7 Science-Backed Ways to Lower Your Stress and Fight Back Against the COVID Blues

Things are weird right now. It’s not controversial to say it -- we’re all feeling it. Especially for parents, the massive disruption of normal operations that is COVID-19 has been, at times, absolutely catastrophic. Nevermind the genuinely horrifying outcomes -- evictions, illness, the inability to see loved ones safely. For many of us, these massive disruptions are compounded by the smaller day-to-day frustrations and hangups that can make a simple day home with kids a grind.

That’s why it’s key that we parents take a moment -- sometimes just a moment! -- to ourselves. Looking after our own mental and physical health can be extremely difficult, but self-care is more important than ever. With that in mind, we’ve put together a list of free (or nearly free) self-care ideas that can recharge your batteries and lower stress levels when things seem to be careening out of control.

Meditation - Get Your Head Right

Meditation may not seem like it’s for you. It’s become hugely trendy, with everyone from tech bros to retirees jumping in. “Mindfulness” is maybe one of the big buzzwords of the last five years, and if you have to hear one more gazillionaire talking about their “practice” and how getting up at 5 am to do it really powers their day, you’re going to be sick.

We hear you. But hear us out: meditation is one of the most effective ways to lower stress, maintain focus, and fundamentally change the way you approach difficult situations in your day-to-day life. And the practice is deeply relaxing. As a parent, the challenge is finding the quiet space you need to be undisturbed and, well, meditative. Our tip -- get up 15 minutes earlier. Just 15 minutes is enough to start a truly beneficial habit, that you will never regret. No need to be Mr. 5 am Tech Bro -- just get a few quiet minutes before the rest of your house is up and making noise, and you’ll be happy you did.

Plus, the advent of meditation apps has made this practice so much easier. Our favorite is Headspace, which has guided meditation, starting with programs for first-timers. They have a free version of the app to get you started, and if you want to go deeper, the monthly cost is relatively low. But they’re not your only option! There are a ton of great apps that can get you moving, and for those without smartphones, no shortage of free YouTube channels also.

(Socially-Distant) Greenspaces Recharge You Faster, Says Science

A walk in the woods has become more than simply a way to spend an hour. Choosing socially-distant forms of outdoor activity is being woven into the fabric of our thinking during this pandemic. And new research shows  that taking time in nature can lower stress, relieve depression, and even possibly prevent cancer. (There’s a great podcast from Outside Magazine on the subject, also.) That makes the time we spend outside, quietly enjoying nature that much more important.

Nature doesn’t have to be far from home, either. Kent County and surrounds is full of opportunities to spend a few hours in a tranquil, natural setting, at no charge. Parks like Huf, Aman, Seidman, and Provin Trails are close to home, served by transit routes, and are a perfect nearby getaway to refresh your spirit. (And burn off some of the kids’ energy!)

For suggestions of places in Greater Grand Rapids to find some natural bliss, check out Kent County’s Get Real website, which has natural destination information perfect for finding your little piece of green.

Workout In-Home for Free

At this point, it should come to a surprise to no one that exercise is maybe the best stress buster there is. Working out lowers stress, improves overall health, and is being linked with the alleviation of the symptoms of depression and anxiety as well.

But even if you’re a big fan of exercise already, COVID has closed gyms and made exercising outside in public stressful for some people. Enter YouTube. The sheer amount of exercise classes that you can find on this free platform is incredible. Throw one of these on your phone or TV, and get ready to sweat it out.

Reading Lowers Stress Overall

This is a judgment-free space. We know that you, like us, have a fat pile of books or a checklist somewhere with endless titles you’re going to get to “someday.” We’re going to tell you that today is as good a someday as any, especially with research coming out about the beneficial effects of reading on stress:

“Reading can even relax your body by lowering your heart rate and easing the tension in your muscles. A 2009 study at the University of Sussex found that reading can reduce stress by up to 68%. It works better and faster than other relaxation methods, such as listening to music or drinking a hot cup of tea.” S
Source: https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu

The best thing about reading? Once you start, you don’t want to stop. We always find that it’s like any task we perceive as difficult -- after the first few minutes you get back into the rhythm of it, and soon you find yourself absorbed in the action itself. The truth, then, is that the hardest thing about reading isn’t finishing, it’s simply starting. Do yourself a favor and crack that book that’s been collecting dust on the shelf.

Do Easy, Low-Stress To-Dos from your List

No, we’re not suggesting that doing chores is relaxing. Scrub the bathroom, vacuum, clean the windows -- very few people actually enjoy these tasks. What just about everyone enjoys, however, is having them done. “We tend to ignore the small things because we believe that, not being so important, they [are] not worth our time,” says the Getting Things Done website. “Rather, these undone small things are constantly, relentlessly, hitting your brain.” Source: https://facilethings.com/blog/en/small-things-first

Exactly. Those small items on your to-do list never take as much time as we think they will, but they do weigh on us as we try to do other things like actually take time to enjoy ourselves. Sometimes it’s good to sweat the small stuff -- if only so we can stop sweating the small stuff.

Have a Guilt-Free Treat

There’s a bunch of reasons on this list from The Nest about the benefits of desserts and sweets. But we’re really concerned with one: “Better Moods”. Yes, coming as a surprise to no one, dessert makes you happy.

I see you’re as shocked as we were, but it’s important to understand why before you go face-first into that Dulce de Leche. “Carbohydrate-rich foods cause your brain to produce serotonin and tryptophan -- chemicals that promote emotional well-being, says Aveen Bannon, a consultant dietitian and founder of The Dublin Nutrition Centre,” according to The Nest article.

But they also caution that super-sweet foods that are rich in sugars bring you up, and then let you down just as quickly. “Choose desserts containing complex carbohydrate sources, such as brown rice pudding, or pair sugary desserts with foods that promote blood sugar control, such as high-fiber and protein-rich foods.”

“Chocolate also triggers positive moods,” The Nest says. Then they say some other stuff, which we didn’t listen to because we were too busy running to the kitchen.

Call a Friend (NOT Zoom)

It’s happiness 101: The people we love and care for give us energy, lift our mood, and can help us be our best selves, sometimes by just listening when we feel like our worst selves. That’s been one of the (many) tragedies of this pandemic. It creates isolation during a time when we need more than ever to be supported and comforted by those we’re closest to. But what to do when you have to be socially distant from friends and non-immediate family? (Something that is definitely NOT a video call, which most people find exhausting and overwhelming.)

According to a Popsugar piece, “picking up the phone and reaching out to someone you trust is one of the easiest and most effective ways to make you feel better.” That’s right -- that thing that we all avoid doing by using text, social media, and email can actually be beneficial for our mental health. Just hearing the voice of a friend or family member (without the added pressure of “performing” on video) can make a bleak day a bit brighter, and if you take the time to really talk to someone, not just a quick check-in, you’ll probably find that they are experiencing much of the same feeling that you are. A problem shared, as they say, is a problem halved.

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