Stewardess Pamela Colmenares was feeling stressed in the early months of 2020 — like most people around the world. At the height of the COVID-19 lockdowns, Colmenares was quarantined on her vessel with the owners living aboard full time. The crew didn’t know how long they’d be together or where they would be, at the same time worrying about friends and family back home.
“I started to get anxious about my family,” she says. “I didn’t know if my sister was going to lose her job or what the situation would be.” Colmenares began soothing her unease with food. If someone took out chocolate or chips from the pantry, she would go on an eating binge, stuffing herself to the point she felt ill. With all the uncertainty of the time, the normally diet-conscious fitness enthusiast says, “I had to comfort myself with comfort food.”
From binge-eating and heavy drinking to depression and even increases in suicide, novel coronavirus-related stress has been wreaking havoc around the globe. And just as the virus itself can come with long-term side effects, so can the chronic stress and near-constant uncertainty that many individuals have been experiencing for the past year.
From binge-eating and heavy drinking to depression and even increases in suicide, novel coronavirus-related stress has been wreaking havoc around the globe.
In late summer, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a survey of more than 5,000 adults that found that 40.9 percent of respondents were experiencing at least one detrimental mental or behavioral health problem related to the pandemic. Symptoms of anxiety and depression were way up, as were trauma- and stressor-related disorders. About 13 percent of those respondents reported an increase of substance abuse and 11 percent claimed they had seriously considered suicide.
The yachting industry already had its own unique stressors prior to COVID-19. Many crewmembers had already been suffering from loneliness, depression, and the effects of burnout before they were forced to quarantine aboard with fewer trips home to visit friends and family.
“Owners are using the vessels more frequently or staying for longer periods of time,” says The Crew Coach Karine Rayson. “The crew are experiencing anxiety because they can’t make future plans. It is so important for us to have something to look forward to, [which] normally involves travel and holiday. Not knowing when we can resume back-to-normal life elicits feelings of hopelessness.”
Studies have shown that even short-term stress can have immediate effects on the body, thoughts, and behavior. Headache, stomach upset, muscle tension, and change in sex drive are common physical symptoms.
Researchers at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center New Orleans found that a single exposure to acute stress, like watching an accident or worrying about a loved one’s immediate health, affects information processing in the part of the brain that handles motor control and movement coordination, as well as learning and memory formation. Like that classic movie scenario where a crime victim runs away fast as lightning, then fumbles attempting to get a set of keys into a lock, these sorts of changes in the brain led to a decrease in motor performance — which can be particularly dangerous while operating a giant vessel.
Quick Calm Breathing Exercise
Step 1: Close your eyes.
Step 2: Take a deep breath.
Step 3: Hold breath for 4 or 5 seconds while thinking something peaceful (e.g. “I am at peace”).
Step 4: Exhale and think “I am calm.”
But, as nearly everyone has seen or experienced, stress also affects the ways people feel and react to those around them and the world. Common mood changes can include sadness, lack of focus or motivation, irritability, and a general sense of feeling overwhelmed. These feelings often cause those experiencing them to act out with over- or undereating, substance misuse, social withdrawal, or angry outbursts.
Everyone responds to stress differently. For some, the result of stressful life events, like a layoff or global pandemic, does not always show up immediately, especially in folks with panic disorder. For many, the symptoms of stress gradually increase for weeks, even months after said event, according to research by Brown University.
Whether acute stress (also known as short-term stress) slowly gets worse over time or if the stress is coming from a daily onslaught of factors, such as a toxic working environment or an entire year of physical distancing, chronic stress (long-term stress) has been proven to impact health in very bad ways. People who experience chronic stress are more likely to age faster, experience depression, and often die earlier than those who don’t.
“Ongoing stress can have severe health problems and the worst-case scenario causes death,” says Rayson. “Hence, I think it is vital that crew receive the correct physical and psychological care so that we can maintain wellbeing at sea. The ‘suck it up, buttercup,’ or ‘soldier on’ [mentality] is simply not sustainable. The cracks will be shown in a matter of time and you could be faced with very serious implications.”
Friedman, founder and president of The Stress Coach, has been studying stress management since he was in college. As a new young professional and student visited, he started to experience strange physical symptoms: weird digestive problems, headache, and fatigue. While a visit to his doctor got Friedman a prescription to alleviate those physical pains, the medical professional also told Friedman that those physical symptoms and mental fatigue were most likely a result of stress.
He recommended Friedman sign up for a stress management class. “It changed my life,” says Friedman. “It made me realize that stress doesn’t have to be a nonstop way of life, which is essentially what I had been living, and there were pretty simple fast things you could do to help reduce stress.”
