By Molly Rose Teuke
The novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 is keeping most of us at home, wondering how we’ll cope. In a typical crisis, we find comfort in coming together and helping others. Now, we’re told to isolate, and it seems the highest and most noble contribution we can make to humanity is to hide out. Not that satisfying.
Sheltering in place upends much of what makes for a good life — purpose, connection and a sense of control. What now? Though it may not feel like it, you do have control over some important levers that can move you toward a greater sense of well-being.
Sleep, exercise and nutrition are the holy triumvirate of a healthy immune system. Getting plenty of all three is a good way to reclaim control of what feels like an out-of-control life.
- Turn off the alarm. Get to bed earlier and don’t get up till you’ve slept 8 or 9 hours, or 7 at the very least. One critical thing that happens during sleep is that we clear out our brains, literally and figuratively. It’s a great starting point for maintaining a healthy mood and maximizing your cognitive powers.
- Get outside to exercise, even if it’s just a stroll around the block. The fresh air and daylight will lift your spirits. You might also get some much-needed social contact by chatting with neighbors on their porches (six-plus feet away). Exercise has been shown repeatedly to elevate mood, reduce anxiety and depression, and improve cognitive powers.
- Make healthful, nutritious food choices. Eliminate processed food from your diet to the extent you can. Visit cnn.com/2020/03/25/health/immunity-diet-food-coronavirus-drayer-wellness/index.html for a primer on how food impacts your immune system. Take time to learn about the best sources of essential vitamins and minerals. For instance, did you know red peppers have many times the Vitamin C content of oranges? The USDA’s website, gov, has easily digestible information. Eat well, feel well, think well.
- Drink plenty of fluids. In one study noted on the National Institutes of Health website, young women who were mildly dehydrated (from exercise) reported feeling grumpier, being more fatigued and having a harder time concentrating.
Focus will be an increasing challenge as you work from home and juggle a multitude of competing responsibilities. Here are some tips for managing productivity while balancing family needs and getting a grip on your own highly distractable brain.
- Establish a specific place to work — a table, a desk, a nook in the dining room. Claim your space and make it your own. Add a few comforts and, if possible, designate it off-limits for any other purpose.
- Set a schedule. You may not be able to stick to it absolutely, yet it will give you a rough guide for how to move through your days with purpose.
- Take frequent breaks, scheduled and unscheduled. Our brains are on overdrive right now and they need all the help we can give them. DeskTime, a company that pioneered productivity tracking tools, has noted that “what the most productive 10% of our users have in common is their ability to take effective breaks.” Just knowing it’s OK to take a break will ease the pressure and refresh your brain.
- It’s easy to get caught up in the media swirl. Monitor your news diet and curate your news feeds. Get the information you need and skip the sensational stuff, which is designed to capture and hold your attention hostage.
- Be aware that every one of us will navigate this upside-down world in our own way. Give yourself the gift of compassion and don’t compare yourself to how others are coping. Much research supports the notion that people who feel good about themselves get more done than those who beat themselves up. By the same token, suspend judgment on how others are coping. We’re in uncharted waters, and we’re all doing the best we can.
Feeling grounded is critical to moving through uncertain times with equanimity. Meditation and mindfulness are increasingly popular tools for calming your mind and heart.
- Much research underscores that those who practice daily mindfulness have an easier time coping with adversity. It can be as simple as noticing sensory details about the apple you’re eating — its color, temperature, texture, even the sound when you bite into it. Or notice what you’re feeling as you stand under the shower — temperature, pressure, sound. If you want to try more formal meditation and aren’t sure how to begin, there are many resources online. You could check out Headspace, a respected app that offers a free trial of guided meditations, some as short as three minutes: headspace.com.
- Meditation often focuses on breath, but just paying attention to how we breathe has an impact on whether our brains think we’re safe or not. Kelly McGonigal, an expert on stress, suggests a simple exercise: Slow your breathing down to four to six breaths per minute. “Slowing the breath down activates the prefrontal cortex and increases heart rate variability, which helps shift the brain and body from a state of stress to self-control mode,” she writes in “The Willpower Instinct.” “A few minutes of this technique will make you feel calm, in control, and capable of handling cravings or challenges.” Don’t hold your breath; that will only increase stress. Instead, inhale slowly and exhale even more slowly. Imagine you’re breathing through a straw.
We humans are wired to connect and engage — with people, places and experiences. But how do you stay connected when you’re ordered to disconnect? Think of “social distancing” as “physical distancing” and get creative about how to get social with family and friends while keeping your physical distance.
- Spend time with loved ones using whatever tools you have access to. Get on Skype, ramp up FaceTime or just pick up the phone. Any contact counts.
- Take the party outside. Use your driveway or yard as a place to socialize from a safe distance.
- Get out for a walk with a friend, keeping a safe distance between you.
- Watch a movie at the same time as your siblings in another city or state, exchanging commentary and laughter by phone — or by app. Netflix Party seems tailor-made for our present situation: netflixparty.com.
- Do what you can to help others. When you do a grocery or pharmacy run, ask neighbors what they need. Are there errands you can run for an older relative? Could you tutor a young friend or relative from a distance? Science supports the notion that generosity makes us feel good and improves our cognitive function. Opportunities to be of service may be limited, but they haven’t disappeared altogether.
- Carve out time to keep your spirits up with some fun. Do an online search for “free things to do during Coronavirus.” Among a myriad of possibilities (many now offered at no cost as a direct response to Coronavirus): movies of Broadway plays, virtual tours of museums and national parks, and a virtual pub trivia contest. You’ll find plenty of feel-good videos by searching for your favorite zoo or aquarium online. You can even learn to cook from a celebrity chef or take a free class from an Ivy League school.
Whatever your skill level or comfort in this new shelter in place world, realize that your response to it will be uniquely yours. Letting go of what you can’t control and taking charge of what you can will lead to the most positive outcome for you, your family, your co-workers, your community and your nation.