Wholistic Approaches to Managing Stress & Anxiety During a Pandemic

Updated: Apr 20

If you are like many people these days, you are feeling heightened levels of stress and anxiety due to numerous factors that are out of your control, and scary situations happening all over the world. For people with gut health issues, this heightened stress may lead to more symptoms and pain. However, it doesn't have to be that way. There are strategies you can use to help you feel better!


My Top 7 Strategies to Manage Stress & Anxiety During COVID-19


1. Look for the Silver Lining

I have two little boys at home and this change in pace – not being able to go to preschool, activities, music class, the park or playdates, has actually brought on such a nice feeling of simplicity. For the last 15 months while I was on maternity leave, we usually had one (or more) activities per day. Simply getting out the door was an Olympic event (well put by my good friend, Kristen Hallet)! Now, with nowhere to go and nothing to do, we are focusing on the simplicity of life. I have never been able to be more present with my boys than during this pandemic because everything else has slowed down. (Which also reminds me of the benefits of the Vipassana 10 day silent retreat I did years ago... more on that later).


My daily practice: These days, I am practicing mindfulness and embracing my inner child as we race sticks down the streams of melting ice on the streets and play ‘rolly polly’ with my boys and wrestle on the couch… things we did before COVID-19 and social distancing, but it seems now there is more space and time to thoroughly enjoy this time together without thinking of my to-do list.


My weekly practice: My husband and I started making a nice meal together on the weekends. With two young children at home, dinners are usually pre-planned simple meals that a easy to throw together. With all of our extra 'time' at home now, we have been enjoying spending more time preparing a meal one weekend night, lighting candles, turning on nice music, lowering the lights and enjoying a special family meal together (side note - the candles can be a great way to help toddlers focus on meal time while it is lit). Check out the incredible paella we made a few weeks ago for part of my social isolation birthday celebration!



What silver lining have you noticed as a result of life slowing down?

2. Self-care: Fill up YOUR cup... (ideally) FIRST

If we want to be, do and give our best, first we need to fill up our cup. Being a working mom with two young kids, this has become clearer to me as absolutely essential for my well-being. We often feel guilty for this, but I know that when I haven’t filled my cup, I am not at my best – emotionally, mentally or physically. It is OK and necessary to fill up your cup!


Especially during these stressful times, I encourage you to a) think about what brings you JOY and b) create a plan to incorporate this joy and/or self-care strategies into your day on a regular basis. Is it simply getting up 15 minutes earlier to enjoy a HOT coffee by yourself, planning time for a bath or a meditation, going for a walk to enjoy the SUN, scheduling a Zoom/FaceTime/Skype/Gather etc. talk with a friend or family member? I encourage you to actually schedule it into your calendar (just like you would any other important event!), and even better, tell someone your plan so they can help you stay accountable.


My daily practice: To be completely honest, I am still working on filling my cup on a regular basis. Reminding myself to go back to the behaviour change basics, scheduling this time in to my week is an essential part of making my self-care practice actually happen. Writing this post motivated me to put things that bring me joy into my calendar so that I can fill up my cup and show up the best version of me for my family.


How can you incorporate self-care into your daily routine? What are small things that you can do to bring JOY into your life?


Such a beautiful, optimistic view on the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic. Wise words by Kitty O'Meara, retired teacher who wanted to share some words of hope with her friends. Thank you for this gift!

3. Practice Self-Compassion

Did you know that people who practice self-compassion are better able to manage celiac disease? My good friend and colleague, Dr. Mary Jung and I published a neat study a few years ago showing that self-compassion directly predicts better quality of life and adherence to gluten-free diet among adults with celiac disease. We know that the gut and brain are connected through the vagus nerve, and when we are struggling with stress and anxiety, one of the ways to calm the activation of this nerve (and reduce gut symptoms), is through self-compassion and mindfulness.


My daily practice: I’ve started a daily practice of meditating before I start working and then writing down at least three things for which I am grateful. This practice has been a great way for me to a) stay focused while I’m working (often with loud kiddos in the background!) and b) stay grounded and focus on the many positive things I have to be grateful for. Part of this practice (and in practicing self-compassion), is asking yourself what YOU need? Of course, the next step then is filling that need - is it some quiet time? Is it connecting with a loved one? Check out self-compassion.org for more information and meditations!


