We can’t control the ongoing pandemic, but we can control how we react to the stress it’s creating in our lives.
Many Americans thought we would have returned to our pre-pandemic activities, maskless, unrestrained, and joyful, once COVID-19 vaccines were available. Obviously, it didn’t work out that way.
Not only did the highly anticipated “hot vax summer” of 2021 never materialize thanks to the rise of the Delta variant, but now, Americans are more stressed than ever.
According to the American Psychological Association, 63 percent of Americans say that uncertainty about the future causes them stress, while 32 percent of Americans say they are so stressed about that pandemic that it’s difficult to make basic decisions, like what to eat or what to wear.
If you’re living with a weakened immune system, you’re likely experiencing additional layers of stress. While the world is opening up around you and others are letting down their guard, you may be just as isolated as you were 2 years ago.
Unfortunately, all of this extra stress may lead to worsening of symptoms for those of us with chronic conditions, such as multiple sclerosis (MS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), migraine, type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), and psoriasis.
That’s why it’s so important for us 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. I like to call them my superpowers.
Luckily, you also already have these tools available to you and can start using them today.
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. Anyone living with the unknowns of a chronic condition can probably relate. However, 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 first year of the pandemic, feeling completely stressed-out as I watched the rising COVID-19 death toll and political battles play out 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.
Living with a chronic condition 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.
This 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 pinballing from one reactive response to the next.
I’ve learned that a pattern of living reactively for too long not only feels stressful, but it can also weaken a sense of control and eventually erode confidence. Because confidence naturally reduces feelings of stress and anxiety, I knew 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 action, rather a reactive one, and I consider what approach to that action would make me feel most empowered. This ratchets down any stress and sometimes eliminates it entirely.
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. Research from 2018 shows that self-esteem is an important coping resource for people living with chronic illness.
I’ve found it helpful to minimize exposing my self-esteem to extra jabs. Social media, for example, has become stressful for many, as we tend to compare ourselves to the highlight reels that others are posting online.
This constant daily comparison was a toxic problem, even before the pandemic, and it’s gotten worse now that people are spending more time at home and online.
It’s easy to lose hours on social media that lead to crushing comparisons or getting dinged by things you wish you hadn’t seen.
If you find you’re feeling increased stress after spending time on Instagram, Facebook, or TikTok, it might be time to take a step back.
While social media is an important tool for maintaining connections right now, and it’s helpful for my business, I’ll personally be sticking to scheduled social media use.
The great thing about all three of the above superpowers is that they’re not merely stress management tools — they can actually help reduce the amount of stress you experience.
Which one are you going to try today?
Medically reviewed on February 28, 2022
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