The scale of the global COVID pandemic’s effect on mental health over the last year is unravelling in its enormity
It has affected everyone in different ways, depending on their socio-economic status, age and living status.
A recent report by the Office of National Statistics has shown that feeling stressed and anxious, worrying about the future, feeling like a burden to others, boredom and loneliness, isolation and not having someone to talk to are factors driving a rise in mental health problems across all age groups.
“In challenging times that are full of uncertainty, fear kicks in and it fires off the automatic ‘fight or flight’ response,” says Professor Margareta James, founding director at the Harley Street Wellbeing Clinic.
“This drives our reactions and behaviour.
“We could see demonstrations of how our basic needs (explained by Maslow’s hierarchy) of safety and security were threatened by the pandemic through the panic buying behaviours and stockpiling as people tried to make sure their physiological needs were met.
“We know from a significant body of research that short periods of stress are not harmful to mental and overall health as the body returns to normal.
“However, long-term and chronic stress can lead to anxiety and depression, physical health problems and immune function impairment.
“If you are alive, you will experience adversity; this is normal.
“The importance of learning how to deal with adversity and thus lower anxiety and stress, should not be underestimated.
“Knowing how to access self-help tools as well as medical intervention is a necessary and valuable part of our modern lives and living.
“Finding practical ways to manage stress and deal with the adversity and challenges we face and supporting our mental health over the forthcoming months is vital.
“Change is constant, and our need to cope with uncertainty means we try and get some sort of control in our lives.
“We can do this in different ways, but if we do this in an unhelpful way, this can manifest itself in long term problems, such as bad habits, OCD or eating disorders developing.
In these trying times, how can we understand what is happening to us, and find positive ways to cope?
Knowing more about how to connect with your body’s signals and develop better ways of coping improving your resilience is a good place to start.
Here are 10 ways you can begin to understand and support yourself better and approach reducing your stress in a better way:
1. Start the day positively and help your body help itself – if you are feeling stressed and anxious, psychosensory techniques such as HAVENING can help relax the body and calm the brain, increase oxytocin and dopamine whilst reducing feelings of anxiety.
Using this technique will help you become more relaxed, improve your sleep and overall wellbeing.
2. Remember the mind-body connection – when you are in a stressful situation, or if anxious thoughts or feelings start to creep into your day, remember, you can manage your body’s automatic fight or flight response.
The mind-body connection works both ways. By changing your body, your mind starts to calm down.
Start with your breathing – slowing your breathing slows your heart rate and communicates to your brain that all is ok.
Then, change your posture – straighten up and look up. Remember to smile – even if you do it on purpose – it will start to help with reducing stress and anxiety, which leads to a feeling of well-being.
If you find it hard to smile, change the news channel to a comedy and get those helpful chemicals flowing in your body! You will feel the difference.
3. Exercises such as yoga and pilates can help you connect with your body and bring you into the present moment whilst enhancing your mood, promote relaxation and relieve tension.
4. Notice the patterns – change starts with awareness!
Notice predicting and the tendency to focus on the worst possible scenario.
So, when you catch yourself thinking “What if it all goes wrong?’ first think about ‘how likely is it to happen?’ and change it to ‘What if it all goes well?”
This will stop the catastrophising tendencies. Ask yourself ‘what would I say to a friend if they were in the same situation?’
Notice ‘avoiding’ behaviour and excuses and instead identify what sort of activities give you a sense of achievement and do them.
Notice self-criticism and instead practice self-compassion! Be your own best friend.
5. Be present – when we focus on the past, we tend to feel depressed about the things we cannot change.
When we focus on the future, we tend to feel anxious about the uncertainties.
Become aware of your mind moving into the past or future that creates stress, because even the simple awareness of this process reduces its intensity.
Connect to the present moment – gardening, cooking, arts and craft, even connecting with your pets are great strategies to bring you back into the present moment!
6. Tune into your body – be aware of and listen to your body more and make adjustments where you can.
Try and focus on what you CAN improve! If you are feeling tired, stop yourself from the next cup of coffee and try taking a nap if you can.
