It’s a low-grade fear. An edginess, a dread. A cold wind that won’t stop howling.
It’s not so much a storm as the certainty that one is coming. Always… coming. Sunny days are just an interlude. You can’t relax. Can’t let your guard down. All peace is temporary, short-term.
It’s not the sight of a grizzly bear but the suspicion of one or two or ten. Behind every tree. Beyond every turn. Inevitable. It’s just a matter of time until the grizzly leaps out of the shadows, bares its fangs, and gobbles you up, along with your family, your friends, your bank account, your pets, and your country.
There’s trouble out there! So you don’t sleep well.
You don’t laugh often.
You don’t enjoy the sun.
You don’t whistle as you walk.
And when others do, you give them a look. That look. That “are you naïve” look. You may even give them a word. “Haven’t you read the news and heard the reports and seen the studies?’
Max Lucado, a New York Times bestselling author begins his book, Anxious for Nothing: Finding Calm in a Chaotic World, with the above passage. Do you live like that? Constantly imagining danger around the corner? Are you suffering from low-grade anxiety on a constant basis?
I have been writing about stress for the last two decades, and the coronavirus has made those pieces all the more relevant. Stress lurks around every corner: in our loved one’s coughs, in the empty hours alone, and in our dwindling bank accounts. What can we do to relieve stress when many of our traditional forms of stress relief are not available to us? I would like to look toward Natan Sharansky’s words of advice that he released at the beginning of the pandemic.
Natan Sharansky, a Soviet refusenik, spent nine years (many of them in solitary confinement) in a Russian prison. While his conditions were far less comfortable than most of ours, he had important counsel for those of us serving what feels like our own time in our homes or small spaces:
Remind yourself why you are there. With so many beloved activities and visits with loved ones on pause, it is hard to remember why we are social distancing or in lockdown. We need to remind ourselves constantly why we are taking the precautions we are taking. Remembering the reason gives us the strength to move forward.
Don’t pin your hopes on things beyond your control. It is human nature to look forward to a milestone, to say, “by next Pesach, we will be back to normal and celebrating together.” The problem with that is that when next Pesach comes and things remain the same, you will feel crestfallen and distraught. Therefore, focus on things within your control – like learning a new language or a new skill – and set your sights on that.
Laugh. Laughter is an important part of overcoming stressful situations. When you laugh, your body produces lots of hormones that calm you. Find the humorous in the everyday. Engage with people who make you laugh. You’ll actually feel lighter!
While we are definitely not in a Soviet prison, we are all struggling with unusual stresses in an unprecedented time. Perhaps we can use some of Sharansky’s guidance to live more with a bit less stress and a little more joy.
There are several other techniques that Margaret Wehrenberg outlines in her book The 10 Best-Ever Anxiety Management Techniques. These tips can be used for “everyday” stresses that occurred before the pandemic and will continue to occur when it is only a memory:
Manage the body. People who are stressed don’t take care of their bodies. But, this leads to a cycle of stress. Therefore, in order to manage your emotional and mental state, you need to take care of your physical self:
- Eat right. Get plenty of fruits, vegetables, and proteins. These will help your brain feel safe and taken care of.
- Avoid alcohol, sugar, and caffeine. These substances can create dips and spikes in our moods.
- Exercise. Exercise releases stress-reducing hormones that calm the body and the brain.
- Sleep. Sleep gives you the ability to recharge and have energy for the day ahead.
Don’t listen when worry calls your name. Anxiety is an emotional state. As I talk about in my children’s book My Friend, the Worrier, anxiety is a monster. When you feed the monster by giving into the anxiety, you let it grow bigger. Instead, you need to stop listening to the monster. You need to stop feeding it. You need to say, “That’s just my anxious brain again.” Then, you can begin relaxation breathing.
Learn to plan, instead of worry. The difference between planning and worrying is that once you create a plan, you don’t need to check it over a million times. If you are worrying, you revisit that plan over and over. So, learn to plan. Learn to:
- Identify the problem
- Come up with possible solutions
- Choose the best solution for you
- Create a plan of action
Don’t rethink it and change the plan. Instead, stick with it. You’ll ultimately be happier and less anxious.
Feel that you can’t get out of the worry cycle? That’s natural, especially given the world we are living in today. Give yourself a break, take a deep breath, and call a friend. Make plans to see each other in person or virtually. In the end, it’s human connection that is going to see us through to happier and more stress-free times.