November 02, 2021
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Americans thought that we’d all have returned to our normal activities maskless, unrestrained, and joyful once we had the COVID-19 vaccines—but, it didn’t happen that way. Not only didn’t the highly-anticipated “hot vax summer” materialize thanks to the rise of the Delta variant, but Americans are more stressed-out than ever.
According to the American Psychological Association, 78% of Americans feel that the COVID-19 pandemic is a significant source of stress in their lives,1 and prolonged stress persists at elevated levels in general.2 This type of chronic stress is dangerous even for people without underlying conditions,3 but it can definitely aggravate symptoms for people with chronic illnesses.4 It’s important for those of us living with chronic conditions to reduce our stress levels where we can.
Having experienced chronic stress in my former career as an attorney and in my 20 years of living with MS, I’ve learned some powerful stress-reduction techniques that have helped me during the pandemic. Here are three superpowers for reducing stress that you already have available to start using today:
Superpower #1: Shift Your Attention
The first stress-reduction tool that’s already in your arsenal is your attention. Your attention is the most powerful thing you’ve got going for you, and it can either increase or decrease your stress level depending on what you choose to do with it. Focusing your attention on things you can’t control increases stress and creates an anxiety loop based on fears of what might happen in the future. Changing your focus to the things you CAN control brings some automatic relief by breaking that loop.
I was glued to the television for the full first year of the pandemic, feeling completely stressed-out as I watched the rising coronavirus death toll and political battles play out on the screen day after day. I eventually decided to change my focus to something I could control—how I’d spend the rest of my time inside productively. I turned off the TV and turned my attention to finishing some certifications I’d procrastinated on before the pandemic, and I also began using my artistic talents again. That attention shift alone greatly reduced my stress level.
Superpower #2: Create a Habit of Conscious Action
Living with chronic illness can sometimes feel like a never-ending cycle of living reactively. From spasms that extend my legs involuntarily to an internal clock that thinks I should be awake when Batman is, I live in a “default” state of responding to MS symptoms that sets a baseline of stress before anything else happens. Once the usual stressors of daily life weigh in and the occasional extreme stressor appears, it’s easy to start a pattern of pinball-ing from one reactive response to the next.
I’ve learned that a pattern of living reactively for too long not only feels stressful, but can weaken a sense of control and eventually erode confidence. Because confidence naturally reduces feelings of stress and anxiety, I knew that I wanted to reinforce mine. I’ve found that building my confidence through taking conscious action effectively reduces stress. And it’s something that you can start doing immediately by following this simple tip: PAUSE.
I’m definitely primed to respond reactively, so I now have a ritual of taking a moment to breathe and pause before I decide to act. Depending on the size and time-sensitivity of the action required, I may only take a moment, I may step away for a while, or I may choose to sleep on it. In any case, I use that pause to restore my power to take a conscious rather a reactive action, and I consider what approach to that action would make me feel most empowered. This ratchets down any stress and sometimes eliminates it entirely.
Superpower #3: Minimize Unnecessary Hits to Your Self-Esteem
As a recovering perfectionist, I know I’ve already got negative self-talk waiting in the wings to attack my self-esteem if I ever give it an audience. I certainly don’t want it taking any external hits that aren’t necessary. This is not just about preventing some hurt feelings. Self-esteem is an important coping resource for people with chronic illness.5 I’ve found it helpful to minimize exposing my self-esteem to extra jabs.
Social media has become personally stressful as we tend to compare ourselves to the highlight reels that others are posting online.6 Compare-itis was a toxic problem even before the pandemic, and it’s gotten worse now that people are stuck at home and spending more time online. It’s easy to lose hours on social media that lead to self-esteem-crushing comparisons or getting dinged by things you wish you hadn’t seen.
I quickly reduced the stress that accompanies having my self-esteem zapped by limiting the amount of time I spend on social media. While it’s an important tool for maintaining connections right now and using it is helpful for business, I’ll be sticking to scheduled times for it. I’m also using Zoom and phone calls (Imagine that!) to connect instead.
The great thing about all three of the above superpowers is that they’re not merely stress management tools—they can actually help to reduce the amount of stress that you experience. Which one can you try today?