How To Reduce Anxiety & Manage Stress In The Face Of COVID-19
Over the last few days and weeks, the news has become more and more — well… terrifying. I think, at this point, it’s safe to say that if you’re not at least somewhat scared, then you’re not paying attention. And so, for those of us who are paying attention, we are eager to find a way to reduce anxiety and stress… Amiright?
First and foremost, it’s important that we all do our part. Social distancing, hand washing, and staying home as much as possible are the only proven defense we have against the Coronavirus. So on behalf of the entire international community, I humbly ask that you take these measures seriously.
But of course, those steps are only designed to protect our physical health…
…What about our emotional health during times like these?
The fact of the matter is this: nobody knows what is going to happen in the next few months. This is because are so many variabyles. Will people adhere to social distancing? Will government aid packages roll out in time? What about a “Hail Mary” vaccine? Will the healthcare system hold up? How will businesses withstand this? Can the banks survive this? And many, many more. With so many variables at play here, even epidemiologists and macroeconomists are unsure what’s going to happen next.
That uncertainty — like all uncertainty in life — is a major source of stress, anxiety, and fear. This, above all else, is why people are hoarding sanitation products, obsessively checking the news, and venting their anger online. They are trying to claim back a little bit of certainty, control, and comfort, when there’s almost none to be found.
But here’s the thing: almost none of those things (besides social distancing) are going to change the fact that this is the new reality — at least for now. This thing is happening, it’s already tanked the economy, and while we can slow it down or ease it — we can’t stop it. We just have to face it.
So, as I mentioned before: stress, anxiety, and fear.
It seems to me that given this fact, the best course of action is to figure out how the heck we, as individuals, can cope with that stress, reduce anxiety, and overcome fear.
And that’s why I’m writing to you today.
After interviewing 270+ of the world’s top health experts and elite performers, I’ve learned a great deal about how the world’s most rugged individuals handle stress.
Some of these suggestions may be new to you. Some of them, you may be hearing for the 10,000th time. But yet, let me ask you: how many of them do you consistently practice? During this tremendously scary time, reminders like these can be lifesavers. Not to mention, what else can you do while you’re locked up indoors?
MEDITATE… A LOT.
I know, I know. You’ve heard it all before. But again: how consistently have you been meditating? In study after study, meditation has been proven to ease stress and distractibility, reduce anxiety, and control fear. The reasoning behind this is simple. Contrary to popular belief, meditation is NOT “clearing your mind,” a religious practice, or hippie-dippie woohoo (at least not per se). Meditation is simply learning to control your mind and your thoughts, and to redirect them when they venture off course.
In this regard, I like to think of meditation as a muscle. Whether it’s mindfulness-based, breath-focused, on mantra-driven, all meditation teaches us one primary thing. To focus on something specific, and as soon as you notice your mind wandering off, bring it back to that thing.
When a trained meditator’s mind “ventures off” into something like fearful thinking, they are able to catch it — almost immediately — and redirect their thoughts back to something more calming and productive. This is why experienced meditators are able to bypass their opioid receptors and reduce the sensations of chronic pain. It’s also why in fearful times, meditation can mean the difference between getting sucked in to a doom spiral and being able to focus on the positive till the storm blows over.
But first, you have to train that muscle.
Fortunately, it doesn’t take much to get started. Today, there are a plethora of great apps out there, from Headspace and Calm to the more techy Muse. There are also millions of free audio recordings, YouTube videos, and written tutorials out there. But at the end of the day, you don’t need any of that. All you need to meditate is your breath, and a few minutes.
Now. For those of you who are meditators, let me remind you: during times of increased stress, it’s a great idea to double your dose. In fact, this reminds me of an apocryphal story about the great Indian leader, Mahatma Gandhi:
One day, during a major crisis, Gandhi came in to his office to find his aids scurrying around frantically.
“Sir, we must get started, the people need to hear from their leader,” they shouted.
“Alright. I just need one hour to meditate,” replied Gandhi.
“Sir, with all due respect, this is a serious crisis! We don’t have an hour,” they replied.
“Alright,” said Gandhi, “then I will need two hours.”
PRACTICE “INFORMATION DIETING”
..in the next few weeks or months, what you see in the news is going to provide more fear than comfort
It might come as a surprise that I, the poster boy for “learn more, read more, change the world” would advocate limiting your information consumption. And yet, during scary times like this, this is one of the absolute best things you can do to preserve your sanity.
To be clear, I’m not talking about reducing all forms of information. On the contrary — consume as many books and online courses as you possibly can! (Here’s a free copy of my latest book, if you’re looking for a suggestion).
I’m also not talking about sticking your head in the sand and pretending there’s nothing going on. That would be downright irresponsible.
