“How can I cope RIGHT NOW?” These self-care strategies might help you feel better.

by Fitcoachion | Last Updated: April 3, 2020

Every single one of us has gone through difficult times in our lives.

But sometimes, something comes along that shatters everything.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re collectively facing something we’ve never experienced before.

For many of us, nothing feels safe or stable any more—simple activities, human interaction, our daily routines, even the air we breathe.

People are getting very sick and dying.

People are losing their jobs, businesses, and livelihoods.

We all want to stay safe and healthy, and help others do the same.

Yet right now, we may not be able to do everything we want for our bodies.

Indeed, it might feel trivial to think about staying in shape or eating healthy. Or it may feel crucial. Or overwhelming. Or simply… impossible, if you can’t even find or buy food at stores with empty shelves.

Each of us will have a different relationship with our physical health. Some of us will be lucky enough to enjoy and preserve it. Others won’t. We can’t control everything that happens to our bodies.

We at Precision Nutrition can’t fix things. 

We can’t take away the uncertainty or the pain.

But after coaching over 100,000 clients (who are often going through periods of great difficulty), there is some stuff we do know.

We’ve learned a lot from the people we’ve coached.

As humans, we tend not to consider change until not changing feels too painful to endure. Coaching by definition often involves walking the path with our clients during times of crisis, transition, and loss.

Many of us are familiar with post-traumatic stress. Fewer of us know about post-traumatic growth—discovering and cultivating our strengths during and after difficult times.

The reality we’ve seen in coaching over 100,000 clients is:

So, we can’t tell you how to fix things. (Again, sorry.) But we can…

That’s why we wrote this article.

To be clear: This isn’t a list of things you have to do.

We don’t want to give you more well-meaning “advice,” chores, or obligations. We don’t want to add more “stuff” to your already-full plate.

But tiny steps forward—even the teeniest and tiniest of efforts—can make things a little more manageable and help you keep going in times of great uncertainty and hardship.

So please, think of these as ideas. Possibilities. Stuff to mess around with—kind of like that at-home science experiment you did with the kids that exploded over the kitchen counter this morning.

As much as possible, go easy on yourself. Try to embrace a “progress not perfection” motto.

We promise: The small things really do add up.

1. Focus on what you CAN control.

There is so much we can’t control.

This feels really scary sometimes. We desperately want to know what’s going to happen in the future. (Preferably, that everything will be okay.)

It can be really easy to spiral into a frenzy of uncertainty, panic, and/or frustration over stuff we have zero control over. Or double-down on our attempts to control harder.

Yet you probably have more control than you realize.

There are factors and elements that you CAN control in healthy and productive ways. You can show up for those things, own them, and take an active part in shaping them.

Focusing on those things that you can control can help you feel calmer and more capable of carrying on.

Illustration of the spheres of control. The most inner sphere is labelled "total control" includes my actions, my mindset, and my effort. The middle sphere is labelled "some control" includes my schedule, anticipating daily challenges, and my home and work environment. The outside sphere labelled "No Control" includes weather, shoe size, and body size.

Here’s what this can look like.

Jennifer Broxterman, MS, RD, a registered dietitian, PN Level 1 Coach, and CEO of NutritionRx, puts it this way:

“We have no control over the virus itself. And we can’t control what our governments or politicians are saying or what laws they’re mandating.

We might have some control over influencing others around us to practice proper hand washing or keeping a proper physical distance.

What do we have total control over?

Things like:

It’s important to bring our focus, mindset, and actions within the sphere of total control, because this is where you’re going to be most impactful.”

So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed:

2. Have a “clean slate policy.”

Let’s be honest: When the stuff hits the fan, so can a lot of our habits.

Maybe the ice cream and beer is disappearing from the freezer and fridge a little faster. Or maybe you’re in the throes of a full-on, multi-day binge.

Guess what?

It’s okay.

Seriously. We still like you. We understand you more than you might realize.  (Uhhhh… don’t look in our recycling bins.)

You’ve still got this.

You’re not screwed up or broken. In fact, you’re working beautifully.

Coping mechanisms—overeating, bingeing, drinking, smoking, staying up all night playing video games, huddling in bed under a blanket—have a purpose. They offer comfort, solace, distraction, and emotional anesthesia.

Think about this:

Even if you’re not coping well, you are coping. Or at least trying to. That’s kind of awesome.

Whatever you’re doing, as silly, crazy, or dysfunctional as it might seem, is a sign that your body and brain are trying to help you feel better.

You’re trying to alleviate your own suffering.

Pause and reflect on what a lovely thing that is, and what elegant mechanisms our brains have to help us relieve pain.

It might not be the ideal way to cope, especially long-term, but it’s important to acknowledge that this is an attempt at self-compassion and self-soothing.

Do not do further harm to yourself by beating yourself up afterwards.

You’ll only cause yourself more pain and stress, which causes you to cope harder… and so on. Self-criticism just amplifies the stress-coping loop.

