can have serious consequences on our body and mind. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH, 2021), we have seen sharp increases in levels of depression, anxiety, insomnia, substance abuse, child abuse, domestic violence, suicidal ideation and more during the pandemic.
With the spread of new variants, and the growing infections in the US, we are no longer looking at a predictable or regular end point. We have few precedents to follow as we learn to navigate prolonged stressors. This makes it even more critical that we use effective strategies to support our mental well-being during this time. Learning to cope with stress can help us and our loved ones become more resilient in the face of crisis.
Some stress management tips include:
1) Taking pauses from pandemic-related news While it is important to keep up to date with the latest health guidelines and advice, overexposure can easily trigger or enhance our threat response system (war, flight, freezing). This leads to an overloaded central nervous system and eventually to decreased immune system function (NCBI, 2020).
2) Caring for our bodies Being stuck at home can lead to a more sedentary lifestyle. Aerobic exercise, including running, swimming, cycling, walking, and dancing, has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression (Sharma, Madaan, & Petty, 2006). Consistent with a healthy diet, adequate sleep, and avoiding alcohol, tobacco, and substance use, we can learn to better manage our stress response.
3) Take care of our minds An equally powerful supportive strategy is the practice of techniques such as breathing work, visualization, stretching and a form of meditation. All of these help regulate and calm the nervous system. Before COVID, we could have learned these with the help of an experienced teacher, such as a yoga instructor, trainer or personal trainer. With COVID-related limitations, however, we are turning more to the Internet for access. Online content, including Youtube videos, subscription services, and free apps like Insight Timer, Calm, and Headspace, are dedicated to providing guidance and helping you create a healthy mind-body routine.
4) Take time to relax – Another preventative is spending time in green spaces. First invented by the Japanese, the concept of “Forest Bath” or the passage of time focused in nature can have a profound impact on the regulation of our nervous system (Li, 2018). Given our proximity to recreation at El Dorado National Forest, Crystal Basin Range, and Lake Tahoe, we have plenty of opportunities for diving. Research in horticulture has shown that interaction with the soil can help us be more resistant to stress (CU, 2019). There has never been a better time to exercise that green thumb, plant an herb or vegetable garden in the backyard, and leave the mother earth to support the health of your nervous system.
5) Connect with friends, family and community – In light of the constraints placed on social interactions and our human need for connection, it is critical to find trusted people with whom we can share our fears and concerns (CDC, nd). These may include loved ones, neighbors, members of our local communities, or mental health and wellness professionals. Where it is not possible or safe to meet in person, we now have increased opportunities to connect through various online formats. Zoom, Google Meet and many more have allowed us to create and maintain supportive communities from our homes.
Given the magnitude and unpredictable nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is critical that we continue to strengthen our mental health support strategies. It starts with our self-care, including increasing social contact, improving diet, more exercise, adequate sleep, time outdoors, an awareness practice, and limiting our exposure to social media and other news sources. related to the pandemic. By doing so, we can learn to better cope with the stressors associated with the present moment.
For more information on mental health resources, see the list below:
** If you or someone you love is experiencing a mental health emergency, contact 911 or your local emergency room.