Last week, I resumed my clinic at Manila Doctors Hospital, following up on a limited number of regular patients, who I felt I had to examine more thoroughly before I could decide on the modification of their maintenance medications.
A patient asked if I was not afraid to catch the virus, since seniors like me are supposed to be higher risk. I replied, I have to walk my talk.
If we believe we still have a healthy immune system, and are scrupulously careful in following prescribed safeguards, concern over the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) should not make us abdicate our responsibility to our vocation.
We recognize COVID-19 as a threat requiring strict precautions, but we refuse to accept that the virus is smarter and more powerful than us humans.
When we cower in sustained fear and anxiety, we’re allowing the virus to outsmart us in the psywar. When we collapse mentally, the rest of our body follows.
When we continue unhealthy lifestyle practices like smoking and alcohol drinking, and rationalize sedentariness and excessive eating as acceptable consequences of the lockdown, we’re surrendering our fate in this COVID-19 war to chance, rather than making a willful effort to prevail over the virus.
When we allow the high levels of cortisol due to uncontrolled stress to limit us to a primitive fight-or-flight response, we’re depriving our brains of oxygen and nutrients. This cerebral insufficiency makes us think less rationally, and say and do things we would regret, such as berating doctors who try to advise us on something within their competence and expertise.
We mistake well-meaning advice and well-researched recommendations from various doctor-organizations, representing at least 80 percent of the medical community, as complaints and illogical bickering. We fail to discern that when medical experts seem to have a common stand on the subject, which is against what we and the nonexperts prefer, we should give greater credence to the experts.
We should never open our mouths or make vital decisions when we feel our stress hormones are surging through the roof. In such a situation, most of our blood circulation is diverted to the skeleto-muscular system, gearing it for the fight-or-flight response. The brain and the other organs, including the immune system, take a secondary preference to the circulation in the stress response. That’s why some scientists remark on the impact of chronic stress on the body: “Uncontrolled sustained stress makes us dumber, weaker and more sickly.”
Training our nervous system
These consequences of uncontrolled chronic stress—faulty thinking, weaker immune system, and increased feeling of unwellness—are science-based and consistently duplicated in various research and clinical trial settings. These can also snowball, such that our faulty thinking due to elevated stress hormones can make us more prone to unhealthy or risk-prone behavior, rather than to a healthy lifestyle.
The good news is that our stress response can be managed, harnessed and tempered. We don’t want to obliterate stress, because we also need it as life-preserving mechanism in cases of peril, like running away from animal or human predators, or fighting back to save ourselves and our loved ones.
We can do physically extraordinary things under intense, acute stress, like what a mother did, lifting a car when her child was pinned under it. But after the stressful situation, we should be able to train our nervous system to calm down.
It’s when we’re in an almost constant state of stress that our body is not given a chance to recover and regenerate, leading to disease.
So if you feel this pandemic is pushing you to the edge, it’s time to activate your stress-taming programming. Let me share the “two-minute fix” I coach my patients to do. It comes in five simple steps:
1. Take deep breaths. When we’re under stress, we’re not conscious of it, but we’re taking rapid, shallow breaths, further activating our sympathetic nervous system to secrete more cortisol and other stress hormones. Consciously reverse this by doing the 4-6-8 breathing: Inhale through the nose for four seconds, hold it for six seconds, then slowly exhale through pursed lips for eight seconds.
Repeat the cycle around six to eight times, as frequently during the day as you can. I call this as the “instant tranquilizer” that can help calm frayed nerves faster than any tranquilizer. After two minutes of 4-6-8 breathing, the sympathetic nervous system calms down and the parasympathetic nervous system, which has a calming effect, takes control.
2. Level with yourself. You must accept that you’re feeling unduly stressed and enumerate in your mind all the things it’s causing: sleep disturbances, appetite disturbance (either lack of or excessive), short fuse (irritability), uncontrolled emotions, palpitations, sweaty hands, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, gas in the stomach, etc. Denying that you’re stressed and bothered by all the symptoms it causes only worsens the stress. Accept humbly.
3. Decide to release the stress. Visualize your mind and body releasing whatever is causing your stress, and all the signs and symptoms that come with it. Visualize an image of yourself in a relaxed, blissful state. You can do this as you do your deep breathing.
As you inhale deeply for four seconds, imagine inhaling health, wellness, happiness, abundance and other positive emotions. Maintain that mental state as you hold your breath for six seconds; then, as you slowly exhale for eight seconds, visualize releasing and letting go all your stressful symptoms and all negative emotions you’re feeling (anger, bitterness, frustration, distrust, envy, etc). 4. Say sorry. First to yourself for the self-inflicted damage which uncontrolled stress has caused you. Then resolve to apologize sincerely to people you may have hurt physically or emotionally, intentionally or unintentionally.
5. End with a feeling of gratitude to God. Be grateful that you have taken back control of your mind and body. Be grateful for the “silver linings” behind the stressful situation you’re in. Just keep saying “thank you” until you feel you have expressed your gratitude enough.
You know you’ve released your unhealthy stress effectively, especially in these COVID-19 times, because you have 6 Cs:
Calmness—You get to see things from better perspective, accepting the things that are beyond your control with relaxed disposition.
Courage—You’re emboldened to do things within your control, even if it entails a calculated risk and some sacrifice.
Commitment—You’re motivated to do the things you’re expected to do not only for yourself, but for the sake of others, like hand hygiene, social distancing, quarantine or isolation if with symptoms.
Control—You know and feel when the stress level is healthy, recognize immediately when it is literally getting on your nerves again, and it prompts you to manage your stress level well.
Concern—You feel you’re part of the solution to the stressful situation and you find small ways and means to help. You’re concerned about the welfare of others and feel more compassionate toward others, ceasing to think of yourself alone.Consciousness—All your subsequent acts and words are conscious, willful and intentional. Feeling that you’re contributing to the solution is one of the best antidotes to unhealthy stress at a time like this. Realizing you’ve added to the problem can be a huge stressor.
With better stress management, we become more conscious not to make a stressful situation any more complicated than it already is. INQ