While breathing deeply isn’t going to end the pandemic, help you find a better job, or fix a troubled relationship, it does create a physiological response that slows the nervous system.
More than a quarter century later, Friedman still teaches his students some of the techniques he learned in that first session. One of the fastest and most effective methods is called quick calm. It’s a 60 to 90 second breathing exercise that builds on the age-old advice to take a deep breath. It includes four steps. One, close your eyes to filter out stimuli. Then take a deep breath in. Hold that breath for four to five seconds while thinking something peaceful like, “I am warm,” “I am chill,” or “I am at peace.” Step four is to exhale and think “I am calm.”
While breathing deeply isn’t going to end the pandemic, help you find a better job, or fix a troubled relationship, it does create a physiological response that slows the nervous system. Deep breaths cause the diaphragm, the dome-shaped muscle that separates the base of the chest from the abdomen, to move up and down along the vagus nerve that runs from the brainstem through the neck and down to the stomach. When stimulated, the nerve — the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system — sprays out a hormone that tells the heart to slow down. In doing so, one’s breathing rate decreases, muscle tension decreases, and ability to focus increases. “Quick calm is like texting your heart to slow down and texting your stress response to chill,” says Friedman. “The reverse of stress response is relaxation response.”
Friedman offers guided quick calm techniques and other stress-reduction exercises on his Calmcast app as well as through Zoom workshops.
Hobbies for Calm
Engaging in hobbies that can remove you from stress, spending time in nature, and doing other stress-reducing activities like yoga, muscle relaxation, and exercise are all helpful in mitigating stress, too. However, in yachting specifically, Friedman says, even just looking out of the portholes could help reduce anxiety. “That beautiful emerald green of Biscayne Bay or the Caribbean is the color of calm,” he says.
For years, researchers have known that just looking at a picture of nature can help people feel less anxious. In fact, studies have found that when a painting of a natural scene is on the wall in a room of a hospital or healthcare facility, those patients have faster healing rates than patients who don’t have outdoors images in their rooms, Friedman adds, “Yachting can be really stressful, but at least you have the environment where you can enjoy some of those incredible sources of peace that come from nature that many people will never get to enjoy.”
Even a quick daily routine of exercise, meditation (there are a variety of apps), and other mindfulness exercises can help to decrease stress as well as ascertain whether or not you need to seek extra help.
Although it can be especially hard during guest trips, incorporating some or all of these activities into some sort of daily routine can be very helpful in managing stress. Researchers at Tel Aviv University found that predictable, repetitive routines are calming and help reduce anxiety. “Something so many of us are experiencing in 2020, and I expect will continue into 2021, there is such mass uncertainty,” says Friedman. “This is very connected to stress and the stress response: our brains and bodies like routine and balance.”
Even a quick daily routine of exercise, meditation (there are a variety of apps), and other mindfulness exercises can help to decrease stress as well as ascertain whether or not you need to seek extra help. “If you have been experiencing prolonged stress, I would be physically monitoring your stress levels,” says Rayson, who offers free resources to help crew figure it out. “Use a scale from zero to ten to check in with your stress levels; if you are noticing that your stress is sitting on the high end of the scale, then certainly see a mental health professional.”
Mental First Aid
Since the past year has been so unprecedented, Rayson suggests heads of department step in to address the mental first aid of their fellow crewmembers. Now more than ever it’s important to come together to engage in healthy physical activities, such as using watersports equipment, planning outdoor excursions, or even just offering physical touch or a hug to help one another release feel-good oxytocin, a hormone that has been proven to reduce stress and improve immunity.
It took a yard period for Colmenares to finally turn around her stress-induced binge-eating and the self-loathing that came along with it. With that extra time in her day, the stew prioritized her mental health by focusing on herself. Knowing she needed some outside help, Colmenares turned to Noom, a health app designed by behavioral psychologists, nutritionists, and personal trainers that aims at creating tangible and sustainable lifestyle shifts. Colmenares has tried many stringent diet and exercise programs over the years, but through Noom she actually was able to learn about her triggers like watching other crewmembers snack and the fear of uncertainty that led her to calm her nerves with food. “We didn’t know what was going on,” says Colmenares of the early days of the pandemic. “You can be told nobody is going to lose their jobs, but you don’t really know. The moment something changed I would turn to food.”
Colmenares says that the app’s focus on mindfulness and the psychology of self-sabotaging behaviors has helped her to understand herself and her relationship to food on a much deeper level. “I just wanted to know what goes through my head before I started binging,” Colmenares says of her decision to lay out the money for the somewhat expensive app. She laugh, then adds, “Otherwise, I would have had to go to therapy.”
This feature originally ran in the March 2021 issue of Dockwalk.