Thomas Browne, Programme Lead Physiologist at AXA Health

Managing self-isolation stress

3 April 2020

Changes to your normal routine, however large or small can throw you off balance. Adjusting to change isn’t always easy and we can start to feel stressed or worried, so it’s important to know what we can do to help ourselves and each other during times of uncertainty. AXA Health Programme Lead Physiologist, Tom Browne discusses how change and uncertainty can affect our stress levels, and shares some useful ways to cope. 

Stress can be triggered by one situation or a build-up of small pressures in your life. Typically, stress is influenced by worry or finding a responsibility overwhelming. Uncertainty, change and feeling a lack of control are other key triggers, as is worrying about your wellbeing and that of your loved ones. When combined with being confined to your home, either by yourself or with others for long periods of time, it’s not surprising that many of us are experiencing increased levels of stress.

The guidelines around self-isolation mean that our typical options for managing stress, such as going to the gym, or grabbing a coffee with a friend are unavailable to us, but there are still plenty of things we can do to cope.

Don’t be too hard on yourself. This is the first thing to remember when you feel stress levels rising. This is a situation unlike anything most of us have ever experienced before. When our mind attempts to make sense of the world around it, it can mean we think, feel (physically and emotionally) and do things we usually wouldn’t. Further compounded by the lack of control and uncertainty we have about the future, it can make for a very troublesome time.

To help, try your best to treat yourself like you would a friend or family member, with kindness, compassion and patience. Try not to compare yourself with others and just do what you can and what feels right for you right now. Find out more in our article on positive thinking.

Organise your time. Make a list of tasks you want to achieve today, this week, this month or even in the longer term, and arrange them in order of importance. If you’re currently not working, list tasks you’ve always planned to complete in your house or garden.

Try to set achievable goals for each day so you can enjoy the satisfaction of ticking them of your ‘to do’ list and celebrate your progress. Tom’s top tip: plan a brief amount of time in the garden or outside, sunlight will help boost ‘feel good’ hormones such as serotonin and endorphins (Mead, 2008).

Ring a friend or family member. Social isolation doesn’t mean you can’t connect with people in other ways. In fact, it’s even more important when managing stress to reach out to others on a regular basis. Why not use any extra time on your hands to contact a family member or a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while? Use video or telephone call apps - they’re all readily available!

And if you need an extra nudge to make the first move, remember that feeling valued by others is a basic human need, so call someone out of the blue and the chances are you’ll brighten up their day as well as yours. Tom’s tip: Your brain doesn’t know the difference between seeing someone in person, or via a screen – so making sure you have some screen time with people can really help overcome feelings of loneliness.

Try something new. Whether you have a guitar you haven’t played for a while, or a puzzle collecting dust that you’ve never attempted, now’s the time to clean it off and get busy!

If you’re more inclined to learn something new, there are thousands of podcasts, video tutorials and other online resources out there that can help broaden your mind or learn a new skill. This’ll really help keep your mind off any negative thoughts and give you something new to get stuck into.

Vary your activity daily. It can be easy to stop exercise and lose motivation all together when your routine changes. Whether you prefer gym-based training or running, now is a great opportunity to try something different in the comfort of your own home. If you neglected flexibility in the past, Pilates or yoga could be great options to kick start your day and get you moving.

Not only do you get the physical benefits, but it will help distract your mind from unhelpful thoughts and become part of a self-care routine. Even if you didn’t already have a regular exercise routine before the lockdown, now might be the ideal time to start a new home-workout habit, or just try something new for the hell of it.

Meditation. With lots of thoughts going through your mind at the minute, it can be easy to become distracted. Meditation can be a way to achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm state. In fact, just 4 days of mindfulness meditation can boost mood and enhance your ability to sustain attention (Zeidan et al., 2010) and one week of at-home mindfulness meditation can reduce stress related working memory impairments (Banks et al., 2015). Tom’s top tip: add mediation practice around another habit you have in the day. This technique is known as ‘habit-stacking’ so for example, after brushing your teeth, add 5-10 minutes of meditation to reinforce the new habit in your routine.

One final word from Tom:

“Accept the things you can’t change – it’s not easy but this will help you focus your time and energy more productively.”

Join us over at Instagram for daily quizzes, tips and inspiration to improve your physical and mental wellbeing. Or visit our mental health hub for more information about managing stress and anxiety.

Further resources

Self-care: an indulgence, or a modern-life necessity? - AXA Health
The benefits of mindfulness - AXA Health
Home workouts using everyday objects from around the house - AXA Health
Harness the power of positive thinking - AXA Health
How to worry less - AXA Health
Building resilience - AXA Health
Gym-free home exercises - NHS website

References

Mead, M. N. (2008). Benefits of sunlight: a bright spot for human health. Environews, 116(4), A161-A167.

Zeidan, F., Johnson, S. K., Diamond, B. J., David, Z., & Goolkasian, P. (2010). Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training. Consciousness and cognition, 19(2), 597-605.

Banks, J. B., Welhaf, M. S., & Srour, A. (2015). The protective effects of brief mindfulness meditation training. Consciousness and cognition, 33, 277-285.

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