Staying Healthy In The Midst Of Pandemic
Updated: Apr 19, 2020
For simplicity's sake, let's assume that all our needs can be summarized and articulated by Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and that for basic emotional, mental, physical health and well-being we need to address these needs first and foremost. It has been suggested that before we can achieve self-actualization and optimal health, we need to start with a solid foundation of meeting and attaining our bottom-most basic needs. Once those are met it becomes possible and desirable to achieve higher human needs.
The challenge of this particular moment in history is that many have rather suddenly experienced a shaking up of their daily routine, home life, and are facing new challenges in relation to finances, and work-life. Our social lives and even some aspects of personal and collective mobility are being affected by social distancing, self-isolation, border closures, travel restrictions and quarantines. Meaning the many things we once took for granted or previously thought were stable, have rapidly required revising and adjustment.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
Are you breathing?
I am not joking. Yes, COVID-19 is a respiratory infection that primarily affects the lungs, but that doesn't mean you need to hold your breath. This is a high anxiety time for many of us, and the first thing that starts to happen when we are wrestling with fear for ourselves, concern for others, and we become preoccupied with survival is that the muscles in our back and chest tighten, we become poised for action and our breathing shallows. Sometimes we hold our breath in states of dread. Sometimes we hyperventilate when physically and emotionally overwhelmed. This is a completely understandable physical/physiological reaction to the stress of these circumstances.
If you are sick, gasping for breath and or actually struggling to breathe, please call 911 and get some help immediately. If our bodies are not getting enough oxygen whether from illness or from hyperventilating, it is possible to faint and or lose consciousness.
So take a moment, right now and inhale deeply in through your nose. Fill up your belly, feel your chest expand. Bring that breath in as deeply and as fully as you can, bring that inhale all the way up to your head, hold briefly and then let it out through your mouth. Now do that two more times.
Notice where the breath goes. Notice what's relaxed, and where there is still tension in your body. Drop your shoulders away from your ears. Unclench your jaw. Notice the sensation of breathing and bringing your awareness to it as often as you can throughout the day.
Are you drinking enough fluids?
At the best of times, many of us don't drink enough water or are living at some level of dehydration on a regular basis (thirst, hunger, headaches, fatigue, tiredness, dark /decreased urine, dry mouth, dry skin, tension, irritability and physical anxiety can all be symptoms of dehydration). Dehydration headaches typically present right in the middle of our foreheads between our eyes. Jaw and face tension can be an indication of dehydration as well as our skin can lose some elasticity when we are running low on water. Warm, room temperature water and hot tea are generally going to be more supportive of your immune system function than cold liquids that shock your internal system and challenge your body. When we are sick our bodies need even more liquids (tea, water, soups, lemon water, nutrient and water-rich vegetables, juices) to flush viral and bacterial invaders out of our bodies. Use this time to hydrate and get familiar with what it feels like to feel optimally healthy.
A word of caution about drinking alcohol: regular consumption of alcohol compromises our body's immune function and like coffee is a diuretic (causes our body to flush more water out of our system). If you choose to drink alcohol, moderate with the mindfulness that it does stress your body, affects your quality of sleep, causes dehydration and can negatively impact your emotional health when you're already stressed.
Are you eating?
If possible focus on eating really healthy the next while. Greens, whole grains, fruits, nuts, iron-rich foods. Cutting back to extreme moderation processed foods, alcohol and sugar as these tend to have a detrimental impact on our immune systems. Diet does play a role in how we experience and manage stress and anxiety (some foods aggravate and make stress management difficult, some foods calm and support).
If you don't have food (the means to access or money), please find your local food bank and or local community mutual aid network for help acquiring food. Of course many are facing food shortages, lack of access and limited supplies, so do the best you can to eat something nutritious at least once a day. If you need helping meeting these basic needs, please reach out. There is no shame in asking for assistance. No one deserves to go hungry, and there are many people mobilized to deliver and ensure that no one goes hungry.
