2020 has been one of a kind rollercoaster ride. Even though the pandemic globally started in December of 2019, it wasn’t until March that here in the States our lives turned upside down. Most of us started the quarantine with hope, dedication, and faith that this will all be under control by the beginning of the summer.
Weeks and after weeks, the quarantine got longer, the unknown and uncertainty continued. We are feeling the fatigue of the quarantine, finding out that homeschooling will go on indefinitely, and the business closes down again. Everywhere I look, I see the stress of the last few months. With everything that has been going on, it is no wonder many people are already done with this year and feel that there is nothing good can come out of it. The quarantine is messy and hard.
The things that are adding to the quarantine stress…
Just because you’ve been in quarantine for a while, doesn’t mean it gets any easier.
Prolonged state of uncertainty has left many people anxious, emotionally drained, and frustrated. Not knowing where the finish line is ultimately makes it harder to be present and tolerate the circumstances. It may feel like a second-wave of loss if you were feeling hopeful for things to get back to normal even if it meant slowly.
An article in the Huff Post reported that roughly half of parents say they are somewhere between 8 and 10 on the stress scale right now. 80% of moms said they were struggling at work, and nearly 30% described their current emotional state as “terrible.” Since the online learning has officially extended into the fall here in Los Angeles, the stress level of parents will continue to remain the same or keep increasing.
The parents continue to feel like they are being pulled in a million different directions. Kids constantly asking, “what’s for dinner?” The laundry pile never seems to go away, even if you did the laundry for the third time today. There is barely any time for yourself to do self-care activities. You can’t remember last time you exercised or meditated. You might be thinking, “My health has been so neglected, I don’t recognize the person in the mirror.” How is the couple’s relationship, you ask? Has the exchanges between you and your partner ever pass the point of “what’s for dinner” or “who is going to help the kids with their zoom meeting?” So yes, the marriage is also getting on the back burner.
How do you respond to stress?
During stress some people are overly productive while others are under productive. In the midst of chaos when you feel like there are a lot of things out of your control, you might feel scared and nervous, as well as powerless and lost. You may try to compensate by seeking more control, which feeds into seeking perfectionism in everything you do, in all the areas of your life. High levels of productivity help you feel in control, safe, and secure.
On the other hand, stress can be very paralyzing, leading to under productivity.
You lose all sense of drive, passion, and energy. You may find it hard to take one step forward. In the worst case scenario, you may lose your entire vision for your future, what you wanted to do and where you wanted to go. Stress can make it harder to get started on things. You may feel more indecisive than ever, leading to procrastination and avoidance. The feeling of stress gets so overwhelming that you just freeze and can’t move on.
Whether your productivity levels have been high or low, these are both unhealthy responses to stress because they are two ends of the extremes. They both leave you feeling burnout, numb and depleted. Instead of living on either end of the extremes, we want to find the healthy medium and respond to stress with healthy levels of productivity balanced with rest.
How stress affects your mood:
When emotions are high, your cognition is low. When your emotions are intense and strong, it’s hard to think clearly. Emotions can cloud your judgment and you may feel blinded by the intense anger, sadness, or anxiety. This explains how often we regret something we said or did when we were feeling overwhelmed or frustrated.
High stress brings along other intense unpleasant and uncomfortable emotions. You may also feel helpless, hopeless, and stuck. Stress can amplify and intensify your emotions where they feel heavier than usual. You may feel more nervous, anxious, and frightened than before. Stress also makes it harder to stay patient. Your tolerance of mistakes and accidents may be at its ultimate lowest.
You may start to lose your sense of confidence, leading you to feel inferior. As if you are feeling weak and small. When all of these feelings are behind the stress, it often shows up through aggression. You might find yourself getting angry and mad for the littlest things much quicker than before. Then a sense of disappointment in yourself sits in, which brings on depression. All of these feelings are highly correlated with feeling stressed.
How stress affects your thinking:
What do you say to yourself when you are anxious and stressed? Do you list all the things that are going well or all the things that are going wrong? Are you quick to find out whose fault it is? Do you think you are alone in your misery?
When feelings of stress aren’t managed well and it just gets louder and heavier, it inevitably shapes the way you think. Specifically, with increased stress, there is more pessimistic and hopeless thinking. There are additional common faulty thinking when under high anxiety and stress. You are more likely to blow things out of proportion, engage in catastrophizing, magnifying the negatives while also minimizing any positives. Stress loves “either-or” thinking, also known as black or white thinking. You think you are either doing great or failing miserably. Instead of staying in the present moment, you time travel to the future creating all sorts of unlikely scenarios. In your mind, you are already convinced that the future negative possibility has come true, and you start to feel the negative feelings around it.
