Caring for your mental well-being is always important, but especially so right now, when anxiety levels surrounding COVID-19 are high. Long-term stress and anxiety can be detrimental for both your physical and mental health.
Here’s why: Cortisol (otherwise known as the stress hormone) is made in the adrenal glands. It’s elevated when we experience heightened anxiety or stress, and it’s lowered when we’re in a relaxed state. When cortisol levels rise, all of the body’s energy goes into handling the stressor instead of regulating other bodily functions like the digestive and immune systems, for example.
The analogy I like to use is being chased by a lion. If you’re being chased by a lion, you’re not worried about catching a cold or having a bowel movement. So normally, cortisol helps to regulate weight, appetite, body metabolism, blood pressure and glucose, but when you’re under chronic stress, you can experience increased anxiety or depression, headaches, memory problems, brain fog, digestive issues, a weakened immune system, weight gain, insomnia, pre-diabetes and more.
But I know that managing anxiety is easier said than done, so I’ve laid out several ways to help you lower cortisol levels and maintain a calm state of mind during this uncertain time in our lives. And these aren’t pandemic-specific tips—they’re lifestyle changes that you can carry with you throughout your life.
- Eat a whole-food, plant-based diet. An unhealthy diet filled with added sugars and processed foods will raise cortisol levels and put you at a greater risk for high blood pressure and diabetes. Make sure you’re getting enough fiber (fruits and vegetables are great sources) because fiber helps to regulate gut bacteria, which in turn helps to regulate hormones. Diet is really important—it’s 80% of the battle.
- If needed, add supplements. Supplements shouldn’t replace a well-balanced diet, and should be monitored by a doctor. But if recommended, the most important mineral we use in our clinical practice is magnesium, which helps to regulate cortisol levels. Vitamin B12, folic acid, and Vitamin C can also help support the metabolism of cortisol.
- Take deep breaths. Several studies reveal the benefits of deep-breathing exercises for at least five minutes, three to five times a day. Research shows that it helps to lower cortisol levels, ease anxiety and depression, and improve memory. To get started, try using a deep-breathing app like Insight Timer or Calm.
- Reduce your caffeine intake. Those with chronic stress can experience something that’s colloquially called adrenal fatigue, which occurs when cortisol levels are way off balance. It makes them extremely tired, and so they often rely on caffeine to get through the day. It’s a vicious cycle: the caffeine wears off and they’re exhausted again. Caffeine can raise cortisol levels and it doesn’t address the root of the problem, which is balancing hormone levels.
- Get adequate sleep. To allow the body to heal, we need at least seven to eight hours of sleep. It’s so important, yet often gets put on the back burner amid our busy lives.
- Exercise regularly. Thirty to 50 minutes daily is the standard that’s recommended by the American College of Lifestyle Medicine. And walking your dog doesn’t count—you should be pushed to a limit where you can have a conversation while exercising but not be able to sing.
- Write in a journal. Sometimes just getting thoughts down on paper is helpful. If they’re happy thoughts, you can relive them, and if they’re stressful thoughts, you can purge them so you’re not going over them continuously in your head.
- Indulge in hobbies. Playing an instrument, drawing, crafting, gardening—participating in activities that bring you joy are helpful distractions from stressful thoughts and situations.
- Go outside. Simply being in nature among trees, flowers, birds, and plants may have a calming effect on the mind. If you can, take a walk around the block, sit on your front porch. As the weather gets warmer, it will become easier to take breaks and spend time outdoors.
- Don’t lead with fear. Putting fear first can be distracting. It allows us to make inappropriate, impulsive decisions we wouldn’t make otherwise. Being mindful, taking deep breaths—taking part in the above tips—will help you to lead with positivity.
You don’t need to tackle all of these tips at once—I know that can seem overwhelming. The best way to make lasting, positive changes is to do so little by little. Incorporate one or two into your routine at a time until they become habit, and slowly add in others. Slow and steady often wins the race.