Are you sleeping?
Getting sufficient sleep is your number one priority right now. It's the foundation upon which our waking lives, health and sanity are built. Some sleep hygiene tips include avoiding screens at night or at least a couple hours before bed. Start to wind down, turn things off an hour or two before bed by starting to read a book, relaxing, listening to music or podcasts. Avoid big meals and alcohol near bedtime. If you're a nighttime snacker, keep it light and avoid processed sugar or caffeine too close to bedtime. If you have to use your phone in bed, try wearing blue-light blocking glasses, as it is well known now that the light electronics emit disrupts our circadian rhythms. Stress is causing a lot of sleep disturbances, insomnia, nightmares, not getting enough rest or sleeping too lightly lately. Exercise and stretching during the day can help. Increasing calcium and magnesium-rich foods in our diet can assist with deeper more restful sleep. If you're not sleeping, don't stay in bed and stare at the ceiling, get up and move, stretch, or meditate. Much sleeplessness right now is excess survival energy and adrenaline that needs an outlet. Our bodies need our action to regain a sense of calm, control and ability to then calm and rest again.
We live in cycles. These cycles are interrupted when big changes happen.
Are you laughing? Laughter is great pain medicine, helps us feel alive and is the sparkle of enlightenment. When we find time to laugh we strengthen our minds, we bolster and relieve our bodies of tension, we find joy and light in each other. Don't underestimate how important it is to laugh about something every day. What makes you laugh?
Are you doing basic self-care? Staying sane and somatic in stressful times - means being with our body, staying with our emotions and digging deep into our own internal and external resources for finding the calm within ourselves.
Brush your teeth. Drink your water. Eat your food. Wash your clothes. Bathe yourself. Moisturize your hands before bed to counteract how dry your skin is getting from all the handwashing. Just because things seem awful, does not mean you need to feel awful too. In fact, our little self-care rituals become essential when so much of our lives are being shaken up. They become foundational to building our stability inward and outwardly. A friend once shared a small tip that stayed with me, 'Smell good? Feel good.' I started practicing that and my quality of life and sense of enjoyment or celebration of my senses improved dramatically.
How is your home situation?
Connect with your spiritual home. Take care of your body, take care of your home. When we take care of ourselves, we are also taking care of everything else. That is how important our lives and our home is. It is our habitat. Our ecosystem. The space in which everyone connected to us is able to sense our well-being or unwellness. Is it beautiful, is it bright, is it happy, does it give you calm and sanctuary, does it support the thriving of life? Does it give you strength and security? What world do you want to build for you?
Mask up! South Korea has successfully managed SARS, MERS, Swine Flu and is now the number one country with the best response to COVID-19, and in South Korea it is common practice to wear a mask when travelling, commuting, going out to get essentials and caring for others. Health Canada and the CDC now acknowledge that it is a good practice to wear a mask that covers your nose and mouth when going out and about outside your house (keep physical distancing too though). Whether you choose to cover your face with a cloth, scarves, dust or medical masks, please ensure doctors and nurses in your community have access to N95 masks first and foremost. If you have medical masks in a stockpile, and or can sew them, give them to care-givers, the sick and the more vulnerable to reduce their risk of infection and spread first. Wash your hands, don't touch your face, you know the drill.
Are you safe from interpersonal violence and abuse? Just because we're in lockdown, does not mean you need to tolerate threats to your physical and emotional safety. If you need to get away from someone harmful, if you need help, please reach out. There are resources in your community that can help you get to safety. Use the chat window on the bottom right corner of my website if you need help accessing information discretely.
If you know that counselling or some other kind of social support would help you right now, check your local community resource listings. If you are located in Montreal calling 811 Infosante/Infosocial line can open up some resources. The Open Centre Support line offers telephone and video conference counselling from a variety of trained professionals. If you need help finding resources in your area, leave a comment below or send me a message and I can assist.
