Because of COVID-19, we all find ourselves of a journey we never imagined taking and without a road map to navigate the new terrain. When we have time to prepare for a trip, we make sure our vehicle has a full tank of gas. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a trip any of us planned, and we didn’t have time to prepare. The change from dropping your kids off at school as you headed into the office to attempting to teach your children at home while juggling virtual meetings for work has left many, understandably, running on empty.
Our brains were created to help us survive dangerous situations we face. Think about what happens when a car veers into your lane of traffic. Without thinking, you react because your brain flips from normal functioning into either fight, flight, or freeze because it perceives danger. Without consciously thinking, you jerk the steering wheel and slam on the brakes.
Our brains ability to protect us in dangerous situation serves us well when the danger is immediate and short lived. It causes our vision to narrow, our heart rate to increase, our senses to be heightened, and our muscles to be tense and ready to react.
This is great when we are facing immediate and identifiable threats. However, it becomes problematic when the danger is ongoing and not easily identifiable. Our body isn’t sure when the threat has passed and gets stuck in fight, flight, freeze. When this happens, we find ourselves:
- Feeling tense, easily startled, and on edge all the time
- Obsessed with watching any reports we can find about what is happening—even when they contain no new information
- Having difficulty sleeping
- Craving junk food and/or having no real appetite to eat at all
- Irritable and/or easily moved to tears
- Worrying and attempting to make plans for all the possible “what ifs.
This, combined with the fact many of us didn’t head into this journey with a full tank of emotional, mental and physical energy, can leave people feeling wrung out. The good news is, even if your tank feels like it is on empty, there are some thing you can do—wherever you are at—to fill your tank back up.
First, take a moment to assess how full/empty your tank is in each of these areas:
Do you feel emotionally balanced and are you reacting in emotionally healthy ways to your circumstances or do you feel on edge and find yourself having large emotional reactions to situation which probably don’t warrant such a reaction?
Is your body able to relax as well as engage in the activities of the day or do you find yourself tired, tense and unable to relax, or starting the day off well but feeling draggy by midafternoon even though you are far from done with the day’s activities?
Are you able to think clearly, make healthy decisions, and carry out your tasks effectively or do you find yourself having difficulty thinking through things, making rash decisions or unable to make decisions, and making mistakes you wouldn’t normally make as you go through your day.
After you have assessed how full or empty your tank is, the next step is to start putting good fuel into the tank!
1. Turn off the media.
Both the news and social media. If you feel it is important to remain aware of what is happening, set aside no more than a half hour in the morning and evening (preferably only one of those times) to catch up on the news.
2. Make yourself adhere to a routine.
Set a consistent sleep schedule that involves going to bed at the same time and getting up at the same time. Your routine should also include: showering, dressing like you would if you were leaving the house for work, and other routine things like making your bed, talking to friends, and helping the kids with schoolwork.
3. Exercise at least thirty minutes each day.
Even though the gyms are closed, you can still get active! Try going for walks, finding a workout on-line, doing yoga with your kids in the middle of the living room, or taking a bike ride. Many of us are less active working from home because we don’t have to walk between meetings and this makes daily exercise extremely important!
Exercise helps your body feel less tense or anxious and clears your mind so you can think clearly.
4. Put good healthy foods into your body.
When we are stressed, we tend to crave high carbohydrate, high sugar, high fat foods because they feel soothing. While this can be okay occasionally, it’s a bit like pouring water into your car’s gas tank—it fills the tank, but doesn’t make the engine run well.
To keep your body’s energy tank full, make sure you are setting a schedule for when you eat and eating healthy grains, fruits, vegetables, and protein when you eat. Avoid snacking while you work because this leads to mindless eating that causes you to feel sluggish.
5. Engage in enjoyable activities where you learn new things and exercise your mind.
While it’s easy to veg out on the news or binge watch your favorite Netflix show, this won’t help your mind. Find at least one way to stretch and grow your mind each day. This doesn’t have to be making yourself learn calculus (unless you want to).
- Pick up that book you have been wanting to read.
- Experiment with learning a new language.
- Learn a new song on the piano or guitar.
- Start a new woodworking project.
By assessing how full your tank is and actively doing things to fill your tank each day, you will have the physical, emotional, and mental energy needed for this unexpected journey you have found yourself on.
Jean Holthaus, LMSW, LISW has been providing outpatient therapy services since 1995 when she earned her Masters of Social Work degree from the University of Iowa. She has worked for Pine Rest since 1997. She currently serves as manager of the Telehealth Clinic and the Hastings Clinic and is also a Pine Rest Outpatient Regional Director.