Confession #1—I’m totally eating all the chocolate. Times are tough, people! The words “SHELTER IN PLACE!!” create a sense of unease within me that is almost palpable. How does a psychiatrist survive social isolation, the increasing need to connect with patients by videoconference, and friends and faraway family? How does a psychiatrist cope with a global pandemic?
Well, I eat chocolate (it’s OK, Dr. Amen sells a brain healthy Brain in Love Chocolate Bar on BrainMD). But that isn’t the secret to stress management. My book When Crisis Strikes isn’t going to be out until the end of the year (if its release isn’t now postponed), and I’m not allowed to reproduce any of the content prior to publication. But here are my personal strategies for managing chronic stress when crisis strikes.
1. I do a minimum of 20 minutes of restorative yoga every night before bed.
I learned from a DVD (Restorative Yoga Practice with Deborah Donahue), but everything you need is probably online these days. I have a quiet space, I light some candles, and I consciously let go of the physical stress taking residence in my muscles. Often, I take some magnesium beforehand (or a soak in an Epsom salt bath—Epsom salts contain magnesium), and allow myself to fully relax into each pose, letting go of my need to hold onto anything and everything.
2. I breathe.
Multiple times throughout the day I stop myself and do a quick check. I consciously relax any muscles that are tense (my jaw, shoulders, and hamstrings, commonly), and reset my breathing—4 counts in, 6 counts out, holding my breath out for 2 counts, then 4 counts in, 6 out, hold for 2, and repeat for a few minutes. I learned this at a yoga festival in Norway, and it makes perfect sense medically.
On inhalation, the heart beats faster; on exhalation, a little slower. Our heart and lungs can literally set us up to breathe under high alert or within a space of comfort and safety. Inhalation or holding one’s breath speeds up the heart, which is the opposite of what most of us need when we’re stressed. Work on letting your exhalation be slightly longer than your inhalation to bring your body back into a state of calm.
3. I use my senses.
I do a lot of DBT (dialectical behavior therapy) with patients, and one of the principles of DBT is self-soothing through the 5 senses. Take a few minutes and think about your senses and what you like.
- Sight: I love looking at candles or a fire in the fireplace. I love white holiday lights. I love color. I follow wonderful interior designers and florists on social media, so I have access to eye candy when I need it. And when Trader Joe’s has fresh blooms, I buy them by the armful and make arrangements to place around the house.
- Smell: The scent of certain flowers, lavender, and vanilla really relaxes me. Many of my patients use essential oils or diffusers at home or while driving. Maybe you like the smell of certain foods or spices on the stove or have a favorite perfume, cologne, or scented candle. Take a few minutes each day to surround yourself with a relaxing scent and notice how it makes you feel.
- Sound: You may like music, guided meditations, white noise, waves crashing on the shore, or rain falling on the roof. If you’re like me, at the end of a long day you might like the sound of silence. Or the sound of your child breathing, or your cat purring. Pick a sound you love and focus on it for a few minutes each day. Absorb yourself into it, letting go of all other thoughts for a few minutes.
- Touch: Soft sheets, a fresh towel, a flannel shirt, a favorite leather jacket, cashmere socks, a bowl full of dried beans, a warm shower or bath, grass under your feet, sand between your toes, the silkiness of your favorite lotion, the softness of pussy willows, your favorite scarf on your neck, or how it feels to rub your partner’s back. These days I’m wearing my most comfortable clothes, shoes, slippers, and scarves, and appreciating every minute of it.
- Taste: Back to the chocolate! Eat mindfully. During my workday I’m literally so busy I just take bites of whatever I have while returning phone calls, refilling medications, and filling out paperwork. My working hours are now longer than my local market’s business hours, so for a few days I was having spoonfuls of peanut butter for lunch. (Never fear, I’ve since been able to stock my freezer.) Instead of eating to survive (like a doctor in the middle of a pandemic), take time—at least one meal a day—to savor your food. As a foodie, I’m often looking for ingredients in what I’m eating (is that a hint of cinnamon or nutmeg?). Savor the taste and texture of your meals. You can often incorporate multiple senses in a good meal (just check out the free brain healthy recipes from Tana Amen, a nurse and bestselling author of The OMNI Diet and The Brain Warrior’s Way Cookbook, if you need some inspiration!).
More soon, friends. Hang in there. For reliable updates, check the CDC and be sure to follow your local government’s guidelines for isolating, handwashing, and when to get tested.
About the Author: Jennifer Love, MD, Amen Clinics Orange County, CA
Dr. Jennifer Love is board-certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry, and addiction medicine, and is a Diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and the American Board of Addiction Medicine. Dr. Love is an award-winning researcher and international speaker, interested in the interface between cultural and spiritual factors and overall mental health. She is also suboxone certified. Dr. Love’s work focuses on restoring life balance, brain and body health, and helping her patients improve their functionality and satisfaction in life. She considers a wide range of interventions including nutraceuticals, medication, exercise, yoga, psychotherapy, and sleep/relaxation training. Her specialties include mood disorders, substance use disorders, anxiety disorders, anger and irritability, behavioral addictions, co-occurring pain, and opioid dependence.
Dr. Love is the co-author of “When Crisis Strikes: 5 Steps to Heal Your Brain, Body, and Life from Chronic Stress,” which will be published by Citadel Press on December 29, 2020.
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