I have also found that my spiritual practice is very helpful during this time. While the details of this practice are the topic for a future blog post, if you are interested in starting spiritual work, I love this workbook + CDs for learning about Chakras and starting a regular practice. I also visually attend one of my favourite yoga teacher's (Amarin, Tuesday nights) weekly classes online (huge thank you to The Heart of Bragg Creek Yoga studio for ALL that you do! Please consider supporting them if you enjoy the classes.)


Check out my post on my Top 3 Tips to Cultivate Self-Compassion for Gut Health for information on how you can practice self-compassion.


4. Move Your Body

Regular movement (think walking, running, yoga, biking, body weight exercises) is an essential step in coping with stress and anxiety AND helping your gut feel good. We have a few studies now published/in press/under review for my MOVE-C study in which we found that a 12 week exercise program improved quality of life, gastrointestinal symptoms and led to (potentially) beneficial changes in the gut microbiome among inactive adults with celiac disease.


My daily practice: I aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-vigorous intensity movement a day. Sometimes this is a walk, run, online class, yoga, or workout in the basement with my husband. The key message here is get active – do what you love to do, what makes your body feel good, so that you regularly do it!


For free (often by donation), online classes during COVID-19 isolation check out:

- Orangetheory

- Yoga Within the Heart

- Yoga and Beyond


Looking for extra support with fitness?


Contact Kristina Kowalski at Unbounded U Fitness. Kristina is passionate about helping people live a fit life. She specializes in working with older adults and individuals with chronic disease, but is an incredible personal trainer for ANYONE who is keen to improve their fitness.


(Note. I do not receive any compensation from her, I just know how great it is working with her from experience!)


5. Nutrition

Nutrition is a key part of health and wellness at any time, and particularly during periods of high stress. However, I want to remind you here that now is the time to do what keeps stress low – if the grocery store is out of certain ingredients for meals, try to be as flexible as possible so that this isn’t a source of anxiety. You may not be able to find the fresh or specialty items (or TP!?) as usual. Do the best that you can to eat as many whole foods (i.e. minimally or not processed) as possible, while also being flexible knowing supplies are different these days and feeding yourself (and your family) may look different.


6. Create a Sleep Routine

Most people need about 8 hours of sleep at night to allow their bodies to rest and repair. I have always struggled with falling asleep – particularly when life feels full and stressful, but I have found (and research supports) that creating a sleep routine helps me fall asleep and stay asleep better.


What does that look like for me?


My daily practice:

  • Start to wind down 1-2 hours before I want to be asleep

  • Turn my phone onto airplane mode by 8:30pm and move it away from my bed (side note - I recently purchased a plug in alarm clock so I can leave my phone downstairs vs. beside my bed which REALLY helps with this routine too!)

  • Sometimes I find that watching ~10 minutes of my favourite TV show helps my brain relax and turn off (even though this isn’t recommended in sleep hygiene as the blue light can be activating, I actually find it helps in slowing my brain so I can fall asleep! Something to play with yourself and see if it helps or hinders your sleep).

  • Stretching/yoga for 5-20 minutes before bed

  • Mindfulness practice – I recently started journaling more and find this is a great way to let my body relax before bed, helps my brain process what is happening these days – letting go of expectations of ‘normal’, changes to life and plans because of COVID – to get started, just write! See what comes out. It can be really interesting! So often before bed I will journal and then do some type of meditation.


I encourage you to think about what time you need to go to bed to get 8 hours of sleep and create your own sleep hygiene routine.


7. Be Intentional about the Media You Read

It can be very easy to get sucked in to reading sensationalist news articles which (usually) leave you feeling more anxious and stressed about the pandemic. Although it is important to read the news to be on top of what is happening and how to keep you and your loved ones safe, focus on reading news that presents the facts versus being alarmist. The Centres for Disease Control is an example of where to read fact-based updates on the COVID-19 pandemic.


Instead - SHARE uplifting stories and examples of how you are staying calm, safe, healthy and helping others (from a distance).


Stay safe. Stay home! Practice frequent and proper hand washing. Support local businesses as much as you can!


Feel like you need more help with your gut health symptoms or managing stress and anxiety? I offer virtual, one-on-one Wholistic Health Coaching - see more info here and contact me to book your free 15 minute consult now!

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©2020 BY JUSTINE DOWD, PHD.