Professor Abbie Lane - Consulatant Psychiatrist - Dublin - Blog


Coping In A Crisis


Do you feel flat and depleted at the moment? Do you wonder why you struggle to get out of bed in the morning?

Do you wonder why it’s so hard to commit to exercise or take up a new hobby, to even go for a walk?

Do you wonder why you can’t get excited about things, why you are finding this lockdown so hard to manage. Why you are craving sugary foods and eating more even though you know you have put on weight? Why are you struggling to function and are not as sharp or efficient as usual?

In my practice I see many worried and anxious people but over the last few months I have seen many more who feel worn out, unsettled, flat and depleted. Think about it – our habits and lifestyles have been restricted and we are not able to enjoy many of the things we took for granted and that kept us well and buoyant. Like visiting a friend, dropping in for a coffee or chat, travel, family gatherings, going to the cinema, a concert, browsing the shops.

Spontaneity is gone. Laughter has been replaced by silence.

To understand why you feel like this we need to look at what is going on within our bodies. At the moment we are in unchartered territory. We do not have a road map to manage this pandemic or previous experience to draw on. We are all used to short bursts of stress and the fight or flight feeling we get that gives us energy and focus to fight off the threat or get the job done.  Most of us are not used to the feeling we get when we come under chronic or persistent pressure and most of us have never experienced anything like this before.

Our bodies react to unrelenting pressure very differently to short bursts of stress. Our bodies feel under siege and start to produce a different stress hormone, known as Cortisol. This effects our body in many subtle but what I view as sinister ways. You could say that the immediate stress hormone Adrenaline is the ‘in your face get up and go, fight this off type’ substance and Cortisol is much more waiting in the long grass, wearing you down.

Cortisol is the key substance in the body that regulates our metabolism, controls blood sugar and our response to inflammation. It improves memory, controls salt and water balance and blood pressure. It acts to provide energy to deal with pressure but in high and prolonged stress environments there is no off switch and the body pumps out Cortisol. In constant or persistent high stress mode we can start to feel very unwell because too much Cortisol has many unpleasant effects.

The list of unpleasant effects is long and ranges from fatigue, irritability and headaches to constipation, bloating and diarrhoea, to anxiety, depression, weight gain, high blood pressure, poor libido and erectile dysfunction, menstrual and ovulation upset to poor sleep and low energy.

Over time high Cortisol levels can lead to weight gain, fatigue, sleep disturbance, high blood pressure, diabetes, anxiety, poor concentration, memory problems and low mood. It has a major effect on how we function physically and mentally and leaves us feeling very under par and unwell, depleted and out of sorts. It can even lead to cancer and premature ageing.

We struggle to function and lose our sharpness and mental agility. It takes us longer to do things, we make mistakes and become sluggish and forgetful. We are less able to perform and feel dissatisfied and unhappy.

To counteract the effects of Cortisol you need to do less rather than more. Step back and slow down, ease up on yourself. There are many ways to reduce Cortisol. Here are some suggestions. Try them out. Some will work for you and some not. Try to combine a few of them as part of your Stress Kit.

Slow things down. These simple, soothing and calming lifestyle tips will lower your Cortisol levels and you will have more energy, more creativity and improved health and wellbeing.

  • Try get enough sleep
  • Exercise if you feel able but only slowly and briefly – a relaxed walk, some stretching
  • Sit in the sunshine – outside or indoors – create your space in the home or outside
  • Recognise your stressful thoughts – use mindfulness and self-compassion to calm the worry and fear
  • Recognise your fast heart rate and tight breathing – learn to breathe properly and deeply
  • Learn to take the tension out of your body – gently stretch your muscles, try out Tai Chi, Qi Gong,
  • Put on your favourite music or Podcast
  • Have a laugh, watch some comedy, find a funny movie
  • Read – short articles, books you enjoyed in the past
  • Film – ones you enjoyed in the past, old movies
  • Contact a friend, think of random act of kindness, meditate, pray, connect with spirituality
  • Be your best self – banish shame, guilt, feelings of inadequacy, self-criticism and replace with self-forgiveness and gratitude – ‘I am good enough, I am doing my best, It is difficult’. Watch the words you use when talking to yourself….would you say it to a friend.
  • Use your hands – craft, plant, garden
  • Drink enough water
  • Eat as best you can – try keep the processed sugar intake low – replace with fruit, vegetables, dark chocolate, green tea….
  • Spend time with your pet

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