But there is a certain point where the marginal value of each additional news article, tweet, and statistic goes to zero — and even dips into the negative. There’s a also big difference between checking the major updates on a pre-set schedule and obsessively refreshing 3 different news websites hoping for some relief.
Chances are, in the next few weeks or months, what you see in the news is going to provide more fear than comfort. It stands to reason, then, that you should aim for the “minimum effective dose.” Ask yourself: what is the minimum amount you can consume, without sacrificing your ability to protect yourself and your family?
I know. It’s hard. I, too, have been glued to every possible source of new information for the better part of a week, trying to get a feel for what’s going on. But do I feel any better as a result? Far from it. Since the initial wave of health and safety recommendations, have I learned anything new that will help me weather this storm? Not really. In the end, then, I just have more stress, more anxiety, and lesstime to spend on other things.
So, here’s what I suggest: come up with a schedule, and set limits. As my dear friend Dr. Benjamin Hardy reminds us, Willpower Doesn’t Work. Left to our own devices, we will get sucked in, and most of us will lose control. That’s why my wife and I have ratcheted up the Screen Time restrictions on our iPhones (which neither of us have our own passcode for). That’s also why, if I want to avoid getting sucked in to the news, I’ll be locking the TV remote in my kSafe.
Your methods may vary, but I suggest checking in once — maybe twice — per day, on a set schedule, and then spending your time consuming more beneficial and productive information… or coming up with a plan to turn these lemons into lemonade. Which leads me to…
ENGAGE IN PRODUCTIVE DISTRACTION
Know how you’ve always wished you “had the time” to learn that new skill, write that book, or play that instrument? Well… guess what? Now you do
Aside from meditation, one of the best ways to reduce anxiety and keep your mind from venturing into “the dark place” is to keep it busy. For some, this may mean self-pacifying by binge-watching Netflix, playing video games, and so on. But, at the end of the day, if we end up being locked in for 6 months… what will you have to show for it?
Instead, I recommend engaging in what I’m calling “productive distraction.” Know how you’ve always wished you “had the time” to learn that new skill, write that book, or play that instrument? Well… guess what? Now you do. You now have the perfect excuse to stay home and focus on learning and improving.
Whether this crisis lasts a week, a month, or a year, it will end. Think forward to that day for a moment. “Coronavirus Defeated!” the headlines read. On that day, how do you want to feel about how you spent your time? Do you want to make excuses, such as “well, there was nothing I could do?” Or do you want to come out of this saying “wow. Look at how much I’ve grown. I’m more ready than ever to go out and achieve what I’ve always dreamt of. This time didn’t slow my momentum down at all. If anything, it sped it up!”
Of course, “productive distraction” can mean much more than sharpening the axe in preparation for future success. It could also mean taking action towards your future success… for example:
RECOGNIZE THIS OPPORTUNITY — AND ACT ON IT
It’s a simple fact of history. Nearly every great fortune starts or grows during times of economic hardship. “When others are greedy, be scared,” said Warren Buffet on investing, “but when others are scared, be greedy.” Of course, this is not me condoning you to hoard resources or avoid helping those around you. But it isan invitation to look at this economic downturn as an opportunity.
One of the best ways that we can combat anxiety and fear is by taking action. This, again, is why people are hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizer; it’s an easy action they can take to feel like they’re “doing something.” The thing is, 10 years from now, hoarding toilet paper will have no effect on how you came out of this crisis. Other actions will.
Here’s an example. Have you been dreaming of buying your own home in the next decade? Well, it’s your lucky day. Interest rates are now 0%, and most investors are running for the hills. Sure, you might not be able to go out house-hunting just yet, but there’s still plenty you can do. You can use this time to research markets and neighborhoods, get all your loan application documents lined up, email a few brokers, and more. When we’re all allowed out into the world again, you’ll have a head-start over others, and be able to get the best deals.
In fact, this is exactly what I did during the 2008 financial crisis. I spent 8 months or so preparing and shopping, so that by 2009, I was ready to make the deal of a lifetime on my first home. The rental income from that property sustained my quality of life for a decade. And recently, I sold for more than twice what I’d paid.
Or how about starting a business? Sure, you might be thinking that this is the worst time to start a business — but you’d be mistaken. The list of companies founded or expanded during recessions is long and impressive one. It includes IBM, Disney, Microsoft, Tesla, Netflix, Amazon, CNN, and literally thousands more.
There’s a reason for this: during a recession, everything is on sale. It’s almost like playing the game of entrepreneurship in “easy mode.” Loans are cheap (or free), the labor market is full of people looking for work, and the competitive playing field has been leveled by layoffs and bankruptcies. Not to mention, many people receive unemployment checks that lessen the risk of starting a new venture.
So if you’ve always dreamt of starting your own business — don’t be discouraged. Now is the time. (Also, given the whole quarantine thing, if you feel like now is the perfect time to get into the online education, check out Branding You™ Academy)
In short: you have a huge opportunity to set yourself (and your family) up for the rest of your lives. Play your cards right, focus your energy on taking the right actions, and this coming recession could be the best thing that ever happened to you.