Your core beliefs about yourself may get more negative as you start to see yourself as inadequate and incompetent. You might start to think that you have no tools to manage the current stress. Your inner critic gets louder when you are under high stress. When all you see is what is missing, wrong, and imperfect, it gets in the way of practicing gratitude. It gets harder to stay in the present moment. In turn, you start to have poor memory, attention span, and concentration. You are now more likely to forget things or make mistakes, leaving you feeling more behind and inferior.
How stress affects your body:
Our bodies hold stress in many ways. Because of the mind and body connection, the stress you mentally experience has an impact on you physically. Most common, when under stress, you will have an increase in body aches around your head, neck, and back. There can be more tightness in your body, the heaviness in your chest, and the pit in your stomach. Stress also negatively impacts your physical movement. Often the stress brings you down, then you feel more fatigued and a lack of energy. As a result, you have less drive to move your body. It is common to find yourself pacing when anxious; but remember pacing around is not the same as healthy physical exercise. So pacing still leaves your body feeling tight and wind up. You will also notice changes in your appetite where the anxiety can either kill your appetite or cause you to snack more often. Along with appetite, the digestive system is also impacted by your stress and anxiety, as evidenced by experiencing more diarrhea or constipation.
5 skills to better manage stress:
You can’t always control the stress around you but you can control how you respond to stress. The goal of the following 5 effective tools is not to totally remove stress from your life as there will be things out of your control that created the stress in the first place.
The purpose of the following five skills to help you feel more empowered, resilient and peaceful when going through stressful times. When you feel like you have the right tools to deal with stress, then you can come out of it stronger. As the saying goes, what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.
1) Identify your stress response:
It is important to start with an inventory that will give you the insight and awareness to build your foundation. Specifically, you are looking to understand how you personally respond to stress. In Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, we know that each emotion has an action urge. This is also known as your emotionally-driven behavior. Higher the emotion is, the stronger the urge may feel. When your anxiety says, “there is a threat, this is scary, this is too much,” then your action urges are to avoid, delay, and procrastinate. These are your emotionally-driven behaviors, i.e. those are the ways you respond to anxiety and stress. Only when your emotions die down, do you recognize that these action urges were impulsive, unhelpful, and ineffective. You want to first ask yourself: What do I do when I am anxious?
There are common emotionally driven behaviors when we are under a lot of stress, that include rumination, changes in our sleep, overcompensating by working harder or staying busier than ever, avoid and distracting ourselves by engaging in non-essential tasks, over-indulging in pleasurable activities such as Netflix marathons. When you are in a calm state and identify your typical behaviors to stress and anxiety, it becomes easier to catch yourself when you are engaging in them.
Once you identify your stress response, you want to slowly turn it around, meaning engage in the opposite of what your stress is telling you to do. If under stress, you freeze, you want to ask yourself, “what is one step I can take right now?” or “is there someone I can ask for help so I can stay accountable?” If under stress, you tend to become impatient and lose your temper, then learn to walk away, take breaks, and take deep breaths.
2) Practice radically accepting the current situation:
Life in quarantine is hard and messy. And the truth is we can make difficult and painful situations harder on ourselves by resisting it. By the way you respond to pain, you can amplify your suffering. Specific responses that make a situation harder on ourselves is when you resist it, deny it, avoid it and passively wait for it to go away. In contrast, the Dialectical Behavioral Therapy suggests that when in a stressful situation, you put all your energy into radically accepting it.
Practicing radical acceptance of the current situation is often most challenging because you don’t like the current situation as it is and therefore you don’t approve of it. Accepting it feels like you are giving up and saying “it’s ok that this is happening.” There is a voice inside of you screaming, “but no, no it is not OK, this is not OK.” You have to understand that that voice belongs to your resistance that is keeping you stuck. In order to survive a stressful situation most effectively, at a certain level you have to come to terms with the fact that what is happening is happening. Again, the key word here is coming to terms, which means accepting, acknowledging, and recognizing. Once you accept, you don’t necessarily learn to love it given that it is an unpleasant experience; but you sure learn to tolerate it.
To take this radical acceptance one step further, the Dialectical Behavioral Therapy also says that once you accept the present moment as is, you can have clarity to decide what you want to change. Remember, you can only change what is in your control. So, change might mean that you give your kids more TV screen time. Change might mean that you give yourself permission not to have a home cook meal every night and celebrate frozen foods. Change might mean that you and your husband can’t go out for your date nights, but can create date nights on your couch in your living room.
3) Write a letter to yourself
There are many ways you can write a letter to yourself. It can be a letter to your anxious self from your calm self. A letter to your broken self from your healing. A letter to your present self from your future self. A letter to your child self from your adult self.
