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Coping with Acute, Chronic, & Pandemic Stress

Coping with acute stress

Note: The sympathetic nervous system is the part of the nervous system that is responsible for activating the fight or flight response (i.e., acute stress response) and preparing the body for the necessary activity to protect itself from actual or perceived danger. The parasympathetic nervous system is the part of the nervous system that is responsible for recuperation and is important in feeling safe and calm.

There are many strategies we can learn and strengthen to help us tolerate and reduce the intensity of acute distress. It is important to note that we do not want to make the emotion “go away” as this will likely initiate less adaptive coping strategies, such as repression, denial, avoidance, and escape distraction. When coping with a distressing emotion, I encourage people to learn to tolerate some level of that emotion (i.e., within a “window of tolerance”), while also engaging in and using strategies to help reduce the intensity of that emotion. It is important to keep in mind that learning to tolerate emotion is a valuable skill and through practicing distress/emotional tolerance, we allow the emotion to rise and fall and, ultimately, run its natural course; while tolerating the emotion, we can “listen” to the emotion as it provides valuable information about what might be happening in the environment. Also, it is important to remember that all emotions are temporary

The following are a few examples of strategies that can be used to help reduce the intensity of a distressing emotion and bring it to a level that is tolerable; the goal of the following strategies is to help reduce nervous system activation (i.e., sympathetic nervous system) and increase parasympathetic nervous system function:

  1. Intense exercise: 3-5 minutes (or more) of intense exercise (i.e., enough to elevate your heart rate) will help to burn off anxious or distressing/unpleasant energy which is pent up and activating the sympathetic nervous system. This will help the body to regulate (allowing for the onset of the parasympathetic nervous system).
  2. Recovery-oriented relaxation strategies: there are a variety of activities and strategies that can be used within this domain and I encourage you to think about activities that help you experience a sense of ease and relaxation. Furthermore, encourage you to reflect on experiences that’ll allow your body to experience muscle relaxation to help reduce pent-up muscle tension.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation: this strategy uses repetitive tension and release movements in various muscle groups to help reduce muscle construction patterns induce muscle relaxation.
  • Diaphragmatic breathing: at any point when we are experiencing an unpleasant or distressing emotion, I encourage people to take stock of their breathing an attempt to slow their breathing down using deep, diaphragmatic breathing techniques. In doing so, feedback loops to our brain provide information and indicate that we are calmer and safer than the brain is interpreting. Deep breathing by itself may not be enough to reduce the intensity of the emotion we are experiencing, especially if the emotion is 8-10/10, with 10 being more intense. I encourage people to include deep breathing while using another strategy.
  • The “dive” technique: I use and recommend a modification of this strategy, which includes using a Ziploc bag full of cold water and is placed over the eyes, including the undereye area. There is a nerve that runs underneath the eye that, when cold, activates the parasympathetic nervous system.
  • Listen to calming music: Our nervous systems are acutely attuned to sounds from the environment. When we intentionally play music that is calming, we are providing a message to our nervous system that we are safe.
  • Use heat to induce muscle relaxation: Acute and chronic stress responses involve muscle tension. Using heat will facilitate muscle tension release and relaxation, in turn, sending information to the brain that you are relaxed and safe.

3. Mindfulness: The regular and intentional practice of mindfulness meditation can help develop our cognitive resources of attention allocation in order to more swiftly let go of distressing thoughts and sensations. As well, mindfulness helps create greater awareness of our bodies and minds (i.e., flow of consciousness). As we expand our intentional practice of mindfulness exercises into our greater daily experience, we allow ourselves to become more present in each moment, letting go of past and future thoughts and feelings, and creating “space” for in-the-moment experiences of cultivating contentment, joy, and ease.

Tip:  Finding it difficult to find time to engage in the above? Or single strategies not as effective as you would like? Try “doubling” or “tripling” up on the above strategies to send multiple signals to the brain that the body is calm/relax and safe. I encourage you to add deep breathing to all activity!  

Coping with chronic stress

There are many ways to cope with acute stress and chronic stress that can be applied at various times in our lives when acute and chronic stressors are present. I often encourage people to first take stock of their “foundations.” 

