3 ways to lower stress, anxiety during omicron surge: Each can ‘take no more than 30 seconds,' says psychologist

Take "one conscious breath where you are fully experiencing the sensory experience of the breath."


Last week I had a Covid scare. On Saturday I went on a second date. We walked around the Union Square holiday market in New York City and shared an empanada, then he tested positive for Covid the following day.

If you're fully vaccinated and have been exposed, the CDC recommends waiting 5-7 days before getting tested. That limbo period while I was waiting to get tested was excruciating and I felt the underlying anxiety that comes from the uncertainty all day.

Lots of people are having this same stress as omicron surges across the country.

"You're actually playing out each of those scenarios ― the worst-case scenario, the best-case scenario, and everything in between," says Amishi Jha, professor of psychology at the University of Miami and author of "Peak Mind," about these moments.

"There's no question that stress is bad for the body," she says, but it can have an effect on the decisions you make in your day-to-day life as well. When people are stressed out, for example, they're more impulsive with how they spend, according to a March 2019 study of 1,011 U.S. adults conducted by The Decision Lab.

If, like me, you've found this particular Covid-19 surge to be especially nerve-wracking, Jha recommends doing three mindfulness practices to de-stress and refocus on the tasks at hand. You can do these "whenever you feel like you need to," she says, and each "could take no more than 30 seconds."

Remember, 'thoughts aren't facts'

In these moments, the proliferation of thoughts about what could happen "is what you're trying to avoid," she says. "And the reason you're trying to avoid it is because it's not actually serving you. It's not problem solving in a productive manner."

Until you actually know the reality of your situation ― whatever it is that's stressing you out ― thinking about what could happen doesn't help you make relevant decisions. Take a couple of minutes to research the actions you can actually take right now (in my case it was finding out when I should get tested, locating the nearest test site, and reviewing what precautions I needed to take to keep others around me safe). Then move on with your day.

If, after you've mapped out the practical steps you can take right now, you find your mind wandering to all of the various scenarios that could play out, "stop," says Jha, "like, physically stop yourself." Then remind yourself that "thoughts aren't facts."

"Write [that phrase] on a Post-it and stick it on your computer screen," she says. That way when you find yourself spiraling, that reminder of what's real and what's in your head is directly in front of you.

Take 'one conscious breath'

Another approach once you've taken a moment to stop is to take "one conscious breath where you are fully experiencing the sensory experience of the breath," she says. Take note of the "inhale and exhale, and the cascade of sensations that occur." Jha pays attention to the way the air feels entering her nostrils.

You can stop at one breath or keep going. Either way, the idea is that stepping outside of your automatic thought patterns in this particular moment can help you realize "the thing I might have done by default probably would exhaust me more, and definitely leave me in a bad mood," she says.

Thoughts aren't facts. Write [that phrase] on a Post-it and stick it on your computer screen.
Amishi Jha
Professor, University of Miami

'Do a quick sweep of the body'

"In addition to taking the breath," she says, you can also "do a quick sweep of the body."

Notice a heaviness in your feet, for example, or a tingling in your stomach, or the coolness on your back if the window behind you is open. "You are watching the data that is present to you in your sensory experience," she says.

"All of this is to really try to stop that snowball [of thought] from just going down the hill," she says. Because when you're caught up in that snowball of thought about what could happen, "you're using the exact same cognitive resources you actually need to potentially deal with whatever happens next."

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