Emotional Health

Staying Sane While Staying Healthy

Wow. The world changes very quickly these days and nothing has brought this home to us more starkly than the coronavirus crisis. The shape of our everyday lives has changed almost overnight, not to mention the economy, politics, and almost everything you can think of . . . everywhere.

There are few tips I can offer to help mitigate the effects of this new order.

  • As much as possible, keep to your normal routine. If you used to go to the gym at 7 a.m., do your in-home exercise routine then. We all know how easy it is for healthy habits to slide on vacations, etc., and how hard it can be to get them back.
  • Set up new routines and structures to make up for the external structures you have lost. For example, if you are working from home, try to keep to a normal “work day” as much as possible.
  • Take this opportunity to adopt new healthy routines, including a few things mentioned below such as meditation.
  • Any hobbies or pastimes you can take up, or take up again, will help. Music, art, knitting, gardening, etc., all are proven stress relievers.
  • Play games. Don’t let television, screen time, etc., rule. People used to while away the hours (often in isolation from neighbors after dark) playing card games, etc., with each other. Try it. It is surprisingly fun. It helps with isolation, which is your biggest enemy.

The isolation factor is built into the changes to our daily lives requiring working from home, remote learning and other forms of social distancing that are the best ways to “flatten the curve,” i.e. the spread of the virus and to keep everyone safe, but there are costs.  Frank Bruni of The New York Times points out the important difference between this and past crises: “At the very moment when many of us hunger most for the reassurance of company and the solace of community, we’re hustled into isolation. At the very moment when we most desperately crave distraction, many of our favorite means of release are off limits.”

In the past, our worst times have been endured and overcome by people coming together, but literally together. Now, the healthiest and most responsible thing we can do is remain apart, something foreign and counterintuitive, and worse, something that has been shown to be unhealthy itself.

Social isolation has been identified as a risk to not only to happiness, but also to physical health, according to The Washington PostLoneliness, we know from the research, can be as bad for your health as smoking. It’s more predictive of mortality than obesity. And loneliness itself was a pandemic long before Covid-19 got its name. (Between 1990 and 2010, there was a threefold increase in the number of Americans who said they had no one in whom they could confide.)” Amanda Ripley, a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the author ofThe Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — and Why,” suggests that we take proactive steps right away to combat this “other” deadly disease. 

Exercise: Physical exercise reduces stress and boosts immune functioning. “Outdoor activities are good. Going for a walk, riding a bike, those are all great,” says Caitlin M. Rivers, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins. You can even do this with a friend, assuming you both feel healthy and are not in high-risk groups (and assuming you stay six feet apart in places such as San Francisco, where public health officials have so ordered). “Our overall goal is to reduce the number of contacts we have with other people, but you have to strike a balance.” And there’s never been an easier time to exercise without going outside or to the gym. (My current “gym” is on my phone, through apps such as Aaptiv, as well as free online yoga classes.)

Social closening:  (Yes, that’s a word, it turns out.) Relationships are as good for the immune system as exercise. In a meta-analysis of 148 studies that followed more than 300,000 people for an average of eight years, researchers found that positive social relationships gave people a 50 percent greater chance of surviving over time compared with people with weak social ties. This connectedness had a bigger impact on mortality than quitting smoking. To keep your relationships active, the phone is your lifeline. I’ve set a personal goal to talk (actually talknot text) with one or two friends, elderly neighbors or family members by phone every day until this pandemic ends.

Mindfulness: If you have resisted this trend so far, now may be the time to reconsider. Meditation reduces inflammation and enhances our immune functions, literally undoing the damage of self-isolation. There is evidence that prayer can have a similar effect.

I’ve been using the meditation app Headspace for ten minutes every day for the past two years. The big surprise is that meditation is not about clearing your mind. It’s about managing your attention, and it’s a hard skill to learn without some kind of guidance. The science is persuasive. More persuasive than it is for other things we do (such as taking multivitamins.)

Do something small for someone else: In surveys, people say volunteering gives them a sense of purpose and reduces anxiety. In Ireland, a woman named Helen O’Rahilly has helped organize nearly 6,000 volunteers to help elderly and immune-compromised people get groceries, almost entirely through Twitter. In Louisville, Erin Hinson is matching volunteers with people in need using Google Docs. My son and another kid on our street created fliers offering to help run errands for anyone who can’t go outside.

Some other recommendations to fight isolation include starting online groups using apps like Zoom. I used it this week with a study group that had just formed, but quickly moved online as the crisis unfolded. I was pleasantly surprised at how user-friendly it was, how good the connection was, and how it rotated frequently so that you really got a sense that everyone was in the “room,” so to speak.

I am planning to set up a daily zoom session for my immediate family, now sheltering in three different cities, perhaps at dinnertime. It could wind up giving us more family time than we have had in a while, and act as a bulwark against the anxieties we are all feeling.

Second, do reach out to friends by phone or video chat. We all have more social contacts every day than we realize and the loss of those can leave a big hole. This is a good time to make efforts to be closer than ever to friends, relatives, and especially those friends we don’t communicate with enough because we are all too busy.

Write letters. I remember making a special effort when I was in college, before the internet, to write to friends studying abroad. I knew of the value of “a letter from home.” I didn’t worry about the quality of the news or my writing, knowing that just staying in touch was the important idea. When my daughters were in college, though there was the internet, I sent postcards almost every week, which were never mentioned or acknowledged. But when I picked one of them up at the end of the school year, there they were tacked up on her dorm walls as a testament that they meant something to her.

Be aware that some are even more emotionally vulnerable than ever at this time. This includes those who were already isolated and lonely, as well as people with depression and anxiety. There is an app for those feelings, especially panicked and/or upset emotions, offering relaxation and other techniques at hereThe addicted and alcoholic are especially at risk. These are diseases that feed on isolation and this may be a very dangerous time for them. For those in recovery, the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous, the support offered from others in the group is by far its most therapeutic aspects, and sober people must make special efforts to stay in touch. There is info about online meetings here and some groups are setting up their own Zoom meetings, etc. By all means, stay in touch with your sponsor during this trying time. Finally, The New York Times has compiled a list of podcasts about wellness and wellbeing that may be helpful. 

Whatever you choose to do, make sure you remember to stay actively engaged in directing your daily life in a healthy manner. It will help you feel less helpless, and in the end, perhaps be a key factor in keeping you healthy.



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  • Patricia. Moscatello March 19, 2020 at 8:40 am

    Great article. I will pass it, on to friends and Family. Thank you