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Q&A: How to stay mentally healthy A during the COVID-19 crisis (Includes interview)

The coronavirus lockdown comes a whole host of emotions– the stress to make ends meet, working at home with your whole family, teaching your children– and staying sane at the same time– is overwhelming.

Eliza Kingsford, psychotherapist, weight loss expert and author of “Brain-Powered Weight Loss” provides some tips for Digital Journal readers to use to avoid the overwhelm during the corona crisis.

Digital Journal: What are the main causes of stress in the current COVID-19 situation?

Eliza Kingsford: According to renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we are experiencing a global deficit in our most foundational needs in the pyramid of needs. Our most basic needs are Physiological such as food, water and shelter; making up the bottom of the pyramid. There are many people worried about shelter and basic living needs.

Then we move to safety and security needs. These are things like living free from harm and knowing you are safe and secure in your environment. With the uncertainty of job and financial security, and physical health and safety, our perception of our basic needs of safety are also on shaky ground.

Next, we move up to needs of love and belonging. These are needs like community, love and relationships. In our current environment, we don’t have access to the same community and relational support that we are used to. As a result, we are all struggling with the very foundation of our basic human needs being threatened. This triggers our sympathetic nervous system to stay on high alert to the perceived danger all around us.

DJ: What ill-health effects is this stress causing?

Kingsford: When we stay in a chronic state of sympathetic nervous system dominance, we are at risk for a myriad of health concerns; physically, mentally and emotionally. Every system in the body can be affected by chronic stress. The endocrine system, musculoskeletal system, nervous system, cardiovascular system, reproductive system, digestive system and gastrointestinal systems are all disrupted and at risk for health issues when we are in a state of chronic stress. In more simple terms, we are at higher risk for depression, anxiety, auto-immune disorders, diabetes, heart disease and much more.

DJ: What mindfulness techniques can people employ to help combat the stress?

Kingsford: It is more important than ever that we take intentional action to calm the nervous system and reset back to the parasympathetic nervous system. Getting back into the parasympathetic nervous system has proven benefits that can reduce the impact of stress on your body. Mindfulness is one of the ways do this.

My favorite proven mindfulness practices are:

1. Practicing belly breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing, as many times a day as you can remember.
2. Meditate daily – doesn’t nee to take long, a couple minutes will do.
3. Get out into nature daily on a mindful walk or stroll.
4. Mindful eating. Ask yourself “does this food feel nourishing to me physically, mentally and emotionally?”
5. Gratitude – purposefully choosing to look for things to be grateful for, even during this difficult time.

DJ: How is anxiety best combated?

Kingsford: Anxiety is best addressed when we allow ourselves to lean into the anxiety and not rush to push it away. When we label the anxiety as “bad”, we miss the opportunity to find and messages or wisdom in the anxiety that it might be bringing us.

The first step in dealing with anxiety is to deal with our intrusive and repetitive thoughts. We can do this with a few steps. The first step is to name the repetitive thought. This helps us to separate from the thought and not stay enmeshed with it. You do this by proclaiming “this is my anxious thought about ……..” and name the anxious thought.

The next step is to sit with the anxiety. Be willing to name the repetitive thought and let it be there. Breathing, while sitting with the thought is helpful. This also teaches you that the thought will not kill you (which is what the anxious mind wants you to believe). The last, and most important step is to ask what the thought might be protecting you from feeling.

For example, if you are having a repetitive thought about losing your job right now you may say, “this is my repetitive thought about losing my job and it is making me anxious”. Breathe for a couple of minutes and then ask, what is this thought about losing my job trying to protect me from? Once you are clear about the feeling (maybe it’s poverty, maybe it’s scarcity, maybe it’s running out of savings), then you can focus on the real feeling underneath the thoughts themselves and get to work addressing your needs surrounding these feelings.

DJ: What tips do you have for healthy eating?

Kingsford: I like to keep healthy eating simple for folks. Most people will benefit greatly from focusing first on eating as many nutrient-dense whole foods as possible. This means staying away from processed foods and sugar as much as they can and including as many real, whole fruits, vegetables, whole grains, real meat, unprocessed dairy as they can.

Then, when people have really focused on getting more nutrients and whole foods in their diet, they can start fine tuning things like macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fat). But I find that trying to focus on macronutrients first, before really focusing on incorporating whole foods, really missed the mark for a lot of people who would benefit greatly from just eating real food.

DJ: What other advice do you have for people for the lockdown?

Kingsford: The two most important things I think people can be doing right now are:

Doing at least 2-3 things each day to calm the nervous system, like I talked about above. Give yourself a lot of grace each day for feeling whatever it is you are feeling. There is no right way to cope with this unnatural situation we find ourselves in. The only way you can do it wrong is by not coping. Numbing, ignoring, pushing down feelings or pretending they aren’t there will only make the emotions burrow deep into your body and your psyche. They don’t go away, they live in the energy in your cells and those emotions will come out eventually, just perhaps not how you would like them to. I encourage everyone to have grace and allow whatever emotions are present to emerge.

Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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