Overcoming Stress in the Time of Covid
By Jerry Brownstein
The policies and restrictions instituted as a reaction to Covid-19 have disrupted our lives in many ways – economically, emotionally, and physically. This is a virus that spreads more easily than others, so the chances of infection are high, but most people with strong immune systems have only minor symptoms if they get it. The danger is primarily to the elderly and people who have existing health problems. Yet the mainstream media’s constant stream of coverage has made everyone – even healthy people – afraid of this virus. In addition, many of our freedoms have been taken away from us. This combination of fear and uncertainty has caused an immense amount of stress that is very dangerous to our health.
Research has shown that stress is a major factor in heart disease, digestive problems, auto-immune disorders, chronic pain and many forms of cancer. When you feel stressful it raises your blood pressure, weakens your immune system and speeds up the aging process. We need to heal the excess stress that we have had to endure over the past two years, and the first step is to understand where it comes from.The root cause of stress is our instinct for survival.
Like every other animal, human beings are programmed to respond to life threatening situations with an emergency response system called Fight or Flight. This automatic reaction prepares our bodies to either fight a threatened danger with full strength, or to run away from it at full speed. Here’s how it works. When your brain senses fear it releases a flood of adrenaline and cortisol into your bloodstream, and these chemicals cause a powerful physical response: blood pressure rises; muscles tense; breathing becomes shallow and rapid; digestion stops; the immune system is repressed; and all senses go on full alert. This completely reverses the regular rhythm of your body which normally keeps you healthy by using 90% of its energy for growth and renewal. Fight or Flight shuts down these vital functions and diverts almost all of your energy toward facing the perceived emergency.
This temporary defence mechanism is crucial for survival in a dangerous environment, but if it is not quickly terminated it causes massive physical damage that leads to chronic disease in the body. Fight or flight worked perfectly well for our ancient ancestors when they faced a life-threatening situation such as a dangerous animal. Their bodies prepared to fight or run, but once the animal had gone away or been subdued, the primitive man relaxed… the fear subsided... the stress response stopped… and his body returned to its normal state of growth and renewal. The difference today is that most of the news we hear is based on fear, so we constantly feel as if we are being threatened.
Fear is pervasive in the media because it generates attention which increases income, and Covid has brought this to a new level.
Filling our minds with fearful thoughts activates the fight or flight reaction. The reason is that our ability to visualize thoughts has evolved rapidly, while our system for facing danger has hardly changed at all. We are able to create mental pictures that seem totally real to the primitive part of the brain that triggers fight or flight - so it reacts to every fearful thought as if we are being physically threatened.
As a result, we are constantly turning on our emergency lifesaving system. The perfect example of this is when people worry about things that may or may not happen in their lives. Your thoughts about a situation turning out badly feel like reality to the primitive part your brain - it can’t tell the difference between your thought picture and what is real. So it reacts as if the negative outcome has actually happened, thus causing the stress reaction. No wonder they say that ‘worrying is the worst possible use of imagination’.
The good news is that there are many proven ways to reduce stress and help you to handle it more gracefully. Regular exercise is a great way to reduce the body’s stress response. Anything physical that you do on a consistent basis will work - Yoga, Qi Gong, jogging, going to the gym, etc.. Walking in nature reduces stress by combining the benefits of exercise with the calming beauty of the natural environment. Being among friends with whom you can share your true feelings is restorative and calming. Perhaps most important of all is meditation – a powerful practice that you can easily incorporate into your daily life.
Numerous studies have proven that meditation reduces stress, and this leads to significant improvements in both physical and mental health. Meditating for as little as five minutes each day is enough to calm the mind, relax the body, and reverse the process of stress. It is also the pathway toward finding a deeper level of inner peace, and a ‘new normal’ that is positive and filled with hope.