Kathy Whelan

Posted on March 20, 2020

By now we are all familiar with, and most of us are practicing, recommended techniques aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus. We are washing our hands, using disinfectants, covering coughs and sneezes, staying home, and keeping a safe physical distance from others. But COVID-19 can infect us in ways that are less obvious than the ones we’re protecting against. In fact, this disease can harm us even if we are never exposed to it physically. And this other kind of harm can have more serious, longer-lasting effects than a non-fatal case of the disease itself.

I’m talking about the harm we do to our minds, bodies and spirits as we try to cope with a frightening situation. My sister alluded to this type of self-inflicted harm when I spoke to her yesterday. She told me her mental state had deteriorated with every morsel of bad news until she came to a conclusion that startled her: “I realized I was making myself sick.”

The wisdom of this statement is not in my sister’s noticing she felt sick but rather in her noticing that she was causing this feeling. She saw how her thoughts added fuel to disturbing information. By recognizing what she was bringing to the situation and distinguishing what she couldn’t control from what she could – i.e., her thoughts – she pulled herself out of a downward mental spiral.

This is not easy to do, but it’s well worth the effort because of the high costs of ongoing stress. Stress is a natural response to a threatening situation: the “fight or flight” reaction that helped us survive as a species. When this reaction is activated, stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol cause our hearts to beat faster, our respiration rates to increase, the blood vessels in ours arms and legs to dilate, our digestive systems to change, and our blood sugar levels to rise.

A certain amount of stress is good. It’s what’s driving us to take the precautionary measures we are taking. But when stress goes from acute (short-term) to chronic, it causes harm through wear and tear on the body. The longer stress continues unmanaged, the more damaging it can be, directly or indirectly, to numerous body systems, including the immune system, on which we depend to keep us healthy.

Today’s circumstances may continue for some time, and the risk of stress contagion is high, so managing stress is vitally important. Happily, there is much we can do:

• Make time for positive relationships. “Social distancing” doesn’t require social disengagement. Good relationships can be buffers against stress, and exposing ourselves to positive energy is especially important now. Make time to talk to people with whom you have positive relationships and be aware when others sap your emotional energy.

• Be clear about what you can control and what you can’t. Much of the current situation involves things we can’t control. Try to focus on what you can control, such as your thoughts. Avoid “catastrophizing,” or constantly assuming that what’s happening at present will lead to the worst possible scenario. Write out your thoughts if it helps you see them more clearly.

• Meditate. Consider beginning your day with a few minutes of meditation. It will help you notice your state of mind and body and begin your day with a degree of mental and physical ease. Many good meditation apps are available, free and easy to use. If you prefer not to meditate, slow, deep breathing can help you relax.

• Get daily exercise. I was pretty pent-up the other day before I decided to turn off the news and go out for a walk. As soon as I felt the sunshine and breathed the fresh air, I relaxed, mentally and physically. It doesn’t take much.

• Try to get adequate sleep. As many of us know, this is not as easy as it sounds. Turn off the news and get off your devices at least an hour before bed. Read or listen to something relaxing or take a warm bath or shower. Visualize dumping the problems of the day into a bucket and leaving them for the morning, when you can address them with a fresher mind. I like to keep a gratitude journal, where I write down three things I’m grateful for each day. If you’re so inclined, do a sleep meditation or simply lie on your back and take some slow breaths deep into your belly. Other practices, like progressive muscle relaxation, can be useful as well, and I can give you instructions for these.

• Pay more attention than ever to eating a healthy diet. Focus on foods that are least apt to cause inflammation in your body: plant-based foods like vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds and healthy forms of animal-based proteins like seafood (especially those with omega-3 fatty acids) and skinless poultry. Avoid highly processed, fried and sugary foods. Try to be aware of when you’re eating out of hunger and when you’re eating in response to stress.

These self-care practices can help us support our minds and bodies as we navigate through this difficult time. Turning these practices into habits could even be a set-up for better health once the crisis is over, which would be a positive outcome from a dreadful situation.

I would be pleased to provide you with useful resources, and if talking would be helpful, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me for a free 20-minute call. It’s the least I can do.

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