Relieving pressure

In challenging times, it is vital to control stress levels

By Barbara Pierce

Many of us were stressed out before the global pandemic — our lives were overloaded with work, family responsibilities, and the multitude of other things we piled on.

But we pretty much handled it OK, most of the time anyway.

Now, going into the sixth month of an ongoing worldwide crisis, we’re still stressed, but in different ways: combating social distancing, keeping to a routine, staying challenged, concern about the future, finding distractions.

Social distancing, especially, takes away the ways we coped with our stress. “I get by with a little help from my friends,” as Joe Cocker sang, is so true. Our friends and the people we encounter in our daily lives are important stress relievers.

Managing the stress we’re now under is important because chronic stress causes major damage to our health, mood, productivity, relationships, and quality of life. When we’re feeling stress, our body releases a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Over exposure to these hormones can do harm to your body and put you at increased risk for many health problems.

Phyllis Ellis, director of health for the Oneida County Health Department and president of the American Heart Association-Mohawk Valley board of directors, offers these suggestions to disrupt the cycle of stress:

— “Do enjoyable activities,” Ellis suggests. “Do the things you enjoy, like gardening, painting, listening to music.”

— When you’re feeling especially stressed, do something that makes you feel good, even if only for 10-15 minutes.

“Hobbies are a good idea; any hobby that you enjoy. It might be a good time to try some new hobbies as well,” added Ellis.

— Like art: “Nature and art are soothing to me to get through this time,” said Barbara Popolow online. Poplow has been making little drawings of things she can view from her desk, such as plants, a candle, and a neighbor’s window. “Putting these drawings together is like making a healing balm that soothes, repairs and strengthens.”

“While I’m immersed in drawing, I feel peaceful and removed from the swirl. I forget about COVID-19 and the attendant health and financial crises. My art is my respite, distracting me from worries and giving me a sense of self-satisfaction,” she noted.

In fact, a recent study found that making art for 45 minutes a day reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and you don’t even have to be good at it for art to be calming.

And art doesn’t mean just painting. Think of sewing, sculpturing, and working with wood, clay, jewelry, or textiles.

Get out and about

— Get out of the house, suggested Ellis. “Go for a walk and get some fresh air,” she said. “I like taking walks to wind down at the end of the day.”

Work in the garden or do a home improvement project. Go for a run or bike ride to clear your head.

“Exercise is important,” Ellis said. “Everyone should include exercise into daily activities like walking, biking, and yoga. Move every day. Even making small changes, like taking the stairs or parking further away, are simple ways to increase daily exercise.”

Many people are transitioning to home workouts as opposed to waiting for gyms to reopen. Take advantage of free online classes, free workout videos, and free personal trainers on Instagram.

Walking is the most underrated exercise, suggests one fitness guru online. He also suggests taking the stairs whenever it’s possible and walking up and down the stairs of your own house or apartment building to add a bit of exercise to your day. Climbing stairs burns more calories per minute than jogging. Also, light dumbbells, a stability ball and jump rope can all be used for a great home workout.

— “Do relaxing activities,” Ellis said. “Take a bath, take a nap, read a book. I like to relax sitting out in the yard and garden.”

— Read a book, short story or magazine. Work on a scrapbook or photo album to focus on good memories. Listen to music or watch an inspiring performance.

— Get together with friends through technology, advised Ellis. Connect with friends and family through social media andr video calling; have a Zoom get-together with friends. Talk with the people you trust about your concerns and how you are feeling.

— Connect with your community or faith-based organizations. While social distancing measures are in place, consider connecting online, through social media, or by phone or e-mail.

— Knowing the facts reduces stress. Understanding the risk to yourself and people you care about helps you dismiss rumors. Know what to do if you have symptoms and where to get treatment.

— Focus on the things you can control. Having knowledge and taking control of what you can control will reduce your stress level.

— And have hope. This will be behind us. The world has gone through many difficult challenges, like disease outbreaks, war and uncertain times. For better or worse, these times always pass. That doesn’t mean this time isn’t significantly challenging. It’s important to look toward the future and begin building for that future.

You can always have hope.