In scary times of uncertainty it’s heartening to know there are simple, scientifically-approved tactics to safeguard your mental health
The pandemic is frightening. Both in terms of your immediate health and the wider societal impact it’s causing, the impact the coronavirus is having on our mental health is stark. After the first lockdown the Office for National Statistics reported that the equivalent of 19 million adults in Great Britain report high levels of anxiety.
The good news is that anxieties pass and there are concrete ways to protect yourself from the sweaty palms and palpitations. This is our simple guide to slowing down your racing mind.
Update your diet
In 2010 a study of 1000 women found that women who centred their diet around vegetables, fish, fruit and whole grains were significantly less likely to suffer from an anxiety disorder. The suggested science is that the way in which your gut ferments the extra fibre in a healthy diet creates short chain fatty acids that downregulates your stress response.
Equally, it’s smart to put a cork in the daily glass of merlot. It may be calming initially because it raises levels of the brain chemical GABA, but this is short-lived. As the alcohol wears off, GABA levels fall and anxiety levels are exacerbated.
Tweak your training
Regular exercise is a proven strategy for enhancing your mental well-being, In one analysis, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, those who trained for just two and a half hours each week had a risk of mental ill-health 31% lower than those who didn’t.
Hardcore HIIT sessions, although a potent endorphin boost, tax the body and raise levels of the stress hormone cortisol. A safer bet is steady-state cardio. Aerobic exercise reduces your levels of stress hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol, so lace up. And it doesn’t need to be a long slog, either. According to research, three 10-minute sweats can boost your mood as effectively as one 30-minute workout. There’s always time to benefit from training.
Taking a rest day? It’s still worth including some mobility and abs work. In a University of California study, low-impact stretching was found to reduce cortisol levels. Try 10 minutes of cat cows, thoracic rotations and hip circles.
If endlessly repeating mantras isn’t for you, focused breathing can help you to find a mindful moment and escape COVID anxiety. And the benefits are instantaneous. It calms anxiety by reducing cortisol in your blood and stimulates the release of nitric oxide. This helps open up constricted blood vessels, protecting your heart from the effects of stress. Breathe in for four seconds, hold for four, then breathe out for four and hold again. Repeat and relax.
According to Harvard University, research into ecotherapy states that time in nature reduces stress, anxiety, and depression. You should make the most of your outdoor walk with one person from outside of your household.
It’s not clear exactly why the outdoors works so well but researchers found that people who did a nature walk had lower activity in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region that is active during rumination — defined as repetitive thoughts that focus on negative emotions.
We understand that this one is slightly chicken and egg. While poor sleep can cause anxiety, anxiety can certainly impact sleep. But by making better sleep a major focus, and taking away any other hurdles beyond COVID anxiety, you can put lockdown worries to bed. This means reducing screen time in the evening, avoiding caffeine after lunch and making sure you get outside in the day to keep your circadian rhythm in check.
Good sleep hygiene is a must, too. That means trying to stick to a bedtime routine and creating a peaceful, restful environment to sleep in. Do all these things, get a good 6-8 hours, and dealing with the stresses of the following day won’t feel like such a nightmare.