5 min|Dr. Maya Kuczma

Find Calm Amidst Chaos: 4 Simple Strategies to Reduce Stress During COVID


In these unprecedented times, many of us feel we've ‘fallen off the wagon’

As uncertainty and stress increases, our well-intentioned plans of the New Year may have fallen apart, and we’re left wondering how to get back on track when life feels unpredictable. Even though we know healthy eating and exercise are good for us, it can feel difficult to access the willpower we need in order to make them happen. This is not our fault.

The PFC also takes a hit from sleep deprivation, leading to a reduction in connectivity.(4) Additionally, sleep deprivation also appears to lower our emotional threshold, causing elevated emotional responses, and higher levels of perceived stress.(5) In a vicious cycle, stress may lead us to sleep less, and less sleep makes us feel more stressed.

What we eat can also influence our willpower, positively or negatively. When our blood sugar is low, our self-control is more likely to fail; when blood sugar is restored to normal levels, self-control typically improves.(6) Anyone who has ever gone grocery shopping while hungry knows this phenomenon - in moments of feeling ‘hangry’, we are more likely to grab processed, sugar-laden snacks that we otherwise would feel able to resist.

Stress plays a large role in modulating hunger hormones. Stress can decrease leptin (a hormone which suppresses appetite), and increase ghrelin (a hormone which increases appetite).(7,8) Elevated levels of ghrelin promotes the use of carbohydrates for energy, and may explain why we crave carbohydrate-heavy comfort foods in times of stress.(8,9)

With all of these factors at play, it is understandable that we feel out of control, wondering why we haven’t returned to healthy habits that we previously considered second nature. For many, the COVID-19 situation is another event in a long line of stressors over time that has interfered with their ability to establish healthy habits. No matter your levels of stress prior to our current situation, we can all benefit from simple strategies to increase our willpower:

1. Think big, act small

Diving into big changes, especially when our willpower is struggling, can lead to exhaustion and giving up. We’ve all seen gyms packed full the first week of January, only to watch the crowds thin out by February. Instead, develop micro-steps that support your big picture goal. Maybe you read about a workout plan that includes four, one-hour workouts a week; instead, set a timer for 20 minutes and complete body-weight exercises. Even smaller, aim for simple body-weight exercises (planks, squats, push-ups) during each commercial break during a one-hour tv show.

  • Action item: determine your big picture goal. Now break it down into micro-steps that feel doable. Don’t worry if they feel ’too small’; commitment to small changes will slowly build momentum towards bigger goals.

2. Pause

Consciously adding pauses into your daily life can help decrease the rush of adrenaline that occurs in times of stress. A ‘pause’ puts the body into a calmer state, triggering relaxation, and coordinated PFC activity. Examples of pauses include deep, diaphragmatic breathing, and meditation. Diaphragmatic breathing decreases cortisol and improves sustained attention.(10) Meditation has been shown to increase conductivity within the PFC.(11)

  • Action item: build pauses into your day, with 4-8 cycles (inhale and exhale) of deep diaphragmatic breaths multiple times a day. Tip: place your hands on your belly; breathe deeply enough that your hands rise and fall with each inhalation and exhalation.

3. Sleep Routine

As many of us are working from home, it is harder to establish boundaries around work-life and home-life, including sleep. Additionally, with heightened attention towards the news, we are getting exposed to more of the hormone-dysregulating non-natural blue light that our tvs, iPads, laptops, and cell phones emit. Our way back to healthy sleep, and increased willpower, will require a shift towards establishing a sleep routine.

  • Action item: Think big, act small. We can’t jump to 8 hours of high quality sleep and a 1030pm bedtime if we’ve been watching the news until midnight every night. Set a timer to remind yourself to get to bed 30 minutes earlier, or turn your screens off at least 1 hour before bedtime.

4. Balance blood sugar

Due to the effects of blood sugar on willpower, making small changes to balance our blood sugar, can lead to the willpower we need to make - and stick to - bigger changes over time. Balancing our blood sugar makes energy available to our brain, and can stop the cycle of blood sugar spikes and crashes that can hijack our mood, reasoning, and hunger hormones.

  • Action item: Choose one small blood-sugar supportive habit to focus on for the week. Examples include: having a protein-rich breakfast every morning (such as a collagen-based smoothie, back bacon, or eggs), cutting out soda and replacing it with unsweetened carbonated water, or including a healthy fat (avocado, nut butter, or olive oil) at each meal.

What Does it Look Like

No change is too small. Implementing these changes within your week could look like diaphragmatic breathing a few times a day, especially in moments of worry or stress; completing bodyweight exercises during the commercials of your favorite tv show once or twice a week; getting to bed 30 minutes earlier; and committing to a protein-rich breakfast every morning.

If you’re struggling with accountability, or would like one-on-one support to put plans into action, we’re here for you. Book an appointment with our experienced practitioners and get started on your journey to optimal health today!

  1. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352289515300187?via%3Dihub
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2263143/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2907136/
  4. https://bmcneurosci.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-2202-15-88
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22309720
  6. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1088868307303030
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3409346/
  8. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0163725812001222
  9. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/jne.12693
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5455070/
  11. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304394010014096
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