If the demands of ‘normal life’ feel overwhelming after lockdown, dial down your stress response with these simple, practical, evidence-based psychology tips.
After months of restricted activity, the sudden return of ordinary demands may have come as a rude shock. Even if you desperately wished for your ‘old life’, the reality of life resuming in one fell swoop may feel overwhelming. The workload is back to normal (or busier, because everyone wants to make up for lost time). There’s the nerve-fraying peak hour traffic commute you didn't have while working from home. You again need to drive the kids to sport, music and social activities. And then, for parents, there’s the return to preparing and packing lunches and ironing uniforms. Agh!
The cruel twist in this onslaught of stress is that its effects may make it even harder to cope. Without conscious intervention, stress can have a kind of Domino effect or create a vicious cycle, which, in some cases, may spiral into anxiety. For instance, when you're stressed, you may unknowingly hold your breath, which exacerbates physiological stress responses. Your sleep quantity or quality may be compromised, which makes it more difficult to think clearly and focus, make decisions, problem-solve and gain perspective. You may be skipping meals or grabbing nutritionally-poor convenience options, which can contribute to daytime fatigue and energy slumps and fail to provide the fuel your brain needs to function well. Your exercise routine may have gone out the window, depriving your brain of feelgood chemicals known to work against stress and even anxiety and depression. So, what to do about it?
To arrest the stress cycle, try these evidence-based tips.
- Reduce stressors. It may not be possible to change a situation. However, you may be able to reduce the adverse impact of these situations by making personal changes. This might mean delegating or reducing your responsibilities, adjusting your standards and expectations or reaching out for support from colleagues or superiors, friends or family or a professional such as a psychologist.
- Reframe. According to the evidence-based paradigm cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), reframing your thoughts about a stressor can help to manage the associated emotions such as despair. If you get caught in what-ifs and worst-case scenarios, consciously redirect your thoughts. Other tactics include checking that your expectations of yourself are realistic, and working to accept situations beyond your control.
- Respect sleep. It makes sense that daytime stress impacts sleep, but it also works in reverse. Inadequate sleep duration or quality can undermine our ability to cope with stress or come up with creative solutions. Prioritise sleep hygiene by adopting a regular sleep routine, including going to bed at a regular time, scheduling wind-down time and avoiding caffeine and alcohol late in the day.
- Rest actively. Exercise may be the last thing you feel like doing (or feel you have time to do), but scheduling at least half-an-hour of physical activity a day is an investment. The break from focusing on worries and your to-do list and feeling pressured can serve as a sort of circuit-breaker or 'mini holiday', which may help you to gain perspective rather than becoming lost in stress (that 'it's the end of the world' feeling). The endorphins released during moderate to high-intensity exercise are also natural feelgood chemicals.
- Revel. It may sound flippant to suggest prioritising 'me time' or 'fun', but maintaining pleasurable activities can help to offset the effects of stress by providing a distraction and reprieve from pressure and promoting feelgood neurotransmitters. The experience of enjoyment also serves as a reminder that life is not always so serious. Consider scheduling one or two 'fun' activities during the week, whether it's catching up for lunch or coffee with friends, reading a novel, baking, painting or drawing or gardening.
If you feel unable to manage your current stress or anxiety, consider consulting a psychologist, who can help to instil effective stress-management skills and help you learn to identify your stress triggers and responses.