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Q: The world is scarier and more divisive lately—the screen stimulation just never stops. What can I do to overcome stress and anxiety?
A: You identified an important stressor over which you definitely have control: information overload. The solution? Reduce screen time. Put yourself on a “screen diet,” especially at the end of the day. Just like you don’t want to eat past, say, 8 p.m. (unless you have a very atypical schedule), part of your bedtime routine should include unplugging from screens. If you have a TV in your bedroom, reconsider this strategy for your overall health. Move it somewhere else, if possible, so it’s less easy to binge-watch or zone out with a screen yakking at you.
Another way to ease stress and anxiety is to get outside and enjoy nature. We are creatures of the natural world, and a very unnatural world has built up around us. Try to find a place where beautiful trees are growing, and go there often. If possible, get barefoot during the day and connect with the magnificent harmonizing resonance of the earth’s energy. The soil of the earth, which nourishes plant life, is analogous to the soil of your microbiome, which very much influences your mood and ultimately, your well-being.
The NEURO Path to Mental Health
Get excited about taking care of yourself. It’s fun! Don’t take on other optional projects until you have a good self-care routine locked in—good Nutrition (make good food choices every day, whenever possible; this takes planning), regular Exercise, time to Unwind, commitment to Restorative sleep, and keeping your heart Open to optimizing connections with people and nature.
I first heard this mnemonic—NEURO—on a brain-health series organized by Dr. David Perlmutter, and it really does cover all the bases when it comes to mental health. Because what’s good for your whole-health is also good for your brain. Alzheimer’s disease cannot be cured. There is zero effective medical treatment. The only feasible strategy is prevention. And before we’re at risk for Alzheimer’s, we’re at risk for depression, anxiety, obsessive thinking or behaviors, blaming, shaming, and apathy.
Keeping your whole self nourished and rested is the best strategy for maintaining mental health and overcoming stress and anxiety, even though you might have to go outside your comfort zone at times. People who always do exactly as they please, or disregard others’ feelings, tend to be lonely. We are naturally social creatures, and we need to connect, authentically and kindly, with family, neighbors, co-workers, and even strangers.
Countdown to Calm
Meanwhile, here is a popular and simple technique to try when you feel your stress and anxiety levels rising and the world seems unbearably dark. It’s a way to stay grounded, stay present, de-escalate, and find that precious inner peace. As you can imagine, it starts with taking a nice deep breath. Even when you’re in an aggravating situation, or in the presence of an irritating person, you can usually pause for a deep breath. So start there.
Next, tune into your sensory faculties. This technique is called 5-4-3-2-1, which may help you remember it more easily. The more you use this technique, the more success you will have. To begin, simply take a deep belly breath, and then:
5. Look—Look around for five things that you can see, and say them out loud if that feels comfortable. For example, you could say, “I see the computer, I see the cup, I see the picture frame.” You can also just focus on five objects you see around you, one at a time, as a way to be connected to the here and now.
4. Feel—Pay attention to your body, think of four things that you can feel, and say them out loud (or just think about them). For example, you could say, “I feel my feet warm in my socks, I feel the hair on the back of my neck, I feel the chair I am sitting on.”
3. Listen—Listen for three sounds. It could be the sound of traffic outside, the sound of your fingers typing on the keyboard, or the sound of your tummy rumbling. Say the three things out loud, or just quietly pay attention to them. Try to focus all your attention on the sensory input during these anti-anxiety exercises.
2. Smell—Say or think about two things you can smell. If possible, you could move closer to a rosebush or open a jar of cinnamon. If you can’t smell anything at the moment, or you can’t move around, then just think about your two favorite smells, one at a time.
1. Taste—Say or imagine one thing you can taste. It may be the toothpaste from brushing your teeth, or a mint from after lunch. If you can’t taste anything, then say or think about your favorite thing to taste.
Then take another deep belly breath to end. You’ll feel calmer and more relaxed, and ready to take on whatever challenges need facing.
Find a licensed naturopathic doctor for a virtual (telemedicine) or in-person consultation at naturemed.org/find-an-nd.