#2 Practice meditation
If you think meditating is all about sitting on the floor for hours with cramps in your legs, think again. A 2019 study published in Behavioural Brain Research found that doing just 13 minutes of meditation a day for 8 weeks (and, yes, the pandemic will probably last that long again) improved mood while reducing anxiety. If you think 13 minutes is too long, go for 10 or even 5 minutes, suggests Brittany LeMonda.
And you don’t have to do it alone. Try guided meditation in real time while you decompress.
For beginners, keep in mind that practicing meditation can be uncomfortable but that’s part of the point of the exercise, says Brittany LeMonda. “We don’t say ‘practice’ for nothing. It doesn’t come naturally or easily to most people,” she adds. Recognize that it’s going to be a challenge, but it changes the way we look at things.”
Some apps such as Calm and Insight Timer can help.
Meditation can be active, too
If the prospect of sitting still makes you want to uncork a bottle of wine, try a more active approach. It could be a meditative walk or gradually relaxing your muscles. Brittany LeMonda often recommends both of these options for beginners. “I tell my patients to start with that because it’s a little more active,” she says.
#3 Take time to breathe
If five minutes still seems too long, do it for a minute, says Amanda Beaver, a registered dietitian-nutritionist with Houston Methodist Wellness Services. On her advice, close your eyes and take a long, deep breath. Exhale slowly and release all the tension in your shoulders; then take two slower, more relaxing breaths. Variations on the same theme: with your eyes closed, imagine your lover, spouse, friend or relative smiling at you. You can also remember the nice things they say and do for you and smile back at them. Or you can simply imagine a halo of warmth and kindness around them.
Having positive thoughts can take less than a minute. Your thoughts can greatly influence your mood and outlook,” says Amanda Beaver. And simply stopping and observing what’s going on around you can have the same effect. “Step away from your desk or out of your house to look at the color of the sky,” she says. Observe how the leaves gently sway in the wind. Also notice how warm it feels when the sun caresses your face.”
#4 Looking at your food
Literally. Alcohol isn’t the only supposedly easy solution to the pandemic blues. Many of us are also turning to food, which is not always healthy. Sales of Oreo cookies and crackers have increased in the first quarter of this year. Of course, there are healthier snacks. Apples, for example, look and taste just as good with two tablespoons of peanut butter. No matter what you eat, take the time to observe.
“Try to look at your food,” says Amanda Beaver. When you take a bite, notice its texture. Is it crunchy or creamy? Also look at the flavour. Is it salty or sweet? Doing this helps you practice mindfulness and push away stressful thoughts.”
#5 Don’t take exercise too seriously
Like meditation, exercise should not be intimidating. Exercising can be as simple as running up and down the stairs or walking around the block for 10 minutes. A 2018 study published in Health Promotion Perspectives found that walking for 10 minutes at a brisk pace improved mood compared to doing nothing at all.
“Exercise has been shown to actually change the structure of the brain,” says Julia Chester, Ph.D., a professor of psychological sciences at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. It’s good for your brain because it increases oxygen intake, blood flow and hormones that support brain neurons.” Exercise also helps you see the world around you differently. “When your stress decreases, you feel more in control of your environment,” adds Julia Chester, “which can help you make better choices.” Kind of like doing a puzzle.
#6 Enjoying the sun
You can take advantage of this by walking or simply sunbathing. “Sunlight actually stimulates receptors on the back of the retina that trigger the release of hormones and help us regulate sleep patterns,” says Julia Chester. Sleep is really an integral part of overall health.” Sleeping well can also reduce the urge to drink wine. “Someone who doesn’t sleep well is more likely to be impulsive and turn to alcohol or another substance, or start using it to help them fall asleep,” she adds.
Enjoying the sun responsibly has other benefits. Sunlight releases serotonin (the feel-good hormone) and triggers the synthesis of vitamin D, which can help prevent osteoporosis. Of course, always enjoy the sun by protecting yourself with broad spectrum sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses.
#7 Taking a yoga position…
A yoga pose, in fact. Yoga can relieve stress, improve your mood and sleep, reduce pain, and much more. But what if there are no classes available near you that allow for social distancing or you’re not ready to undertake a full hour of virtual contortions in your living room?
Just as a breath can change your state of mind, a yoga position can also turn the tide. The upside-down dog pose is a good example. “You relax when you assume this position upside down,” says Julia Chester.
Stretching before bed can help you sleep well, which is another way to combat stress. Try sitting with your feet planted together. Place your right hand next to your right hip and lean to the right while you raise your left arm above your head. Do the same on both sides or lie down with your feet planted together. Place your hands on your stomach and simply breathe.
#8 Making a mocktail
Who says you have to drink alcohol to relax? You can make your own mocktail or try this one from Fanny Chu, bartender at Donna Brooklyn Cocktail Bar.
In a shaker filled with ice cubes:
Pour in 2 ounces of watermelon juice;
3/4 ounce sweetened sliced pickle brine and half an ounce lime juice.
Shake and pour into a Collins glass with ice.
Add tonic soda, stir and garnish the glass with a cucumber slice.
“Like a cocktail, you create a perfect balance of sweet, salty, tart and bitter. When watermelon is in season,” explains Fanny Chu, “there’s no need to add sugar because there will be some naturally.”
Or opt for a “ready-to-drink” solution
In need of inspiration? Amanda Beaver recommends choosing a “ready-to-drink” drink from the store – kombucha, for example. Your favorite flavor of carbonated water can replicate the effects of alcohol by adding lime, like in a margarita. Craft beers also have alcohol-free versions, says Julia Chester.
#9 Organize a Zoom meeting without alcohol
You can do a lot more than drink via Zoom. “Through Zoom, people have played games, cooked and shared the same meal with friends, watched Broadway shows,” says Brittany LeMonda. Even without alcohol, there’s a lot we can do via Zoom and other technologies.”
We do it first and foremost to maintain social connections that are so important to our health. Loneliness has been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, infections and cognitive problems. Maintaining a network during the pandemic may take extra effort, but there are creative ways to do it. The pandemic has even provided us with new opportunities to connect through virtual classes, poetry readings, book clubs and music events. And don’t forget the good old-fashioned phone and video calls to counteract isolation.
#10 Turn off notifications on the phone
“It’s important for everyone to be aware of what’s going on, but you can quickly get inundated with information,” says Brittany LeMonda. Especially when you’re bombarded with social media alerts on your phone, computer and maybe even your smartwatch. And much of that information is distorted. “If you’ve ever played the phone game, you know that the message at the start is not the same at the finish.” The easiest way to avoid this information bombardment? Limit the amount of time you spend on social media and news feeds, and take the time to choose reliable news sources.
“It’s probably impossible to avoid notifications completely,” says Brittany LeMonda. I recommend turning them off at night before bed so you have time to decompress and get a good night’s sleep. Ideally, your bedtime ritual will be two hours, including drinking tea, relaxing, grooming, getting ready for the next day.”
Also, take breaks from notifications throughout the day by putting your phone away or putting it on airplane mode.