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3 key ways to cope during difficult times, according to science

Older couple looking relaxed

Healthy Food Guide editor Jenny de Montalk shares three key ways to cope during difficult times.

If there’s anything the past couple of years have taught us, it’s that life doesn’t always go to plan. Some events are simply out of our control and that can be an unsettling realisation. While we can’t plan for every eventuality, there are things we can do to make sure we are resilient and able to physically and mentally weather the storms that inevitably come our way.

Events that are beyond our control, such as living through a pandemic where you have to be aware of the threat of a virus and modify your behaviour to help prevent infection and spread, can put your nervous system under pressure, according to clinical psychologist Pikihuia Pomare.

When your nervous system is ‘on guard’ it’s normal to feel wound up, anxious, stressed, worried irritable, sad or frustrated.

These feelings are normal but there are things you can do to help calm the nervous system, quieten a busy mind and feel more grounded.

1 Focussed breathing

Controlled, slow breathing is an effective means of maximising heart rate variability and helping nervous system function, both of which, in turn, are associated with decreased mortality in sick people and increased longevity in the general population.

When we breathe deeply, in a focussed way, it helps switch of the part of our nervous system that controls our ‘fight or flight response’, and switches on the part that helps us rest and relax.

Deep breathing also helps the parts of the brain that handle anxiety.

This is a great exercise you can do anywhere and takes only a couple of minutes:

  1. Breathe in through the nose for four seconds,
  2. Hold for four seconds,
  3. Breathe out for eight seconds,
  4. Repeat for six cycles.

 2 Grounding

When we’re distressed it’s easy to start thinking about all the things that might happen or can go wrong. Grounding exercises help calm us down and trip up our ruminating by bringing us back to the present.

Dr Pomare recommends the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique:

5- Look: Look around for five things that you can see and say them out loud. For example, you could say, ‘I see the computer, I see the cup, I see the tree’.

4- Feel: Pay attention to your body and think of four things that you can feel and say them out loud.

3- Listen: Listen for three things you can hear. Name them out loud.

2- Smell: Name two things you can smell.

1-Taste: Name one thing you can taste.

3 Exercise

Regular exercise is a great stress buster. Doing at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on most days of the week has been shown to improve mood and decrease anxiety and stress.

And, Massey University School of Sport, Exercise and Nutrition lecturer Wendy O’Brien says even five minutes a day of outdoor exercise can improve mood and self-esteem.

“The evidence strongly suggests that almost any form of exercise, anywhere, for any amount of time has positive effects on mental wellbeing compared to no exercise. Not only does this evidence support the importance of physical activity on mental wellbeing, it also highlights that the physical activity we perform does not necessarily need to be formal or structured. Simply getting moving, whether inside, outside or in front of an online exercise session will likely better equip us to endure the psychological challenges of the current and future lockdown periods,” Dr O’Brien says.

Choosing a physical activity you enjoy and, according to clinical exercise physiologist Janey Goedhart, keeping it simple will help make it easier to exercise regularly.

“The more limitations you can take out of doing exercise, the more likely you are to consistently stick to it. Instead of planning to do an hour’s walk and not being able to fit it in, try to plan a 15–20-minute walk instead, as you will be able to fit it into your daily routine more easily. This type of short exercise will help with anxiety, mood, sleep, energy levels, and help increase your focus at work,” Goedhart says.

First published: Aug 2021

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