By Dr. Stephen Sinatra, cardiologist, Healthy Directions
If the COVID-19 pandemic has made you stressed, you’re not alone. There’s no shortage of things to worry about—from the fear of catching the virus to activities and milestones missed, not to mention the economic toll it’s taken on us individually and collectively. All you have to do is turn on the news to see this play out in real-time.
But beneath these obvious stressors churning in your mind and blowing up your social media newsfeed, there’s also a silent stressor in our midst – one that concerns me greatly as both a cardiologist and trained psychotherapist. It’s the impact that quarantining and social distancing has had on both our emotional health and our physical health.
In many ways, social distancing is the “silent pandemic”—and, if left unchecked, can lead to serious health issues.
We are “Hardwired” to Need Social Connections
Human connection is vital to reducing stress levels. When you spend time with others—whether it’s grabbing a beverage with a close friend or hugging a family member—your body releases dopamine. This feel-good hormone, sometimes referred to as natural morphine, boosts your mood and calms your sympathetic nervous system.
So, while social distancing is necessary for curbing the spread of the COVID-19, it has limited our ability to spend time with friends and family, which has led to an uptick in anxiety, depression and overall emotional stress.
Emotional Stress Can Directly Impact Your Health
You can’t separate your body and mind – your emotions have a very strong impact on your physical health. That’s why when I became a cardiologist, near the end of the Vietnam War, I studied to be a psychotherapist as well because I realized that many of the serious heart issues I would see in returning soldiers were related to emotional stress.
When you’re stressed, the hypothalamus (the tiny control center in your brain) stimulates your body to release cortisol, which is often referred to as the “stress hormone.” Cortisol puts your body into fight-or-flight mode by raising your blood sugar levels, heart rate, blood pressure and breathing.
If there’s an immediate threat – like if you would need to run away from a lion – your body is ready. But when the threat is gone, your body quickly returns to normal. While this type of occasional stress response doesn’t concern me at all, the persistent stress we’re all experiencing during the pandemic is a different story. It’s as if we’re being chased by a lion continuously!
When you’re in a heightened state of stress, your cortisol levels stay elevated which can have a far-reaching effect on your health, impacting your sleep, blood pressure, heart rate and more.
Good News – You Can Protect Your Health
While there’s no magic pill that can remove all of the stress and heartache we’re experiencing during this pandemic, there are many things you can do to manage stress while safely regaining some of the human interactions we’re all craving.
1. Allow yourself to cry. We’re all living under a massive umbrella of fear right now —whether it’s fear of the virus itself, getting sick or transmitting it to others. There’s also fear of losing a job, losing a home or of not having enough food. On top of that, many of us are angry and upset by what we’ve lost and the ability to control our own lives.
Emotions like anger and sadness are the Achilles’ heel of the cardiovascular system. When you hold your emotions in, it affects you physically, leading to everything from headaches to high blood pressure.
The solution is to permit yourself to release that stress and anger by crying. I know that for many people that can be difficult to do. I came from the generation when parents often said, “If you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you something to cry about.” So, we used to shut off our emotions. It’s important to realize that crying is not a sign of weakness, but rather the opportunity to release all of that negative energy, stress and tension you’ve been holding in.
2. Breathe. Did you know breathing is related to laughing and laughing is related to crying? All three — whether you laugh deeply, cry deeply or breathe deeply — free up an overcharged sympathetic nervous system and support heart rate variability, which has a calming affect on your mood.
One of my favorite techniques is alternate nostril breathing. Begin by taking a deep breath in and out through your nose. Next, use your right thumb to close your right nostril and inhale slowly through your left nostril. Then, close both nostrils and hold your breath for a moment. Now, open your right nostril and breathe out slowly. Repeat the same exercise with your left nostril. Then, alternate back and forth between nostrils to destress.
3. Reach out to others. It’s important to remember that even when we can’t connect with others in-person, we can connect with them virtually. I refer to it as connecting at the “heart level.” Zoom, Skype, Facetime, WhatsApp and other similar applications have made it easy to not only hear from family and friends but to see them as well. One of the positive reframes we can take from the coronavirus is that in many ways, technology has brought us closer together.
Our family has been connecting quite a bit on Zoom during this pandemic. My son, Drew, has been doing Zoom exercise classes with his brother-in-law — he leads the whole family through a circuit-training workout. Plus, my wife and I have had regular virtual visits with the grandchildren. During one call, my grandson Luca showed me his new cowboy boots, so I went to get mine to show to him as well!
I also encourage you to think creatively. Many people are having virtual book club meetings, playing games with others online and having socially distanced dinners with friends. I know one family that cooks together once a week. The “head chef” sends out a recipe in advance so everyone can buy the ingredients, then they all cook together online.
4. Harness the mood-boosting power of exercise. Exercise is one of the most powerful mood boosters there is. When you exercise, it releases stress from your muscles, reduces your levels of the “stress hormone” cortisol and boosts your body’s level of feel-good endorphins. Some studies have shown that aerobic exercise is a quicker mood elevator than an antidepressant.
What type of exercise should you do? My answer to that question is always the same — the type you’ll enjoy and keep doing day-in and day-out. Even just a 20-minute walk or dancing to your favorite songs can make a powerful difference in your stress levels and improve how you feel!