It may sound silly or even a bit bizarre to think of yourself as having these different parts, as if they are all different entities. And no, you are not losing it. You are actually trying to put it all together. You are trying to honor the various experiences that live inside you.
A letter to yourself can be empowering because you can connect with your “calm self” or “future self” or the “best self.” Once you connect with those stronger parts of you, you can find clarity, resilience, and the optimism you need.
A letter to yourself can be validated because you can talk to your “stressed self,” “child self,” and “scared self,” and hear the concerns and pain of those parts of yourself. You don’t have to ignore, dismiss, or reject the worries, insecurities, or pain of your child or stressed self. By talking to those parts of you that are fragile, you can find peace and healing.
Here is a sample letter you can write to yourself when feeling stressed:
Dear stressed self,
I know you have been feeling burnout, exhausted, and stuck. It may feel like it is never going to get better. I want you to know that I am so proud of you for not giving up. You are such a fighter. We will come out of this stronger.
Your best self.
4) Rearrange your daily routines:
Levels of your stress and your daily routine go hand in hand. At times, the lack of structure of your day fuels the stress. Other times, increased feelings of stress get in the way of you following through with your routine. Any given day, the two most important time periods when it comes to managing stress are your morning and evening routine.
Your morning routine is a key player in setting the tone for the day. If you wake up feeling rushed by the kids or wake up at the last minute that you are barely awake by the first Zoom meeting, then you spend the rest of your day feeling “off.” It is incredibly important to wake up an hour earlier than your kids, your partner, or your work. You want to spend that hour engaging in activities that mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually prepare you for your day. Some activities can include walking/running, meditating, writing on your gratitude list, journaling, listening to a podcast, listening to an uplifting song. Every morning, I highly encourage you to use a planner to have a “rough” draft of what you think your day will look like. I know you might think, “every day is the same, I am not going anywhere, what’s the point of the planner.” Before you let those excuses get in the way, consider how a planner can help to bring more purpose and intention to your day. You don’t even have to decide what you are doing every single hour. You can start by breaking your day to block of time and consider how you like to best spend those time periods.
In order to let go of the stress of the day, your evening routine is important. By the time 9 oclock comes around, you may have zero mental or physical energy to do one more thing. But remember evening routine is not another task you need to do. Evening routine is a way to cope with the day. The main purpose of your evening routine is to have closure from the day. Make peace with all the ups and downs, all the success and shortcomings, all the wins and the losses. To have your closure of the day, you need to engage in activities that are aimed at accepting the day as it is. One of my favorite evening mantras is quoted by Dr Brene Brown that says “No matter what got done, whatever was left undone, I am enough.” As part of your evening routine, consider activities that are self-soothing such as warm showers, evening meditation, evening yoga, journaling, hot tea, and letting go of electronics at least one hour before your bedtime.
5) Engage in positive self-talk daily:
When you realize that stress changes the way you talk to yourself, then you need to change your inner dialogue. When things around you are out of order, things inside you feel unsettled. The self-doubt crumbles in quietly. Clearing out all the self-love away. It’s hard to feel good about yourself when nothing feels in your control, when nothing goes the way you planned. You start to blame it all on yourself. Instead of beating yourself up and letting your inner critic be in charge, create a loving, kind, and understanding self-talk that supports you during difficult times.
Here are some examples of positive self-talk:
- I am doing my best, and for that I am proud.
- I am good enough. I am worthy.
- I am going through a hard time and it won’t last forever.
- I deserve to be kind and patient with myself.
I want you to remember that you are not alone in this. It is not just you. This is definitely one of the hardest seasons we have gone through as a nation and globally.
“You can still know peace without knowing what comes next.”
Given all the stress, this beautiful quote by Morgan Harper Nichols seems timely. Because the fact is we can find peace and joy in the midst of uncertainty. We don’t need the guarantees and certainties of tomorrow to enjoy today.
𝗪𝐞 𝐜𝐚𝐧 𝐥𝐢𝐯𝐞 𝐢𝐧 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐩𝐫𝐞𝐬𝐞𝐧𝐭 𝐩𝐞𝐚𝐜𝐞𝐟𝐮𝐥𝐥𝐲, 𝐚𝐮𝐭𝐡𝐞𝐧𝐭𝐢𝐜𝐚𝐥𝐥𝐲, 𝐚𝐧𝐝 𝐟𝐮𝐥𝐥𝐲.
About the Author
Dr. Menije is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Los Angeles, CA. When she works with her clients individually or as couples, the goal is to help you break free from the vicious cycle of anxiety and judgment and instead build a true sense of trust in yourself. The practice is currently accepting new clients and offers online therapy. If you like to learn more about personal growth and anxiety management, join the 5-day challenge.