Feeling fearful? Feel your feet! A guide to reducing stress during the Covid-19 outbreak and beyond.
I am a complementary therapist as well as podiatrist and have a strong interest in holistic well-being and lifestyle health. After suffering with anxiety and depression myself, I have over the last 10 years discovered self-help skills to help keep me positive and mentally strong during testing times.
This blog explores holistic and evidence-based ways to help you feel calm during this overwhelming time, focusing on 3 aspects: body, mind and inner strength (soul)..
Shortly after my dad died in 2006, I took up running. I ran the Great North Run for Mind and the Samaritans. I discovered that running helped me to relax. After a run it felt like all the stress that had built up during the day had been released, and I have never stopped!
Exercise can improve mental health. Physiotherapist Brendan Stubbs is one of the lead researchers in this field. He found from 49 studies across the world, of over 260,000 people, that higher levels of physical activity were consistently associated with a reduced risk of developing depression in the future.
Even gentle exercise can be beneficial to our mood. Professor Shane O’Mara is involved in experimental brain research and has written a book called ‘in praise of walking’. He feels walking is the most overlooked but amazing human attribute.
A study by Kramer et al (1999). looked at walkers in their early 70’s, walking about 1.5 miles 3 times a week and found significant improvements in memory and attention, an increase in the volume of hippocampus formation, and blood levels of BDNF compared with non-walkers. The hippocampus contains parts of the brain concerned with learning, memory, stress and depression. Decreased levels of BDNF (Brain derived neurotrophic factor) have been associated with depression.
Although we are in lockdown, we can go out for exercise once a day. Take this opportunity to explore your local area. If not, there are lots of online home exercise classes for all abilities.
I used to have a very sweet tooth and would think nothing of sitting in front of the TV with a giant bag of haribo! I have since discovered how important a healthy diet is both for physical and mental health.
Professor Felice Jacka, a world leading researcher in nutritional psychiatry states that poor diet (largely due to changes in the food system and ultra-processed food) is now the leading cause of early death in men and number 2 in women across the world. Professor Jaka was involved with a trial called the ‘SMILES trial’ which found that a healthy diet reduced symptoms of depression.
Dr Jaka recommends replacing refined carbs with wholegrains, increasing the amount of fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, fish and olive oil and reducing junk, processed and sugary foods.
Fear is a healthy response to help protect us from dangerous situations we haven’t encountered before. Fear helps us survive.
The Covid-19 epidemic is an unknown situation, so there is uncertainty about how to deal with it. Fear together with uncertainty produces anxiety.
We all have different stress thresholds. Lots of minor stressors throughout our day raise our anxiety level and when dealt with, the level goes back down to keep us under the threshold. With Covid -19 everyone’s stress levels have risen and we also have the news and social media which can push us over the edge leaving us feeling overwhelmed. If we go beyond our threshold, our brain’s prefrontal cortex, involved with logical thought and rational decision making, ‘switches off’ leaving us unable to make logical and rational decisions and our emotional brain takes over.
Behavioural neuroscientist, Dr Judson Brewer, suggests using methods that help us pause and break the fear cycle before it takes hold. Focusing our awareness on something tangible, allows time for rational and logical thoughts to return before we emotionally react to a situation. Focusing on our breath, can help some people. Another way is using the mantra ‘feel your feet’. Bringing attention to your feet and the floor helps to ground your awareness and reconnect body and mind.
Often our minds are so busy we become lost in worry and rumination. Much of what we worry about are external things we cannot change, or may never happen. Many of us waste a lot of our precious life being lost in worry.
Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness centre suggests regular mindfulness practice can help us notice the signs of stress and anxiety earlier and help us deal with them better.
Studies show that short, guided mindfulness meditations delivered via a smart phone app, practised several times a week can have positive affect on stress and well-being. Calm or Headspace are both great meditation apps to try.
Meditation isn't for everyone, but there are other ways to be mindful. Try a gentle walk whilst paying attention to the environment, sounds or body sensations. Each time you notice a thought, label it descriptively. E.g. imagining/problem solving/criticising/predicting/recalling etc.. Once you have labelled it, let the thought go.This can help raise awareness of the things you think about and any habitual thought patterns you might like to change. Other helpful practices include Yoga and Tai-Chi, which are forms of mindful movement and breathing awareness.
We tend to undervalue our sleep, yet sleep deprivation has a very negative affect on our well-being. Scientists from Oxford University have discovered we’re sleeping on average 1 to 2 hours less than we were 60 years ago.
Below are tips from Dr Ranjan Chatterjee’s blog to help get a good night sleep:
1. Switch off screens or use the night mode on phones or laptops for at least an hour before bed. The blue light effects melatonin levels, the hormone we need to help us have a deep, relaxing sleep.
2. Going outside and exposing yourself to natural light in the morning has been found to help you sleep better that evening. This is because it helps set your body’s daily circadian rhythm.
3. Try to avoid caffeine after midday. A quarter of the caffeine from a midday coffee is still in your system at midnight.
4. Form a bedtime routine to help you relax and switch off such as having a bath and dimming the lights or reading a book. Some research has found magnesium to have a positive effect on sleep, so try adding Epsom salts to your bath.
Soul (inner strength)
Being kind to ourselves is something many people, including myself, struggle with. Once you become more of a friend to yourself you will find relationships improve and you become a nicer person to be around. Do you talk to yourself as a friend or do you often berate yourself? Just noticing this this is the beginning of being able to change.
Altruism is putting the needs of others before our own. Being genuinely kind to others not only helps the other person but also makes us feel good too. Evidence shows altruism can help to reduce stress and improve mood, self-esteem and happiness.
Research suggests that gratitude may be very beneficial to well-being. Studies show grateful people tend to be happier, more resilient, have more empathy towards others, sleep better and have healthier relationships. Try keeping a gratitude journal, or think of 1 thing you are thankful for each night before you go to sleep.
Be in Nature
I love to be outside in nature. It uplifts my mood and feels like great therapy. There may be a scientific reason for this too. Geometric shapes called Fractals exist only in nature. When we look at these fractals, our body's cortisol (stress hormone) production decreases. Go for a walk or sit in your garden and pay attention to nature. Even looking at pictures of natural scenes has been found to reduce stress.
Connect with others
We are social animals and social connection is important. Technology now allows us to be connected in many ways without being face to face. Video calls are a great way to stay connected. Seeing someone’s face can lift your mood and decrease loneliness. Don’t be shy about being on camera. Your loved ones will really appreciate seeing you.
During the coronavirus epidemic, try to limit time spent on social media or watching the news. This can fuel our anxiety.
Instead, try to do something each day that you enjoy and find relaxing such as reading, gardening, arts & crafts or listening to music.
If we develop the ability to step back from negative thoughts, be kinder to ourselves and others, make time for things we enjoy and try to appreciate the little things in life, we begin to feel an inner contentment and a greater ability to cope with all that life throws at us.