As communications technology advances, the Internet and social media have made medical information previously only found in medical libraries or expensive textbooks available to all who wish to access it.
It is now possible for patients to have the same access to information as their physician about treatments and prognoses. However, misinformation and fear about COVID-19 is leading to high levels of stress among people throughout the community.
The pandemic is an example of how we can all be resourceful patients and help shape the conversation around COVID-19 by following the Canadian Public Health Association recommendations:
• Be a positive voice of evidence-based information on social media;
• Be a champion of #COVIDkindness by supporting high-risk individuals in your community; and
• Encourage your family, friends and colleagues to follow the advice of public health officials and model healthy behaviours.
Although stress is not an illness, its adverse effects cannot be ignored. Stress is the feeling of being under too much mental or emotional pressure, which turns into anxiety when you feel unable to cope.
A manageable level of stress can be beneficial by pushing us to proactively respond to difficult or new situations. But when stress exceeds the optimal threshold, our performance starts to decline and feelings of burnout emerge.
Getting stress under control can boost your immune system and help prevent serious health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and dementia. Adverse levels of stress can also lead to disturbed sleep patterns that in turn predispose people to heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Additionally, stress affects how we interact with others. Learning how to manage stress can help us build and maintain positive relationships with family and friends.
Managing adverse stress is something we all do throughout our lives and is especially important during this pandemic when stress levels are high and there is anxiety-provoking misinformation readily shared online.
There are many techniques to better manage stress, from audio and video guides, to apps and other tools that can easily be put into practice. These simple steps can reduce daily stress, particularly in these challenging times:
• Manage your time by splitting your day into chunks and taking regular breaks, including a lunch break with a brisk walk to ensure you get a change of scene.
• Make lists of what you need to do and prioritize them in order of importance, focusing on those that will help you achieve your goals.
• Do not fall prey to COVID-19 misinformation. Make sure to doublecheck your sources and maintain a healthy level of skepticism about information from unverified sources.
• Prioritize regular exercise, because the fitter you feel physically, the better you function intellectually. Walking in or near forests and woods is particularly helpful. In Japan, this practice is called Forest Bathing and can be prescribed by physicians to improve physical function.
• Take deep, soothing breaths when you are under stress. Calming prayer or meditation can also help individuals relax. Mindfulness describes the meditative practice in which we become more aware of ourselves, our actions and their effects on the environment we inhabit. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction therapy is designed for stress management and is now being used for treating a variety of illnesses such as depression, anxiety, chronic pain, cancer, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, skin and immune disorders.
• Use simple behavioural modification techniques to build resilience. These include recognizing signs of stress, strengthening the relaxation response, countering unhelpful thoughts and building a caring community. Resilience is our capacity to manage stressful events. More resilience means having more reserves to manage stressful situations.
No matter which strategies we employ to better manage adverse stress, we are not alone, as the COVID-19 pandemic is demonstrating. Friends and family can support you on many fronts such as listening to you and working with you to find ways to reduce stress. They can also help you locate health service resources to assist you in managing your stress.
This highlights the need for our communities to establish robust support systems for residents outside of times of crisis, including increasing the availability and extent of programs for mental health for all ages. This can be done in collaboration with the schools and other organizations such as the Canadian Mental Health Association and the Alzheimer’s Society. A variety of organizations provide support to people experiencing acute and long-term stress, including the government of Canada’s stress management website.
When working to reduce stress surrounding your job, relationships or other life circumstances, counselling may help guide you on this path. Counsellors can provide tools to help you talk through conflicts with family, friends and co-workers. You can ask your family physician for more information about counselling, or about other techniques like cognitive training. This is an approach focused on how you think about the problems that cause stress and how to handle them to change your thought process to alleviate this stress. Changing the way you think can change the way you feel. Those engaged in cognitive training learn skills that can be used to handle stressful situations.