You just need to stay positive, stay optimistic, and stay focused. Which leads me to…
Here’s another one I’m sure you’ve heard about — but how many of you do it every single day? In 2018, Dr. Benjamin Hardy finally convinced me to give this one a chance, and I’m so glad he did. It’s been the easiest and most rewarding habit I’ve ever picked up.
What does gratitude have to do with stress, anxiety, and fear, you might ask? Umm… everything! As I’ve come to learn, gratitude is a not only a mindset and an emotion — it’s a muscle. The same is true of fear and negativity. In some sense, this is a lot like the fable of the two wolves:
“There is a fight raging inside me,” an old Cherokee man says to his grandson.
“It is a terrible fight, between two wolves. One is evil; he is anger, fear, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, pessimism, self-pity, guilt, resentment, lies, and ego.”
“The other is good,” he continued. “He is joy, peace, love, optimism, hope, serenity, kindness, generosity, empathy, truth, compassion, and faith.”
“The same fight is raging inside you–and inside every other person you meet, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee smiled, and replied, “The one you feed.”
To put it simply, gratitude journaling is feeding the good wolf — consistently, deliberately, and every single day. With the world in the state it is right now, the bad wolf inside each of us is force-fed nonstop. Hateful words. Terrifying news. People turning against one another. While we should do all we can to starve this wolf out (information dieting), it’s not enough if we don’t deliberately feed the good wolf.
While the metaphor is a beautiful one, it’s also backed by the scientific literature. Plenty of scholarly publications such as Harvard and UC Berkeley have touted the benefits and research on daily gratitude. Whether it’s showing gratitude for what we have, or showing gratitude to others, the results are very convincing. In study after study, people who practice gratitude — who feed the good wolf — are happier and more able to handle stress.
This, again, is an easy one: pick up a journal, every morning, and write out 10 things you are grateful for. They can be big or small, silly or serious. They can repeat themselves every day, or vary it up. None of that is important. What is important is this: every time you do this simple routine, you train your brain, through gratitude, to look for the good in your life. You train your reticular activation system to seek out and pay attention to the positive. And in times like these, that can make a major difference.
STUDY THE STOICS TO REDUCE ANXIETY
“Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed, and you haven’t been.”
Dating back to the 3rd century AD, Stoicism is the Ancient Greek philosophy observed by many of history’s greatest figures. These include Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius — once the most powerful man on earth. At its core, it is a philosophy designed to help mankind deal with great uncertainty, fear, and pressure. That’s probably why people in power, from kings and queens to economists and founding fathers, are so drawn to it.
The central tenants of Stoicism, as I understand them, are pretty simple. There are really only a few core teachings. Chief among them is the reminder that life is unpredictable, and that we have virtually no control over what happens to us. In this regard, Stoicism shares two defining threads with Buddhism: acceptance and detachment.
In Stoicism, we learn not to fear misfortune, but to embrace it. To practice it. To become intimately acquainted with that which we fear most.
Stoicism teaches us to train our perception against seeing things as “good” or “bad.” In the words of Marcus Aurelius: “Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed, and you haven’t been.”
What’s more, Stoicism tirelessly reminds us just how insignificant we and our troubles are. We are all here for a short time, and then quickly forgotten. Our entire lives are not even so much as a blip on the radar of our planet’s multi-billion year history. While this might fill you with dread at first, the Stoics would argue the contrary. Lighten up, man: nothing really matters.
Ultimately, the most important teaching of Stoicism is this: you don’t control what happens, but you control how you respond. Nothing could be more true during these times of fear and uncertainty. If you take just one message away from this post, let it be that. YOU control how you feel, think, and respond to this crisis. YOU control how it will define and influence you.
Of course, there is plenty more to learn from Stoic philosophy. Some have devoted their entire lives to the study of the subject. But that is outside the scope of this blog post. And plus, this is the perfect type of “productive distraction” to keep you learning and growing. You’ve got the time — so go read up.
A great starting place is Ryan Holiday’s Daily Stoic. For those looking to step it up, Seneca’s Letters From A Stoic or this translation of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius are both essentials. Personally, I particularly enjoy reading the interpretations and contextualizations of modern thinkers.
USE “FEAR SETTING” TO NEUTRALIZE YOUR FEAR
One such “modern thinker” on the topic of Stoicism is Tim Ferriss, who popularized the idea of a “fear setting exercise.” Inspired by Stoic exercise of premeditation malorum (“the pre-meditation of evils”), the idea is simple:
Imagine, with as much gruesome detail as possible, what could go wrong.