5. Spend time in nature. One positive aspect of COVID-19 is that people are spending more time outdoors. Not only is it safer from the perspective of spreading the virus but being outside has many healing benefits in and of itself. Getting outside; soaking in the fresh air; and gazing at the trees, birds and other wilderness reminds us that there’s a bigger world out there. This all helps us to reframe our perspective.
Another powerful benefit of getting outside is that if you leave technology behind and put your phone away, it allows you to relax and regroup away from the news, social media and other persistent reminders about the stress in our world. If you can, take a family member with you when you go outdoors or meet a friend for a socially distanced walk.
If you can’t get outside, you can also “get back to nature” within yourself. You can do that with deep breathing, meditation, yoga, Qigong or Tai Chi. My son, Drew, a practicing naturopathic physician, has started each day of the pandemic by meditating for 20-minutes each morning and has found it to be a real game-changer in getting through this difficult and challenging time. Meditation not only releases stress but allows you to cope more easily with the stressors you encounter throughout the day.
6. Practice grounding. One of my cardinal principles of health is grounding, also known as earthing. It’s an amazingly simple concept that involves nothing more than reconnecting the human body with the natural energy that’s present in the ground we walk on.
The Earths’ surface contains free electrons that are continually replenished through solar radiation and lightning strikes, and your body naturally absorbs those particles when you make physical contact with the ground. These electrons help to keep your body’s innate electrical circuitry properly balanced, which lowers stress and increases calmness in the body by moderating heart rate variability, nervous system activity and stress hormone secretion. Plus, it helps to promote normal blood pressure.
If conditions allow, just go barefoot outside. Grass, sand, dirt and concrete are all conductive surfaces from which your body can draw the Earth’s electrons. If going barefoot outside isn’t realistic, a warm basement with a concrete floor will also work. Sit there, read or just relax with your bare feet resting on the ground.
7. Take ashwagandha. This powerful herb is part of a group of herbs called adaptogens that help your body adapt to stress. It works by helping to stabilize your body’s stress feedback loop, so it releases less cortisol. I’ve been taking it myself for more than 20 years, and it has made an enormous difference.
The best form of ashwagandha I’ve found is called, Sensoril. In studies, it has been shown to help people manage anxiousness due to stress, while also balancing healthy cortisol levels.
Participants in a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study saw a reduction in serum cortisol levels, anxiousness, fatigue and irritability brought on by stress within two months of using Sensoril Ashwagandha. Additionally, participants experienced an improvement in sleep quality, physical mobility, mood and concentration, all of which can positively impact emotional well-being and heart health. It’s so impressive that I added it to my Omega Q Plus ULTRA supplement formula, in addition toother top-recommended nutrients to support your heart and overall health.
8. Make your health a priority. It’s much easier to cope with stress when you’re rested and eating well. Strive to get at least 7-8 hours of sleep a night. Go to bed early rather than staying up late to watch the news or peruse social media feeds – all of which can rev up your stress levels. Keep your room cool and dark and remove all electronics from your sleeping space. If you have trouble calming down, try drinking a cup of valerian tea.
It’s also important to avoid the urge to stress eat – something people have been doing a lot of during the pandemic. And there’s a real physical reason driving that urge. When your cortisol levels are high, it increases your appetite and makes you more likely to reach for sugary treats and simple carbohydrates to lift your mood. But the boost is only temporary and can leave you feeling even worse once the “sugar high” wears off.
Instead, eat foods that protect your health and boost your mood. DHA omega-3 fatty acids are a powerful mood-booster, helping to build receptors for the “feel-good hormone” serotonin. It can be found in foods like wild-caught salmon, flaxseed, nuts and seeds and DHA-fortified eggs.
Dark chocolate also contains a mood-boosting biochemical called phenylethylamine, which is the same chemical that causes the euphoric feeling we equate with love. For maximum health benefits, you want to look for organic dark chocolate that contains at least 70% cacao. Plus, remember that a little goes a long way. I allow myself to have a small piece every few days as a heart-healthy treat.
Finally, remember that no matter how difficult this stretch of time has been, there will come a time when things adapt and get better. We’ll reconnect with our loved ones, get back to the activities we enjoy and have more freedom to plan for the future. And if we can all take this time to practice some extra self-care habits, we’ll come out the other side even better off than before.
Bio: Dr. Stephen Sinatra is one of the most highly respected and sought-after cardiologists whose integrative approach to treating cardiovascular disease has revitalized patients with even the most advanced forms of illness. He has more than 40 years of clinical practice, research and study, starting his career as an attending physician at Manchester Memorial Hospital in Connecticut. Here, he then went on to serve as chief of cardiology, director of medical education, director of echocardiography, director of cardiac rehabilitation and director of the weight-reducing program. He is known as one of America’s top integrative cardiologists, combining conventional medical treatments for heart disease with complementary nutritional, anti-aging and psychological therapies. He is an author, speaker and adviser for the research and development of nutritional supplements with Healthy Directions. Sinatra is a best-selling author of more than a dozen books, including, “Heartbreak and Heart Disease,” “The Great Cholesterol Myth,” “Reversing Heart Disease Now,” “The CoQ10 Phenomenon,” “Heart Sense for Women,” “The Sinatra Solution,” and “Metabolic Cardiology.”