Instead, try this: 

Clean the slate.

At every moment, you can wipe the board clean and start fresh. In life you get infinite erasers.

Each moment is fresh. Whatever happened yesterday—or one hour ago—is irrelevant to your NOW.

Right now, only THIS moment matters. Every single day, every hour, even every minute, you can wipe the slate clean and move forward.

The Clean Slate Policy means that you don’t beat yourself up over your mistakes. You don’t wallow. You don’t call yourself names. And you don’t say “F-it, I’m screwed forever” and give up.

Instead, you put the past in the past, and move forward. And, ideally, be kind to yourself as you do it.

How do you move forward? May we suggest: Take a 5-minute action.

3. Take a 5-minute action.

One of the most fundamental practices in our coaching programs is the 5-minute action.

There’s nothing special about 5 minutes. It could be 10 seconds, or 1 minute, or 10 minutes.

The point is:

In his book Tiny Habits, behavior change expert and Stanford University researcher BJ Fogg, PhD suggests a simple ABC formula for building and reinforcing a small action:

For example:

As Dr. Fogg’s adjective “tiny” implies, these 5-minute actions should be very simple, small, and doable. Like:

And so on.

If it seems too simple, we assure you, it’s not. Small actions over time add up. Do what you can, when you can. We promise you it’s enough.

(To hear more from Dr. Fogg and Jennifer Broxterman, check out our conversation with them here.)

How can I maintain my health and fitness at a time like this?

Maybe you were just starting to improve your exercise and nutrition, or perhaps you had your healthy habits down to a fine art.

And then, KAPOW. Life was totally disrupted.

What now?

Your gym routine? Forget it. Perfectly planned meals? Nope. A good night’s rest? Ha!

At a time like this, it can be really easy to just press pause—to say, “I’ll come back to this later when things are less of a sh*t show.”

But now more than ever, it’s important to stay in the game. 

Even if that just means showing up and taking a five minute action, as we described earlier.

You may be thinking that this “isn’t the time” to be working on your health and fitness.

We’d argue it’s exactly the time to show up for YOU.

In fact, this is a perfect opportunity to take radical action on your own behalf. Even if radical action just means a few deep breaths when before you might have just freaked out.

So, how to keep going? Try the “dial method.” 

Think of your health and fitness habits as a dial.

When you’re completely on your game, you can dial things up. You can work out more, or pursue more challenging goals.

But during times when you’re already stressed and taxed, you can dial those same habits way down—by doing less, simplifying things, and/or doing a smaller/easier version of what you usually do.

The trick is to never turn them “off” completely.

Zach Pello, owner of Pello Fitness and a member of our Coalition of Health and Fitness Leaders, offers an example of how he uses this method for himself.

“I meditate pretty much every day. Well, right now, I still meditate—but I’m only doing five minutes a day. I keep doing it because I know that when I come out of this, I’ll be able to reinvest more time in that when the time is ready. So, try to shift your efforts, but don’t totally neglect them either.”

(For more on using the dial method and avoiding pressing pause on your health and fitness habits, check out: How to never press “pause” on your health and fitness again.)

4. Breathe. (Really.)

How are you breathing right now?

Short and fast, or long and slow?

Are you breathing from high up in your chest, or from deep in your belly?

When we get anxious and stressed, our breath tends to respond; your chest might feel constricted and your breathing might become short and fast.  You might even find yourself holding your breath, gasping for air, or even feeling like you’re on the verge of a panic attack.

The good news is that simply paying attention to your breath can be an amazing antidote to stress, sending the message to your body that you’re in a relaxed, safe state. In turn, your body and brain can start to calm down.

Michael Gervais, PhD, creator and host of the Finding Mastery podcast, mindset trainer for the Seattle Seahawks, and a member of the Coalition of Health and Fitness Leaders, recommends breathing exercises to anyone suffering from stress and anxiety.

“When you feel tight, when you feel your heart skip a bit, when you feel your breathing rate change, when you feel nervousness or that internal ‘scratchy feeling,’ breathing is a massively helpful skill,” he explains.

Why does it work so well? “A long exhale sends a signal to our ancient brain that we’re safe,” says Dr. Gervais. “It sends a signal to the brain that says, ‘Hey, there’s no saber tooth tiger right now. You’ve got the luxury of a nice, deep, relaxing breath. So chill out, dude.’”

Here’s a simple way to practice this:

For a slightly more advanced version, Dr. Gervais suggests something called box breathing. Here’s how that works:

You can then repeat this as many times as you like. Dr. Gervais suggests doing this for 12 breaths, though you can start with as little as one slow breath.

Want some help tuning into your breath? (Or just calming down?) Try a mind-body scan.

A mind-body scan is like a simplified meditation technique that helps you sense inwards and connect with your body. Want to give it a try? Check out this free  mind-body scan worksheet.

And if all else fails… 

Take a breath.

Then another.

Just keep breathing.

You’ve got this. 

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