Not only does this help you prepare and strategize your response (see above re: opportunity), but it also can be deeply liberating. When you envision, in gory detail, the worst possible scenario, you will generally find that even that isn’t so bad.
Once you reach that “rock bottom” of doom and gloom, ask yourself: “then what?” What steps can you take to make things better or repair the damage?
Worried that this recession will cost you your job? That you’ll lose your home as a result? That’s a legitimate concern. So, if it happens… what will you do? Chances are, you could move in with a family member until you’re back on your feet.
Worried that the Coronavirus may claim the life of someone you love? Yes, that would be deeply painful. But would life eventually go on? How would you then honor that person’s memory going forward?
The point of this exercise, of course, is not to become apathetic to what may happen (though, in its purest form, that is exactly what Stoicism would advise). Instead, the main objective is to come to terms with the worst-case scenario. To look it in the eye, and accept the possibility that it will happen.
Then, and only then, are you able to envision your plan of action. And once you do that, you’ll finally be able to stop obsessing over something that may or may not even happen.
In the words of Mark Twain, “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”
DRINK CAMOMILE TEA (SERIOUSLY)
With the philosophical stuff out of the way, let’s talk about reducing your physiological stress.
A year or two ago, I experienced my first serious anxiety attack. Without any exaggeration, I can confidently say that I was freaking the f*** out.
So you can imagine how I reacted when my mother’s sage advice was to “drink two cups of camomile tea.”
Keep in mind, I was so worked up that even Klonopin had little to no effect.
And yet, two cups of camomile tea later, I felt a lot better.
Upon further research, I discovered that there is actually a significant body of research backing the use of Camomile. Studies have shown it’s potent ability to lower cortisol levels, reduce anxiety, improve sleep, and more. Why two cups, you might ask? Most tea bags contain a relatively small amount of camomile — and dried up, low quality stuff at that. For this reason, if you’re sticking to tea-bags, it might make sense to double up.
UP YOUR MAGNESIUM INTAKE
I’ve heard it said approximately 1,200 chemical processes in the body require magnesium. As such, it makes sense that many of these processes would be vital for things like stress reduction, recovery, and hormone regulation. And yet, roughly 80% of the population is deficient in one form or another.
Regardless, the average adult male needs 400mg of magnesium per day (females 300mg). Due to topsoil depletion, it has become harder and harder to get that much through diet alone. For this reason, it can’t hurt to add in some good ol’ magnesium to your supplement regimen.
But beware: many of the mag supplements you find in stores use dirt-cheap magnesium oxide — a compound that has low bioavailability and absorption. According to the experts I’ve spoken to, different processes in the body need different types of magnesium, so it’s best to consume various types. What’s more, I’ve been repeatedly told to lean towards “chelated” types such as magnesium citrate, glycinate, threonate, and so on. As a rule of thumb, if it ends in “ate” instead of “ite,” it’s a better choice. (I’m partial to Natural Calm, because it’s easy to consume).
DIFFUSE LAVENDER OIL AT HOME
This is, I’m sure, another one that will have you rolling your eyes — especially you dudes out there. And yet, once again, study after study after study has shown that lavender oil can reduce stress, anxiety, blood pressure, and cortisol. Some studies determined that lavender does so by bolstering the immune and autonomic nervous systems. This isn’t a post on boosting immunity, but given what we’re up against, that’s a definite plus.
Personally, I choose to diffuse either Lavender or the “Peace” blend, both by DoTERRA. If you plan to do the same, I suggest signing up as a “wellness advocate,” so that you can get 25% off everything. It adds up pretty quickly.
In addition to Camomile and Lavender, this little-known herb can be a real life-saver during times of stress and anxiety. A common ingredient in Ayurveda, Ashwaganda can reduce anxiety, cortisol, and overall stress. Personally, I take 700–1,100 mg of Ashwagandanightly to promote relaxation and keep the anxiety at bay.
While it may not be quite as effective as Lexapro, this all-natural alternative is safe to use, without lasting side effects or chemical dependencies. Enjoy!
While you’re at home, with the nice Lavender aroma, tucked away in bed with your beloved… this might be a great time to, well, you know… “do it.”
The stress-relieving benefits of orgasms are well established in the medical literature. Plus, reaching climate can lower blood pressure and reduce anxiety. So, while you might feel like this is the worst time to think about sex and intimacy, your body will most likely disagree.
Here’s another fun fact: oxytocin, a hormone that makes us feel good, is not only released during romantic or sexual touch. Studies have shown that hugging your children — or even your dog — releases oxytocin in the same way that cuddling your partner does. So if you’re going through this time alone (and not taking the chance with Tinder right now), at least you and Fido can comfort one another.
So there you have it. A whole plethora of options to help manage your stress and reduce anxiety. Try one, or try them all — you have plenty of time to experiment! Whichever you choose, I guarantee that any one of them will do you more good than refreshing the news one more time.