This year has been brutal — and we’re still only halfway through it. We’re living through a global pandemic, rampant racism, unprecedented unemployment, financial crises, global warming — and the real fear of what’s coming next — because that’s always on our minds too. With all that’s going on in the world, is it any wonder that we also see a mental health crisis arise?

Stress is an insidious part of modern life and can wreak havoc on the human body. As it causes immediate damage to various internal organs, it’s turning our minds against us and causing us to behave in ways that make that damage worse. 

So how do you cope with stress in especially stressful times? Here are the first five steps to take. 

1. Unplug right now

You can’t relax and destress if you’re adding to it by your media consumptionStaying informed is one thing — you should be aware of what’s happening and prepared in case of an emergency, but obsessing over the news adds fuel to the fire. You don’t need updates every 30 minutes, or even once an hour. Not if doing so is making your stress levels skyrocket.

Social media itself is a source of stress for many people, even during so-called good times. With the global situation being what it is, it’s now turning into somewhat of an addiction for others. Ignoring yourself in favor of staring blankly at a screen does not reduce the impact stress is having on your body.

Set a specific time of the day when you close your social media, turn off the news, and stop following any Reddits that rile you up. Try leaving the online world behind for at least an hour or two a day — you don’t need to be seeing all the bad in the world 24/7. 

2. Exercise the simple way

Most of us lead relatively sedentary lives. We sit behind a desk for hours at work and then go home and sit on the sofa to watch TV, play games or read. Sure, some of us do sports or exercise at times, but for many, the only physical activity they get comes during their daily commute. And with many now working from home, they are even less active than they were before. Being stuck at home and stressed out also makes it tempting to eat and drink more alcohol. That all leads to weight gain, which leads to increased stress, which leads to more significant health problems down the line. It’s a vicious cycle. 

Endorphins are your body’s own natural mood-elevating chemicals — and exercise is one of the best ways to release them. You don’t need to become gym-obsessed because of the pandemic suddenly, nor should you spend a fortune on workout equipment from net shopping. Not unless you want to, that is.

Just taking a 30-minute walk once a day is enough to undo a few month’s of stress-induced damage. Walking lowers blood pressure, helps with digestion, builds muscle and endurance lost from being sedentary at work, and helps you to lose weight. It’s the simplest, least expensive form of exercise you can do, and it’s an activity strongly encouraged even during a pandemic and lockdown.

If you aren’t able to go out for walks, do laps of your apartment or apartment building. Go up and down the steps for a flight or two to start, or try power walking to the mailbox if your building has a communal box set up.

Those with a TV or radio could always tune into radio calisthenics (rajio taiso) to try a low impact exercise routine. These programs are very popular with the elderly in Japan but give you enough of a stretch to undo some bad habits. You can also think of them as stepping stones to more physically demanding workouts in the future.

Or you could try beginner’s yogapilates, or even belly dancing if that’s more your style. Whatever gets you moving and gets those endorphins flowing will help you cope better with stress, and might also inspire you to try something new when the world settles down.

3. Be realistic, but remind yourself that there’s some good out there too

There are a lot of negative things happening. But there are also a lot of positive things happening too. While you can’t ignore all the negatives in favor of the positives, don’t let the negatives control your thoughts and emotions. Acknowledge that everything is screwed up, but also acknowledge that there are good things too.

For example, tell yourself, “yes, the world is bad for many reasons, but something good I saw/heard today is…” and finish the sentence. Comedy also helps. If you have a preferred streaming service, try watching funny movies or shows and let yourself laugh. Laugh until you cry, even. Laughter is the best medicine when it comes to stress — it lowers stress hormones, reduces tension, and increases your HDL cholesterol levels. Just like walking, laughter is one of the easiest and cheapest ways of taking care of yourself around.

4. Allocate a minute or two in the day for a complete mental detox

Mindfulness, meditation, silent prayer, moments of reflection: Whatever you call it, taking time to sit with yourself and your thoughts is crucially important when dealing with stress. Even if that’s just for a minute or two. 

It’s not always easy to find the time, especially not with work, families, friends, and everything else in the world getting in the way. Or if you’re not in the mental state to afford that. Although research into its effects is still on-going, making the time to get back in touch with who you are has both physical and psychological benefits. The time you spend on reflection today can add years back to your life.

Take a moment to close your eyes and imagine you’re in a completely white room that has absolutely nothing in it. You’re there on your own and you’re there to let your mind rest for a moment. The more you focus on the nothingness in the room, the more your brain will relax. You can also combine mediation with yoga and get the two for one benefit of physical exercise and mental relief at the same time.

5. Give yourself credit and … be kind to yourself

What we are living through today is not something that history has observed too often. No one knows what is going to happen next, and we’re all still in the learning process about how to react to different stressors and situations. So be kind to yourself. If you don’t listen to what your body and mind are telling you, who else will? If you need to take some time out from work, buy a bath bomb, read a book, or just need a reason to go for a slightly longer walk than usual, do it in the name of taking care of yourself.

Of course, there is a fine line between self-care and self-indulgence, but as long as you remain aware of that line, being kind to yourself (and those around you) is all right. We’re all living through a pretty harsh chapter of the world’s history book, and need to come out of this well enough to see the next one. 

Need To Talk?

If you’re going through a personal crisis that has been intensified due to the Covid-19 pandemic, please consider talking to professionals.

TELL Japan provides professional and licensed teletherapy for couples. E-mail [email protected] or call 03-4550-1146 for assistance.