How to Handle the Mental Stress of a Winter Lockdown

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We spoke to a health psychologist for some easy-to-implement ways to handle longterm stress.

By now, we’ve spent eight months navigating the coronavirus pandemic. Although we’ve already been through the stress and anxiety of a lockdown and have slowly learned to adjust to an unprecedented situation, the impending winter months will pose new challenges. Without the stress-busting outlets we’ve relied on this year—such as long walks, picnics in the park, and other outdoor activities with friends—the cold and dark months ahead might prove to be the most isolating period yet.

To help prepare for a winter spent in lockdown, we spoke to Dr. Judith Andersen, a health psychologist who specializes in stress-related mental and physical health issues. During the early stages of the pandemic, she explains, we were in the acute stress phase and were able to adjust to the rapidly shifting situation but the longer it continues, our bodies are in a state of uncertainty as we’re not sure when the stressful period is going to end.

“The less things are certain, the more uneasy we feel about the future,” she says. “Unease is a feeling but it has a physical component. Our stress response—that fight or flight feeling that stems from the sympathetic nervous system—is countered by the parasympathetic nervous system, which is calming. When you’re sleeping or having a good time, your parasympathetic system is in dominance. That’s when we digest our food, our immune system works really well, and we repair muscles. But when we’re chronically stressed we have a higher level of stress hormones and that feeds into our negative thoughts without us really realizing that it’s generated from a body response.”

Read on for Dr Andersen’s easy-to-implement solutions on how to manage the physical and mental impact of longterm stress.

Learn some breathing exercises

“There are two techniques to know. One is the one-breath reset, which I’ve studied and measured in first responders and law enforcement officers,” she says. “Often when we start getting stressed it’s like a runaway train – your heart rate keeps elevating, your muscles get more tense and that shuts down the brain processes that help you change gears and calm down. What the one-breath reset does physiologically is it actually slows your heart rate down and triggers the parasympathetic nervous system to activate. That gives you a window of a few seconds in which you can then reset and focus on something more positive.” To do the one-breath reset, let all the air out of your lungs, take a deep inhale, hold at the top and then do pursed-lip breathing on the out breaths.

While the one-breath reset is for acute stress, Dr Andersen suggests another approach—paced breathing—for longterm or chronic stress.

“Humans are very adaptive; your body is constantly working to adapt to new environments,” she explains. “Right now, our body’s trying to make things work but we don’t know what it’s supposed to work towards. So that can drain our physical and psychological resources. Paced breathing helps to deal with chronic stress. Breathe at 5 to 6 breaths per minute, which is slower than your average breath which is usually 10-12 breaths per minute. So you’re slowing the breaths down but not so slow that it feels uncomfortable. Do that several times during the day for a minute at a time. That puts your body into a parasympathetic state and that’s what you need to rebuild your longer reserves. Usually we would build our reserves by sleeping, or having some real relaxation without this overarching stress. But we can’t think our way into it. We actually have to do something physical to put ourselves in that state, and we can do it and it’s easy.”

Eat the right kinds of food

“The gut microbiome is connected to the brain through the vagus nerve. What you eat and what you get exposed to in the gut can actually make you feel more anxious and depressed. When you eat a lot of highly processed foods or comfort foods, it makes us feel better in the moment but it affects the gut microbiome and that actually transfers signals to the brain and makes you more anxious. Something that’s good for your body is probiotics. If you’re feeling highly anxious maybe you want to try a food that you like that has more probiotics in it, like sauerkraut or kimchi or miso.”

Create a positive home environment

“What we know from research is that there are multiple benefits to having plants in the environment. One, visually—they’re restful for the eyes and the brain. Two, working with plants, dirt and leaves boosts immune functioning. Working with plants actually transfers microbiomes from the plant to the body, so people that work with plants or have plants in an urban environment—even on the balcony or in their house—have a better gut microbiome which is better for the parasympathetic nervous system.” She adds that essential oils and scented candles can also help soothe stress. “There’s scientific evidence that olfactory sense is also connected to the brain and can reduce anxiety. Try to create a balanced and positive environment with scents that stimulate good memories.”

Get some fresh air

“Oxygen helps to fuel the body and the brain. People need to try to get outside and breathe as much as possible. Even if you have to stick your head out of the window, you need to breathe deeply outside because that oxygen is so good for you.” For those that are physically able, she recommends bundling up and going on long walks even in the snow. “Put those long johns on and get out there. It’s even more important to get fresh air now because of the heating vents and recycled air.” She also suggests light therapy lamps for when the days get even shorter. “Light is really important. If people are suffering from seasonal affective disorder or anxiety or depression, those special lamps are affective.”

Cut down on social media

If there’s anything 2020 has taught us, it’s that “doomscrolling” can have a very real impact on our mental health. Dr Andersen advises cutting down on social media time, particularly right before bed. “Cut out too much news watching and negative social media, because it can be overwhelming and anxiety-producing. That sense of doom in your brain comes from the emotional centre, the amygdala, but it’s actually changing the way your heart’s beating, your muscle tension, so it’s having a physical effect and it makes you feel more doomed because you don’t feel good. It’s a negative spiral.” She recommends staying off phones and screens at bedtime, because it can take up to an hour for the brain to shut down after screen time, but if you are looking for something to watch in the evenings, comedies and humorous videos are preferable as laughing relaxes the body.

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Make an effort to (virtually) socialize

“People who live alone should reach out for real social interactions. Schedule time with friends to talk–and actually talk, not just text. Schedule a Zoom or FaceTime. Scrolling or posting on social media is not the same as seeing someone’s face or listening to their voice. Try to schedule in different activities, so you always have something to look forward to. Also, volunteering is really helpful. Obviously we have to be isolated but there are volunteer services that somebody might be able to help with online or over the phone.” While social interaction is important, at the same time it’s also vital for those who live with others to carve out some personal time. “Sometimes you do need time alone. Put on headphones and sit in a quiet room or space. Listening to music can be very positive and stimulate the reduction of stress hormones. Do the paced breathing when you’re in those quiet moments.”