The One Thing You Can Control in Any Crisis

I don’t want you to panic. But it’s hard not to with what’s happening right now…

We’re in a recession…

There’s a worldwide pandemic killing thousands…

Grocery stores are empty with no word on when they’ll restock…

And we don’t know when any of this will stop.

It’s a dark time for the much of the world. You’re likely staying home if you can and watching the news all day. You might find it hard to sleep or maybe you’re overeating junk food because you can’t shake off the anxiety.

Crises, like the ones we’re facing now, happen. But the way to get through it is to keep yourself calm and focused. You can’t control the stock market. You can’t control the spread of the coronavirus. But you can control your own stress response.

Stress is one of the top killers in the U.S. We’ve watched the national “Stress in America” survey (provided by the American Psychological Association) over the years… and our stress levels just keep rising.

Stress in an acute form can help us. When we feel a threat, our amygdala kicks in with a “fight or flight” approach. Our stress hormones like cortisol get us to react. It’s what keeps us safe from things like avoiding a car accident.

But most of us deal with chronic stress. Think of all your daily stressors like paying bills, a demanding boss, family fights, or health conditions… These aren’t things we can run away from. So if we don’t find a way to deal with that stress, it builds up. That leads to problems like:

  • Heart disease and heart attack
  • Digestive disruption
  • Insomnia
  • Memory loss
  • Depressed immune system – leaving you more susceptible to illness

A few years ago, the National Council on Compensation of Insurance released a report that up to 90% of all primary care visits are stress related.

That’s why today I wanted to help you find a few ways to take care of your mental health during all of this panic. I wrote last week about activities like exercise and spending time outside. These are some additional tips that will also focus on calming your amygdala. They’ll also boost serotonin and dopamine which are your happiness neurotransmitters.

1. Take a news break.

While it’s tempting to watch TV all day and keep up with the news cycle, too much of this leads to feelings of depression, anxiety, and even a sense of impending doom.

Psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb calls this “unproductive anxiety.” In other words, worrying for the sake of worrying. It’s easy to worry too much about things that are out of our control. You’ll wind up catastrophizing (imagining the worst outcomes) and making yourself sick.

The best way to combat this is to limit your time watching, listening to, or reading the news. Try just an hour a day or do a quick check in the morning and again at night. That goes for stock market news as well – set up a reminder for your stops and quit worrying over every move.

And remember, when you want the news, use a reputable source. Scores of media outlets report false or misleading stories, so stick with the well-known names with good ratings for non-biased reporting. The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, NPR, Johns Hopkins, and Medical News Today are all sources we like and use here in the office.

2. Practice self-care. Making time specifically for rest and relaxation should be a priority. You need to take care of yourself before you can take care of others. Here are a few ways to do that:

Enjoy a cup of tea. Green tea has lots of immune-boosting antioxidants and lavender teas help ease anxiety.

Listen to music. Enjoying your favorite tunes increases dopamine, which lowers our stress levels.

Eat well. Don’t give in to stress eating and binge on junk food. Try to get plenty of greens and fresh fruit. A few studies show vitamin C could lower cortisol levels. Get your vitamin C fix through citrus fruit, broccoli, kale, peppers, strawberries, and tomatoes.

Meditate. We know from imaging studies that meditation quiets activity in the amygdala. It also lowers blood pressure and increases serotonin. You can start with just 10 minutes a day to focus on your breathing and letting other thoughts leave your mind.

3. Social distance, not emotional distance.

We spoke to a doctor of psychology at Ohio’s Nationwide Hospital. She shared this phrase: Social distancing does not equal emotional distancing. In other words, you need to work harder these days to maintain your social network.

Socialization is our way to combat loneliness and depression – both of which hit older folks harder than others. I touched on this last week, but I want to repeat it again: Make the effort to stay connected. If you’re stuck at home, try some of these activities:

  • Call everyone. Check in on folks, but also sit and chat. This is a good opportunity to catch up.
  • Make good use of text messaging, e-mails, and other online messenger programs.
  • Try a video call. Skype, FaceTime and Facebook Messenger all have good options. You might have read last week that I prefer WhatsApp to help me connect across platforms.
  • Have a virtual dinner party – use the video conference call option to sit and eat in your respective houses with friends and family.
  • Watch a movie together. Netflix offers a Watch Party feature that will sync your account with a friend’s. It even offers a chat feature so you can chat to each other as you watch. My researcher uses this feature to have “TV night” with one of her out-of-town friends.

If you’re feeling too overwhelmed, aren’t sleeping well, or have feelings of sadness and hopelessness for at least two weeks, contact a professional for help. Reach out to your health-care provider or find a therapist through sources like Psychology Today.

There is also a national Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990. You can also text the message “TalkWithUs” to 66746.

Take care of yourselves and each other. These hard times won’t last.

What We’re Reading…

Here’s to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
March 24, 2020