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We are living in unprecedented times right now. The emergence of Covid-19 has turned our lives upside down. This virus has changed the way we socialise, how we work and how we live. Many of us don’t know what to expect.
Some may be excited by the challenges that arise as a consequence of the coronavirus. For others it has brought uncertainty. Many people are now experiencing higher levels of stress and overwhelm than ever before. [Editor’s note: A recent Horizon Poll projects that more than 215,000 NZ adults say they would like extra help and advice to cope with isolation and stress caused by the COVID-19 Level Four Alert lockdown.]
Stress is insidious in nature and affects all of us in some way. It’s not all bad, we need stress to keep us motivated and out of danger, but too much can be detrimental to our health.
Many people don’t realise they are stressed. They see it as just part of life, or they don’t acknowledge the stressful situations they find themselves in. Often they just soldier on. Unfortunately this doesn’t change the internal dialogue that is going on at a conscious or unconscious level.
At the moment many of us will be on red alert, since we don’t know what is going to happen. Our reptilian brain will be getting the message that we are not safe. This part of our brain isn’t able to differentiate between perceived or real danger and hasn’t adapted to modern living. We are no longer being chased by wild animals. Now our stressors are rogue viruses, finances, not having enough time, pollution, a poor diet, too much alcohol, caffeine and other consequences of present day life.
What exactly is stress?
The term ‘stress’ was defined by Hans Selye as a ‘nonspecific response of the body to any demand for change’. We need stress to survive but distress occurs when we become overwhelmed by life stressors and the body is unable to effectively adapt to it.
Keep in mind that our stress response is what keeps us safe. It is trying to protect us. Our nervous system has two main operating modes: ‘Fright and flight’ (sympathetic) and ‘rest and digest’ (parasympathetic). You can be tipped into fright and flight mode by thinking that you are in danger, whether this is true or not, by having an argument with your partner, by getting sick or being worried about finances.
It doesn’t matter what the stress is, if you feel in danger, your body will step in to protect you. It will produce large amounts of chemicals such as cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline, which will increase your blood pressure, prepare your muscles for flight, make you sweat and increase your alertness. Stress will also slow down the normal body function of your digestive and immune systems. It’s focus is on keeping you safe. And that’s why it is so critical to manage your stress, since right now you need your digestive and immune system to be working at their best.
What can you do about it?
When people get stuck in the sympathetic mode, stress can become chronic. This can lead to high blood pressure, type II diabetes, an increase in body fat, sugar cravings, digestive issues and feelings of overwhelm. Prolonged stress also stops the production of new brain cells. Another incentive to get this pesky response back into the ‘rest and digest’ mode.
The quickest way to do this is to breathe and to tell yourself that you are safe and well. Remember, you are what you feel and think. Creating a negative story in your mind, will elicit a stress response. Your aim is to nip it in the bud.
The key is to change your inner language and be aware of what you are saying to yourself. Other things you can do to keep yourself balanced are:
- Learn to say no to things that don’t serve you and you really don’t want to do.
- Avoid people that are negative and don’t add to your life.
- Look to see if you can alter a situation by changing the way you communicate. Allow yourself to be open and to express how you feel.
- If you cannot change the stressor, adapt your response to it. Look at it in a more positive way and adjust the amount of energy you are giving to it.
- Let go of the need to be perfect and in control (I bet this resonates with lots of you reading this). One of the biggies that I have to work on all the time!
- Focus on gratitude for all the good things you have in your life.
- Be open to accepting what you cannot change. Look for the learning in the challenges that you are given.
- Let go of anger and resentments.
- Be open to forgiving.
We invest so much of our time in work and other responsibilities that we often leave our health to last. Be proactive and make small changes to your life to manage your stress for a healthier and happier life. Remember you are in charge and can control the way you respond to stressors in your life.