The Five Pillars to Wellbeing

  1. Sleep
  2. Nutrition
  3. Exercise/Movement
  4. Enjoyable activities (that bring you a sense of contentment, joy, and ease)
  5. Social connection 

By taking stock of these five “pillars,” we can start to make small, manageable changes to our foundation, which in turn, will provide us with ample physical and mental resources to facilitate our ability to cope with acute and chronic stress. It is important to note that during times of chronic stress, we often experience destabilization related to one or more of the above pillars; as well, when we get “busy,” we often reallocate time away from the above activities, which further perpetuates and exacerbates the impact of the chronic stress/distress. As such, I strongly encourage people to dedicate time (i.e., create “protected time”) each and every day to ensure maintenance of the above pillars.

Coping with Pandemic Stress

  1. Use gentle avoidance. Often psychologists help people to limit their use of avoidance as this is often driven by anxiety and leads us to be unable to engage in activities that he might otherwise enjoy. However, in some contexts, such as this pandemic, I encourage people to practice gentle avoidance regarding some aspects of activity and knowledge consumption.
  • Limit media consumption: The key here is to find reliable sources of information where you can stay informed about the procedures and guidelines to keep you safe. Additional information beyond this may contribute to and perpetuate anxiety.
  • Avoid discussing events: Although it can be helpful at times to discuss the pandemic and associated changes with friends and family, people can get swept into “anxiety spirals,” which worsen the acute/chronic stress impact and can maintain anxiety beyond the conversation. Also, misinformation can be shared, and in the context of high anxiety, it is easier to believe misinformation and become more fearful or paranoid. 
  • Keep things in perspective: Speaking with reliable sources can help us keep information in perspective and help to abate and let go of anxiety-driven thoughts/beliefs (e.g., catastrophizing). Remember, if people are bringing up topics of conversation regarding the pandemic that provoke intense feelings of anxiety/distress in you, it is ok to set boundaries and ask the person to not bring up said conversations with you.

2. Stay connected. Remember, we are social creatures and we thrive off of social connection, regardless of our place on the introversion/extroversion scale; the difference here is the frequency and intensity of social connection. Although phone and video connections do not provide the same sense of connection as in-person connection, it is important to stay connected to friends and family. Isolation, especially if living alone, can become very dangerous to our mental wellbeing. Without external sources of support, emotion-driven thoughts/beliefs can take hold and we start to believe them more strongly. 

  • Keep things in perspective: Speaking with reliable sources can help us keep information in perspective and help to abate and let go of anxiety-driven thoughts/beliefs (e.g., catastrophizing). Remember, if people are bringing up topics of conversation regarding the pandemic that provoke intense feelings of anxiety/distress in you, it is ok to set boundaries and ask the person to not bring up said conversations with you.
  • Use social connection as a source of adaptive distraction: Talk about topics that bring you contentment, joy, and ease! Share information about books/literature, movies/TV shows, and/or other hobbies and enjoyable activities. You may even wish to reminisce by sharing fond memories.
  • Remember that life will go on: It is important to acknowledge/validate that the pandemic and associated changes is difficult; however, because we cannot control the pandemic, it is not helpful to wallow or become preoccupied with the difficulty. Remind yourself and your family/friends that life will continue and try to anchor yourself to something hopeful in the future (e.g., a trip, a goal, an activity).

3. Movement/Exercise: Whatever the type of movement, try to incorporate some form of movement on a daily basis, whether it be walking, stretching, or a formal workout routine. Our bodies are meant to move and, as a result of self-isolation protocols, we are not moving as much as we have before. 

If you are having difficulty coping with acute, chronic, or pandemic stress, I encourage you to reach out to a professional (psychologist or psychotherapist) who can assist you in developing and strengthening your coping skill repertoire, as well as address other contributing factors to the maintenance of your symptoms. 

Dr. W. Rylie Moore, C.Psych., is a clinical psychologist & neuropsychologist at CFIR’s Toronto location and he has published academic articles in peer-reviewed journals and book chapters. As a requested presenter at numerous national and international academic conferences, Dr. Moore has spoken on topics related to gender dysphoria, LGBT2QA advocacy, psychological assessment, executive functions (cognitive abilities that could be described as the CEO of the brain), stuttering, and bilingualism. In his therapy practice, he works with clients to understand what is happening for them in its larger context, including past experiences and their social world.