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4 ways to take care of physical and mental well-being during unsettled times

Kira Garcia By Kira Garcia

Feeling stressed lately? You’re not alone. The combined impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic hardship is hard on everyone. At the same time, many of us aren’t able to see friends and family for support. All of this can add up to serious stress, which has very real health risks. If you’re a parent or a caregiver, your own stress can affect your family and all the people you’re caring for.

The good news is that self-care and stress reduction are free. Kristen Hancock, a family nurse practitioner in Minnesota, has been working with Medicaid patients for more than a decade. Her first tip? Get in touch. “A lot of people are scared of coming to the clinic because of the pandemic. It’s important to know you can always call. There are processes in place to address your concerns in a safe way, so don’t wait to reach out!” Aetna’s telemedicine and nurse hotline options are great ways to get help while you’re at home. 

Hancock also has a special message for parents and caregivers: “Be kind to yourself! Don’t set unrealistic expectations. Be mindful of what you have accomplished. So even if you only cleaned off the coffee table but didn’t make the bed or get to the laundry, give yourself some grace; you’re doing the best you can!”

Here are four areas to focus on to reduce your own stress and increase your overall well-being. 

Exercise 

You’ve definitely heard this one before: Exercise is great for stress reduction! It boosts the feel-good chemicals in our brains, soothes anxious minds and can help you “reset” if your day is off to a rocky start. Even short bursts — 10 or 20 minutes’ worth — can help. Hancock says that since the pandemic began, “a lot of people have had to give up regularly scheduled activities. Try to schedule in something else instead at that time to restore a sense of normalcy.” Exercise is a great substitute. 

Only have a few minutes to exercise? Aetna’s Two-Minute Tune-Ups are a great way to boost your energy and your mood.

Good nutrition

Food is fuel, but it’s also a source of comfort. It has real ties to mental health. In the early stages of the pandemic, many people turned to high-calorie treats to cope. But as time goes on, it’s important to try to get our diets back in balance. If that feels daunting, take small steps. Try incorporating a few more fruits and vegetables into your meals — and switch them up if you’re sick of the same old carrots and apples. Make sure you’re getting plenty of protein so you stay full longer and aren’t as tempted to snack while sitting at home. And reducing the amount of sugar you eat is a great idea. The crash that follows a sugar rush can leave you feeling sluggish and irritable.

Relaxation

Hancock encourages everyone: “Find time to relax, recharge, journal and practice gratitude. There’s good evidence for reducing depression by just saying aloud or writing down three things you’re grateful for at the end of the day.” If a panic attack sets in, she suggests a mindfulness exercise: Walk into a different room, think of five things you see and name them — a lamp, a table, a mirror, anything. Then name five things you feel, like your clothes on your body and your hair on your neck. Doing this for all five senses, says Hancock, can be calming and grounding. 

Sleep

Even under normal circumstances, many Americans aren’t getting enough sleep each night. With heightened stress, that percentage is bound to increase. The result can be irritability, but there are more serious, long-term consequences, too. If you need a new way to doze off, Hancock recommends progressive muscle relaxation: Moving up or down the body, tense a group of muscles as you breathe in, then relax them as you breathe out. You’ll feel the benefits immediately!

Stress is natural, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Aetna Better Health® has lots of simple, free tips to help you thrive, no matter what life throws your way.

About the author

Kira Garcia is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has been published in the New Yorker, New York Magazine, Bon Appetit and elsewhere. She has also created text and marketing strategies for cultural and social service nonprofits.