Q: The coronavirus outbreak has raised my stress level. I am worried that it is making me more susceptible to infection. What can I do now to feel calmer?
A: The stress response is also known as "the fight or flight" reaction. It's what the body does as it prepares to confront or avoid danger. When appropriately invoked, the stress response helps us rise to many challenges, such as fighting infections. But trouble starts when this response is constantly provoked by events and circumstances, such as dealing with the rapid changes in our lives due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Not only does persistent stress increase the risk of hypertension and heart disease, it also is associated with an altered immune response to infections. Stress does not make you more likely to get infected with coronavirus or other germs. But stress could mean a greater chance of developing more symptoms.
We can't avoid all sources of stress in our lives, nor would we want to. But we can develop healthier ways of responding to them. One way is to invoke the relaxation response. The relaxation response is a state of profound rest that can be elicited in many ways, including meditation, yoga, and progressive muscle relaxation.
Breath focus is a common feature of several techniques that evoke the relaxation response. The first step is learning to breathe deeply. When you breathe deeply, the air coming in through your nose fully fills your lungs, and the lower belly rises.
Breath focus helps you concentrate on slow, deep breathing and aids you in disengaging from distracting thoughts and sensations. It's especially helpful if you tend to hold in your stomach.
First, find a quiet, comfortable place to sit or lie down. First, take a normal breath. Then try a deep breath: Breathe in slowly through your nose, allowing your chest and lower belly to rise as you fill your lungs. Let your abdomen expand fully. Now breathe out slowly through your mouth (or your nose, if that feels more natural).
Once you've taken the steps above, you can move on to regular practice of controlled breathing. As you sit comfortably with your eyes closed, blend deep breathing with helpful imagery and perhaps a focus word or phrase that helps you relax.
It's important not to try too hard. That may just cause you to tense up. But you also need to be mindful about your breathing. The key to eliciting the relaxation response lies in shifting your focus from stressors to deeper, calmer rhythms.
(Howard LeWine, M.D., is an internist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. For additional consumer health information, please visit www.health.harvard.edu.)
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