Remember how exciting the holidays were when you were a kid? They were pretty freaking exciting. It’s not quite the same for many of us as we get older, especially in 2020. Not being able to see close friends over this holiday season is going to be tough. The holidays are already a bit stressy for some people, and with COVID around, this season might feel more anxiety-inducing than usual.

Men under stress

Men don’t always deal with stress in a healthy way. We often find it easier to deny our stress rather than find a good – and healthy – way to relieve anxiety. I see men brag about how busy we are and wear it like a badge of honour. If we have a thousand things to do and our lives are busy, busy, busy, we must be important, right?

Many men just bury their heads or power through using alcohol, Netflix, porn, or prescription drugs to numb or distract away from their emotions. Sure, all of those things feel great in the moment. I mean, who doesn’t love a good ol’ Netflix binge to forget about the stresses of life sometimes? It becomes a problem when you use these things to numb out and avoid dealing with your stress or anxiety ALL of the time.

So, what can you do? You can take small steps to take care of yourself. Learning how to recognize and manage stress and anxiety can help you feel better and more in control.

Here are three easy ways to help manage stress and anxiety this holiday season.

1. You first need to admit that you’re feeling stressed out

You can’t get stress relief or anxiety relief if you don’t know yourself. What is stressing you out? For myself, I tend to be tenacious, driving myself hard until I complete an article or YouTube video. I’ll stay up late, ransack the fridge like a frantic dumpster raccoon, and skip the gym to meet a deadline.

When I’m pushing myself, I call that part of me “Relentless Rusty.” This helps me laugh at myself and bring awareness that RR is only a part of me that drives me a little too hard sometimes. Acknowledging my stressful side in a fun way helps me see it and separate from it a little, so I can give myself a choice to be RR or not.

2. Talk about your stress

Be honest with how your version of “Relentless Rusty” sucks the life out of your life. If you can, share it with your partner or trusted friend. If that sounds like something you would never do, at the very least, admit to yourself that you’re feeling stressed the eff out. Sometimes, I’ll even have a fun conversation within myself, saying things to RR like, “hey Rust, do we really have to live like this?” Being able to laugh at yourself will add humour to the situation and can actually help relieve stress.

3. Take a deep breath in, and hold it

When we push ourselves too hard, our fight or flight nervous system engages, and we breathe like we’re being stalked by a cougar, and not in a good way. Short, rapid, shallow breathing tells your brain you are in threat, and as long as your brain perceives a threat, you will continue “threat breathing.” This breathing pattern affects the mind and makes you perceive the world as more stressful than it really is.

Here’s how to relieve anxiety when you notice you’re starting to freak out a bit. First, exhale all the air out of your lungs. Then, inhale deeply, fill up your upper chest with air and hold your breath for 5-10 seconds. Holding your breath in like this sends a signal to your body that YOU have taken control of your breath. The anxiety is not breathing for you anymore. Another cool thing that happens when you do this is that when your upper chest is filled with air, it sends a signal of safety to your brain, the opposite of the tight feeling we have in our chest when we’re stressed out or being cornered by a cougar.

Stress and COVID

For the most part, we humans have our daily routines such as grocery shopping and the feeling of certainty in our lives. But with all of us now facing a global pandemic, growing political and economic instability looming in the world at large, our sense of stability and certainty is declining rapidly.

Do you know who cares less about your stress management than you do? Everybody. Managing your stress and anxiety is your responsibility, especially since increasing stress is not likely to ease anytime soon.

We men take pride in kicking butt when our backs are to the wall. But the body and mind have limits and we have never lived in a time with so much change. We need our turbo button and the adrenaline it secretes, but if we rely on it too much we’ll start to pay the price.

This increasing uncertainty creates a physical and mental state in our bodies and brains. In response to uncertainty and unpredictability, we release the chemicals of stress into our body: Adrenaline and cortisol. They give us a turbo boost when we need it, but if we keep hitting the turbo button, you can crash and burn in a much shorter time than you think. Slam the turbo button too many times (Think Top Gun quote “son your ego is writing cheques your body can’t cash”), and you’ll become irritable, stop looking after yourself, and generally become less productive over time. Your stress will worsen, and your relationships will suffer, too.

“Son, your ego is writing cheques your body can’t cash!”

Stress and men

We men take pride in kicking butt when our backs are to the wall. But the body and mind have limits, and we have never lived in a time with so much change. We need our turbo button and the adrenaline it pumps into our body from time-to-time, but if we rely on it too much, we’ll start to pay the price.

Adrenaline also helps mobilize our mind and muscles, like when we intercept a pass and have a breakaway to our opponent’s net. But you can only press the turbo button so many times before the body and mind start to fail.

So acknowledge your pusher/driver side and develop a relationship with it. Make it your friend, not your dictator. And take control of your breathing. Your body and mind will thank you for it. When my patients ask me how to reduce stress, I always give them the above tips to start.

So, start.

As a doctor who focuses his work on anxiety and stress, I can tell you there’s no time to waste as the price of stress relief goes up every year. The trouble with ignoring your stress and anxiety is that although your mind may trick you into thinking you’re winning, your body keeps the score. And you can easily fall behind a touchdown or two before you know it. The sooner you SEE your stress and do something about it, the less your body has to BE your stress and wear itself out.

Right Now, Doctor’s Orders

Breathe out fully and breathe in, expanding your chest fully, and hold for 5 seconds. Exhale, do it again (if you have the time, haha).

You’ve just taken the first Don’t Change Much step to real stress management. From a recovered stress case myself, I can tell you that you can choose to manage your stress, or your stress will manage you. If you practice these easy stress and anxiety tips now, you won’t have to see me in my office later.

How do you keep your stress and anxiety at bay during the COVID-19 pandemic? Share your experience in the comments below.

This article was originally published on October 15, 2019. 

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