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(CNN) — Covid-19 is here to stay. To prove it, the virus is surging in many places around the world — just as immunity from vaccinations is waning and most people have gotten used to life without masks and social distancing.
While we know it’s the smart thing to do, the idea of returning to safety protocols required during the pandemic has many of us repeating a line often heard from our children: “I don’t wanna!”
“I don’t wanna either,” said stress management expert Dr. Cynthia Ackrill, a fellow at the American Institute of Stress. “One of the responses to stress is to freeze — to stop living in your tracks. And when it comes to accepting Covid as a reality that requires a set of behaviors to stay safe, some people have just stuck their heads in the sand and decided ‘I’m going to act like there’s nothing there.’“
Others might choose the other two classic stress responses of “fight or flight.” Those might emerge as anger or denial over the growing threat of the virus, Ackrill said.
“It’s like we’re putting all our weight into pushing against this wall, thinking we’re going to change or move that wall, and we’re not,” she said. “It’s really a false sense of control. By putting less of your energy into resisting, you’ll actually have more energy for enjoying life.”
For people who lost a loved one or their own health to the virus, or helped others as a healthcare worker, concern over the Covid surge could trigger a re-awakening of actual trauma, much like post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, Ackrill said.
“I think there is also a societal PTSD connected to Covid — we were not designed to watch humans suffer,” she said. “If you suffer from it, recognize that it’s a wiring issue — PTSD literally rewires our brains and our bodies. If you feel triggered and talking your way out isn’t working, it’s time to check in with a therapist. There is no shame in getting help.”
How to fight your Covid apathy
Stuck in idle? That’s because you feel as if you have lost control, Ackrill said. Now’s the time to think back to challenges you’ve faced and conquered and rely on lessons learned.
“What was it that gave you the ability to finally realize that a new reality has benefits too?” she asked. “Perhaps it was a relationship or job choice that didn’t work out — what helped you finally put it into perspective and realize you can find joy in life?”
Stress can actually be good for us – if we see it as a normal, acceptable and even positive part of life. When stress is viewed through more rose-colored glasses, the brain reacts differently, changing the ratio of stress hormones the brain releases – and that, experts say, can make all the difference in whether stress turns toxic.
With that positive view comes resilience. “Good” stress can give you an edge in fighting or fleeing an attacker, but it can also help when playing a competitive sport, speaking in public, interviewing for a job or even adapting to a pandemic.
There are also tools you can use to stop stress in its tracks. One of the best is exercise — it can create an anti-inflammatory response, improves mood, cognition and your physical health. Mindfulness and meditation are other ways to ease tension, along with calming physical activities such as Tai Chi, yoga and gentle stretching.
Those methods often teach deep breathing, another key to reducing tension that can be used in the moment. To do it properly, breathe through your nose, hold it and then exhale very slowly out through your mouth like you’re breathing through a straw.
“And when you breathe slowly out, you improve your whole picture of life and you reduce your nervousness,” said trauma counselor Jane Webber, a professor of counselor education at Kean University in New Jersey, in a prior CNN interview.
Webber also recommends cracking a smile. Watch funny movies, listen to comedy routines, ask everyone you talk to on the phone to tell you a joke.
“Remember, you can’t be anxious and smile at the same time. That’s a physiological thing,” Webber said.
The point of all these exercises is to use your senses to bring you into the present moment, Ackrill said, which will help stop fretting about the past or worrying about the future.
“You want to be present. By using your senses you reconnect your mind and body because that’s what’s going to let the blood flow go back to your frontal lobe so you can think much more rationally about whatever it is that triggered you,” she said.
How to best protect yourself
Ready to take on Covid again? One of the best actions to take is to get the new Covid-19 booster vaccination when it is available later in September, said Dr. William Schaffner.
“The booster has been updated to provide immunity to many of the newer Covid strains that are circulating,” he said. “I say we try to make it the social norm: We’re all going to do this. We’re all in this together. We’re all helping each other while we help ourselves.”
Mask or not to mask? That too, requires giving others grace, Schaffner said.
“The first thing we need to do is ease people’s fears that there will be mandates. Let’s stay away from compulsion and requirements and speak more about individual decisions. If you are at high risk of getting serious disease — you are over 65, you are immunocompromised, have a chronic medical condition or you are pregnant — be prudent. Be a little careful rather than careless.”
Everyone should support people who choose to wear a mask, even if they look young and healthy, Schaffner added.
“Perhaps that person had someone at home who is receiving cancer chemotherapy, or they are personally immune compromised. There’s no reason for the rest of us to get agitated about that,” he said. “It’s only a mask.”
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