Coronavirus has forced us to not only worry about getting sick, paying bills, and having enough toilet paper… it’s also making us grapple with our changing routines, roles, and even identities. Therefore, it’s no surprise that many of us, myself included, are overwhelmed with stress. 

As a society, we’re often taught to think about stress in terms of “too much.” We’re told that stress comes when you’re too busy, have too many commitments, or can’t keep up with life’s responsibilities. But that’s only half the story. In times like now, when many of us have been socially distanced for weeks or months, life can feel like a big gaping hole of emptiness. But a lack of activity and responsibility can be stressful, too. If you’re also feeling that low lying buzz of stress during isolation, you’re not alone.

We’re told that stress comes when you’re too busy, have too many commitments, or can’t keep up with life’s responsibilities. But that’s only half the story.

Personally, a few weeks ago I caught myself feeling guilty about my stress levels – that stone in my stomach, the urge to snap at people, my tight muscles, and constant distraction were all hallmarks of stress. But why should I be stressed, when I’ve suddenly got all this free time? After taking into account the huge factor of, you know, a global pandemic, I realized that it was actually this “free time” that was triggering my stress.

As an occupational therapist, I have spent years studying how our daily meaningful activities are intrinsically tied to our health and wellbeing. Yet, faced with my own occupational imbalance, it took me a while to recognize what was happening, and how I could help reduce my stress

Occupational imbalance and stress relief

First of all, what is an occupation? Hint: It’s not just “a job.” Occupational therapists, like myself, define occupation in many ways. The World Federation of Occupational Therapists uses a commonly recognized definition of “occupation” is meaningful activity that brings purpose to life: “Occupations include things people need to do, want to do, and are expected to do”. Furthermore, engagement in occupation leads to health and wellbeing. When those occupations are taken away… well, you can guess what happens.

When a global pandemic hits and forces us all into our homes for months at a time, it is natural that we experience occupational imbalance. This occurs when there is an unequal balance between various kinds of occupations, including leisure, productivity, self-care, caring for others, spirituality, and more. 

This imbalance is stressful and leads to negative physical and mental health consequences. There is perhaps no better example of occupational imbalance than a pandemic that has forced both under-employment and over-employment (depending on your job), as well as taken away many typical leisure and social activities at the same time. 

Taking back control with active stress relief

Yeah, we’re all stressed and imbalanced, and that’s probably not news to you. But we can use that knowledge to lead an effective response to stress.

Because stress is typically framed as a side effect of over-activity, we’re usually told to respond through passive means like reducing our activity or taking on less responsibilities. But faced with a global pandemic, we now know that the absence of these meaningful activities can negatively affect wellbeing and cause stress. So logically, active forms of stress relief could actually be much more helpful, in response to the stress we are facing from occupational imbalance.

Repeat it with me: your productivity is not equal to your self-worth.

Active stress relief does not mean overloading yourself with various meaningless tasks. Repeat it with me: your productivity is not equal to your self-worth. Instead, active stress relief refers to mindfully and carefully choosing and designing your occupations around those that serve your wellbeing. With so many of our routines and roles taken away due to isolation, it is very important to replace those empty spaces with stress-relieving actions. Taking action will inspire a more internal locus of control, which can especially help those who are in recovery or living with mental health issues.

5 Active forms of stress relief you can do right now

Develop a schedule of balanced occupations 

One simple way to return some balance is to plan out your occupations. You honestly may not even be aware of how imbalanced things are until you plan it out. The simplest categorization of occupations is self-care (toileting, bathing, feeding yourself, etc.), productivity (typically employment), and leisure (hobbies, socializing, etc.). However, everyone is unique. You might want to choose different categories that reflect your own idea of balance, perhaps by including caring for others, spiritual activities, restoration, or cultural activities.

Next, write out 5-10 occupations in each category that you want to work on that week. Personally, I found that I had way too many productivity occupations which completely imbalanced both my self-care and leisure. You may be similar! Think of this list as less as an ultimatum for yourself, and more as a tool to draw attention to what areas of your life may need more or less attention.

Dedicate time for exercise each day

The research is undeniable that exercise can promote stress relief. The results are both physical and mental in that movement and sweat can produce endorphins and improve your mood.

The trick is to make exercise a part of your routine that you look forward to. Try not to frame exercise as a punishment, or a duty that you must meet due to your new sedentary social distancing lifestyle. Instead, think of it as a rewarding leisure occupation. Know that by doing 30 minutes of YouTube yoga, stretching on your bed, or just running around a few blocks, you are taking control of your stress and doing what you can to reduce it. If you choose to focus on the stress relief you feel from exercise, this will actually reinforce exercise as a positive activity.

Go to bed at the same time each night 

Yes, sleep can be an active form of stress relief! Occupational therapists view sleep as a restorative occupation – after all you probably spend more time sleeping than doing any other one thing.  And developing a healthy sleep routine is one of the most important things you can do to relieve stress. Sleep will rebalance your nervous system, help you regulate stress hormones, improve circulation and digestion, and more. 

One simple, active commitment you can make to reduce stress is to go to bed at the same time every night. Developing this routine will help you build toward better sleep habits and less stress.

Try out journaling

It can be difficult to consciously single out your stressful thought patterns because so often, our stress feels like a constant state of being. Another active way to reduce stress is journaling. Writing down your thoughts can be really useful as it will help draw attention to your underlying thought patterns. Once you’re aware of your patterns, you can make the necessary behavior changes. Just putting your stress into words can be the first step toward regaining that internal locus of control and reducing stress. 

There are many types of journaling that can relieve stress. You may try stream-of-consciousness, gratitude journaling, or setting intentions. 

Make a hierarchical to do list

Simply making a to-do list can significantly reduce your stress levels. The process of crossing off an item is so satisfying that for many people, it will release endorphins. On the other hand, an overflowing to-do list can also be extremely stressful as you confront all the incomplete tasks.

To avoid the anxiety of to-do lists, make a hierarchical one. Write down 1-3 tasks that are the most important. Then write another 1-3 of secondary importance. And finally, write 3-5 tasks that you don’t necessarily need to get to. Tackle your list from the top down. Dividing your to-do list in this manner lowers the stakes, and keeps the focus on what’s most important. Additionally, keeping with the first point in this list, make sure you assign value to leisure and self-care activities, not just productivity. 

We’ve all been given the burden of a global pandemic. This can certainly get overwhelming as so much of our current circumstances are out of our control. If you are feeling the weight of this burden, know that this is completely normal, and allow yourself grace. You can’t change everything, but through simple, balanced, and mindful daily tasks, you will find that your stress is reduced bit by bit.