With the identification that mental health is as important as physical health, LWM has been working over the past few years to increase the size and scope of our mental health curriculum. A specific focus on incorporating stress management has allowed us to encourage students to identify and manage the stress that patients and responders may face both during and after a rescue. Yet understanding stress and how to manage it are not unique to wilderness rescue; the current COVID-19 outbreak and the resulting uncertainty that each of us may face poses many of the same risks as any other stress injury. Any action we can take to limit the stress response in our body will improve our overall health during challenging times.
The body has two response systems that are utilized based on our interpretation of the world around us, the sympathetic and parasympathetic. Sympathetic responses are the reaction to stress, often termed fight or flight. Parasympathetic responses are the opposite and can be thought of as rest and digest. When the body interprets a stimulus as stressful, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) becomes active, resulting in an increase in the heart and respiratory rates, sweating, and a potential of increased acuity of senses (e.g., vision and hearing). The SNS also decreases the activity of the digestive system. Initially, this response is caused by the release of the chemical epinephrine. Long term, in addition to the epinephrine, cortisol is released.
In the short term, stress is helpful - it allows for quick decision making and focus on completing tasks. In the long term, stress poses serious health risks as the body becomes fatigued, experiences poor sleep, and the immune system becomes dysfunctional, resulting in an increased risk of illness. The structure of the heart, vessels, and organs also can become damaged from the prolonged exposure to cortisol. The brain also changes and may result in emotional and cognitive effects such as development of negative thoughts and decreased focus, making day to day tasks more difficult.
Stress is managed through coping, ideally in a manner supports health in both the short and long term. Healthy coping leads to a reduction of the sympathetic response, allowing our body to engage the parasympathetic system. In times of significant stress, we can work to manage stress with a few concrete actions.
Meet Basic Needs
Identify the basic needs and separate those from the non essentials. Adding stress to your life by worrying about toilet paper is probably not the best use of your time. Meet the needs of food, water, and shelter first. If these needs are not met, seek services that can help you meet the needs. When the basic needs are met, occasionally remind yourself that those needs are covered and that you are safe, and then begin working to find solutions for the non-essentials.
Focus on the Things You Can Control
Focusing on the items that you have no control over will not help your brain slow down. Instead, work to identify the components of your current circumstance that you do have control over and work to address them.
If your current actions are causing stress, change your behavior. Turn off the constant stream of news updates. Set ground rules that meet the needs of all people in the house during the time of social distancing. Find ways to create routine in days that may lack structure.
If you are currently under order to stay at home, find ways that you can meet your needs within that space. Create a space in your home where you can be active and research an online resource that can provide direction in movement. Use available time to plan an adventure when it is safe to be outside again. Use online virtual tours to take in the sights of a national park or a webcam to watch wildlife movement. Move a chair to the window to allow more connection to the outside, and, if weather allows, open the window to allow fresh air into your space.
Find ways to build social support into your day. It is going to look different when socially distancing, but it is still possible. Increase the number of calls you make to loved ones. Schedule a virtual happy hour with friends. Make sure that you and your social network are actually communicating and not just scrolling through the photos people are posting. Last night my wife and I shared our dinner photos with friends and in return saw their dinner. It almost felt like we had a kitchen full of friends.
The uncertainty of the current health crisis creates the potential for significant stress in our lives. Take time over the next days and weeks to change focus, prioritize needs, and make social connections. Using these simple steps can help each of us reduce the impacts of long term stress and face the current challenges to the best of our ability.