The coronavirus pandemic has redefined what it means to be stressed out. Suddenly, we’re grappling with fearful, housebound kids whose schools are shuttered indefinitely, demands to stay 6 feet away from other people when we venture out, and constant pressure to do our part to "flatten the curve."
It’s a formula for anxiety that can take a toll on your health, according to Dr. Russell Greenfield of Novant Health Integrative Medicine. Integrative medicine is an approach to healing that takes into account the whole person – body, mind, spirit, family, community and environment.
"Physicians of a certain age like myself were actually taught that the mind exists separate from the rest of the body and should be treated in that way," Greenfield said. "But now we have excellent research suggesting that what we call psychosocial stress – the things in our lives that might cause us anxiety or stress – actually has a significant impact on our physical health and well-being."
Greenfield recently discussed using the mind-body connection to take better care of yourself when times get tough – like now.
What science shows
"Psychosocial stress has a significant impact on our physical health, and that’s because of the release of compounds called cytokines and other things that can impact inflammation and other processes in the body that have a direct impact on physical health.
"Research shows over and over again that continued low-level stress, low-level anxiety can have an impact on our immune system’s functioning. Stress in and of itself doesn’t cause illness, but it can have an [negative] impact on the normal functioning of our immune system. If we participate in healthy stress management techniques, we keep ourselves healthier overall, including our physical bodies."
What you can do
"One of the things we ask people to do is in the midst of all the craziness is take a few moments to pause,” Greenfield said. “We’re not going to actually ask people to stop, because there’s just too much going on, but all of us can take an opportunity to just pause.
"It brings out an important distinction –people often think that rest and sleep are the same, but they’re not. Sleep happens when we’re asleep. Rest actually happens when we’re awake, and everybody needs the opportunity to take a little break and rest because it fills our reserves and gives us the opportunity to do our best."
Healthy versus unhealthy stress management
"Sometimes people turn to risky behaviors or substances or just redouble their efforts at work [in an attempt to manage their stress]. But those aren’t necessarily healthy. We encourage people to find ways that are actually good for them. It could be laughter or friends who make them feel good. It might be watching an inspirational show or listening to music. It might be participating in spiritual practices. It could be talking to a therapist. We may have good friends and family that we can speak to about things, but it helps to have an objective partner sometimes to talk about all the things that are going on in our lives.
"Fortunately, we have many techniques – meditation, yoga, even clinical hypnosis – that we can use. We just have to be kind enough with ourselves to say, 'Hey, we deserve this, and we’re going to explore it for our benefit.'"
When things go from bad to worse
Greenfield acknowledged that we find comfort in a sense of certainty. “But, to be honest,” he said, “there’s very little certainty to be had anywhere in the world, including our own lives. So it behooves us to work toward getting comfortable with the idea of uncertainty. We can’t control everything that’s going on around us, but we can control our response to it. So stress management practices are ones of being in this moment, regardless what happens outside us. We can’t change the past. We can’t control the future, but we can control this moment and the way we respond to it."
"We may be worried about what’s going on in the world these days,” Greenfield said. “We can acknowledge that but not let it take over our being and not let it interfere with activities that make us feel loved and connected. I don’t mean to say that it’s easy, because oftentimes – especially now – it’s not. But if we can decide how we’re going to respond to all the things that are happening to us and where we can take control, we really should try to do that."
Exercise matters...a lot
Did you know that regular exercise is one of the best ways to boost your immune system? Exercise helps flush the stress from our system and puts us in a stronger position to fight off illness. Along with sleep and a healthy diet, exercise is one of the best things you can do to protect yourself.
Lessons from cancer
The experience of cancer offers lessons for controlling anxiety, Greenfield said. "There are many sources of fear in our lives, cancer being a very big one, whether it’s the fear of ever coming down with it, the fear that may be associated with its treatment, or the fear of recurrence,” he said. “What if we can control the question 'what if?' to some degree by eating well and getting enough sleep and taking care of ourselves in all the ways that are important to us – staying in the moment if we’re well now; and if the next moment is bad, not trying to push it aside somewhere?
Lessons from the emergency room
"I was convinced that I was one of those people who ate stress. That’s why I chose emergency medicine. It was only through gentle learning and gentle prodding that I realized, 'Oh, my, I’m just like everybody else.' Everybody has stress in their lives. And yet, very, very few people possess adequate means to manage it healthily and safely."
What he urges patients to work harder on
"What is most important to them is to find out what their values system might be and how we can align our recommendations with their values,” Greenfield said. “For some people it might be listening to music, or meditation, or exercise. For others, it might be all of those things. So we engage in a conversation of possibility. If they are participating in activities that may not be in their best interest - perhaps having two glasses of wine every evening or things of that nature, we say, 'We understand. We want you to have joy in your life, we want you to have an occasional splurge. But we also want you to be safe and there may be safer ways to manage your stress.’ We explore those things together."
Moral of the story
It’s not selfish to take care of yourself, Greenfield said. "We want to give people the freedom to say 'Hey, I have value, I am worth it to take some time each and every day to create some place to pause, reflect and perhaps offer gratitude or forgiveness,’” said Greenfield. “Because really, forgiveness is really more about ourselves than for anybody who has wronged us, to create balance and peace in any way that we can. That’s the part we actually have some control over.
"We’re not asking people to be selfish. We’re asking them to behave in ways that are more self-sustaining so they can continue to do their good work for many years to come. We all could benefit from just being more kind with ourselves."
Novant Health team members are on the front lines in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. Novant Health Foundation has established a new fund dedicated to supporting our teams, as well as the overall response to the pandemic. Contributions will support team members and help fund testing and medication to support patient care, as well as medical supplies. To donate, click here.