Those 15 minutes will have huge benefits for the rest of your day.
Go to bed on time – before 10pm – as sleep is critical, especially when you are dealing with stress on a day-to-day basis.
7. Escape from it and connect – The government-backed Escape Your Anxiety programme offers a whole range of tools and resources to help you understand and manage anxiety including how helping others can help shift your focus away from your own worries.
Find ways to connect with others, as sharing experiences can help you process them and can also help others who experience similar feelings.
8. Lower the pressure – don’t put too much pressure on yourself or others – be ok with what you can do.
Take it one step at a time. Remember, we all have difficult days – on those days be kind to yourself. Just do the essentials.
Give yourself permission to take a break – have a relaxing bath, a cup of tea, watch a comedy, go for a walk and limit your expectations towards yourself and also others.
9. Change bad habits to good ones – If you want to change some bad habits and pick up some good ones, there is nothing that works better than the following technique!
Reduce the option for excuses with a simple 2 step process: 1. make it really hard to do the old habit and 2. make it really easy to do the new one.
For example, if you want to read more and watch less tv, then Step one: Put your tv control box away (lock it in the shed) and Step two: leave a book you have been meaning to read where you would normally have the control box!
There are no more excuses!
10. Seek help – if you are still struggling, do talk about it!
We know from neuroscience, that simply talking about our feelings reduces the intensity of them! Call a friend and share your problems.
Remember, a problem shared is a problem halved! Also, there are charities such as MIND, which have a number of resources and online tools to help.
Some individuals may need to seek guided therapy such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy as additional support if they feel they cannot cope.
Alison Cullen, nutritional practitioner at A.Vogel – aka Ask Ali – says: “Long-terms stress goes way beyond just disruption of the immune function; it affects gut health, digestion, energy levels, body weight, circulation, and sleep.
“Repeated stress is a major trigger for persistent inflammation in the body and can also affect the brain.
“Eventually, the hippocampus starts to shrink, making some memories harder to access, which in itself is stressful. Stress can also affect levels of serotonin and cortisol, which can affect our mood.
5 steps to lowering anxiety
Improve digestion – Chewing switches on the digestive processes, for free.
Increase your consumption of bitter foods which aid digestion by triggering gastrin production.
Try eating more artichokes, chicory, watercress, radishes, and rocket. Or try a herbal bitter such as A.Vogel Digestisan, containing the bitter herbs artichoke, dandelion and boldo.
Get moving and get outdoors – physical activity has been found to protect to some degree against unhappiness.
Up the ante by taking your physical activity outdoors, and the synergistic combination of exercise and exposure to nature could be used as a powerful tool to help fight the growing incidence of both physical inactivity and non-communicable disease.
Green space exposure is physiologically important to our health, because greenery activates a primitive part of the brain – the posterior cingulate – which is part of the limbic system and will interface with stress regulatory responses in the neuroendocrine system.
Sleep quality – taking care of sleep is vital – up to 32% of individuals may be experiencing ‘coronasomnia’ – sleep disturbances associated with the pandemic.
Resolving sleep issues benefits a vast range of health systems, as the brain gets the opportunity to do vital night time restorative and organisational work.
Use a night-time dose of A.Vogel Dormeasan Sleep, containing Valerian and Hops, to relieve symptoms of sleep disturbances caused by mild anxiety.
Changes in your diet – some foods are beneficial to the nervous system and can help reduce anxiety.
This is due to their content of nutrients such as B vitamins and magnesium, which support the adrenal glands, and the provision of healthy fats that improve brain function.
Include foods like oats, spinach, avocados, walnuts, oranges, turmeric, peppers, celery and oily fish in your diet for their nutritional content.
Herbal support – herbal remedies such as A.Vogel’s new Passiflora range below can play a role to help support the nervous system.
The new Passiflora Complex Spray can be used by adults and young people aged 12 plus.
Passiflora works by boosting the levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. This compound lowers stressful brain activity, which may help with relaxation and aid sleep.
It can be taken either short or long-term and can be taken alongside other medication, except tranquillising or sedating medications.