If you notice your mental health eroding, are becoming overwhelmed or grief-stricken, please call someone you trust or one of the counselling lines in your area and make yourself a survival plan for getting through this time. Don't suffer alone and in isolation.
Employment / Productivity
Whether you are working at home or not, make yourself a daily schedule, to help structure your day. It can be flexible. It can be something you make and then don't follow or something you revise. The idea is you give yourself a structure to organize your day into chunks of time that cover a balance of basics like self-care, physical exercise, nourishment planning and food prep, calming activities (these can include creativity, spending time with pets, plants and children, meditation, stretching), connection with others, reading and personal development, waking and sleeping times so that you are getting the optimal amount of sleep for you. Make time for your passion projects, make time to move every day, time to clean and sterilize key touch areas of your house and yourself.
Are you worried about money? Make a list of all your resources, everything that you are grateful for, everyone that can help, all the tools you have that can assist in addressing this stressor. What resources are available to you? The first step to solving this is taking stock of what you do have, then deciding how you're going to use what you do have.
Inner & Outer Resources
Community - Connect with the Mutual Aid Mobilization networks in your city. They are powerful centres for community help and support. Give what you can. Ask for what you need.
Now is the time to work on our general health! Don't wait. Don't procrastinate. Harvard professor and researcher of health and ageing, David Sinclair writes, "Encourage citizens to improve their health. Move, eat less often, avoid processed carbs, and quit smoking. Immediately." Your cardiovascular health is of particular importance right now. Breathing deeply, moving daily, reducing your blood sugar levels and avoiding/quitting smoking cigarettes, weed and vapes of any kind is key to improving your lung and heart health. Taking these actions now can reduce your risks of complications if and when you do become sick with COVID-19 (as well as increasing your long term health, while giving you better odds for dodging other kinds of cardiovascular illness). Let's get healthy together instead of getting sick together!
Brene Brown says, "Our bodies can't deal with the COVID-19 pandemic in the same way we weather other crises." Our adrenal system is designed for short bursts of intense activity and then cooling and settling into a new normal. We won't have that in this crisis. The length of the crisis, our need to adapt to changes, the fear and the grief will outpace our adrenaline system. We will feel tiredness, anxiety, fatigue, and emotional drain in ways we have never felt before in our lives. None of us have ever done this before. What you are feeling is real and you are not alone. It's okay if you can't sleep or all you can manage right now is to sleep. Rest when you can. As much as possible respect and listen to what your body is telling you about your physical and emotional needs and limits. If it helps, try to think of managing your physical health for sustainability. Instead of sprinting to the end of this, how can we move swiftly but mindfully through this time, knowing that this too will pass.
"To be alive is to be vulnerable, to be in this pandemic is to be vulnerable every second of every minute of every day," Brene Brown said. Our vulnerability is not a bad thing, it's what makes us all precious, it's what makes life precious. Brene says, "The thing about vulnerability is it is difficult, but it's not weakness. It's the foundation and the birthplace of courage; there is no courage without risk, uncertainty and exposure."
On the subject of exposure, here are a couple of resources for self-assessment of your risk and Canadian Government Support.
LOVE & BELONGING
Sense of connection to friends, family and community
The former US Surgeon General recommends we spend at least 15 minutes a day engaging with people we know and love, either through video conferencing, talking on the phone to hear each other's voices, because actually hearing each other is important for our health and well-being. Social distancing should more appropriately be called physical distancing and self-isolating doesn't mean we, need to alone! It means we are taking care of ourselves so that we can show up healthier for each other.
Improve the quality of the time spent with others by decreasing your distractions. Clear your screen to tune into those you do interact with more presence of mind. Demonstrate that you are thinking about the health and safety of others and tell those you are closest to how you need them to reassure you when times are scary and stressful. It's important to have these talks before life gets scary and stressful so that you're ready and equipped to respond appropriately when family members become sick, resources become scarce or emotions run high.
Visioning, Drawing, Colouring & Journaling
Are you bored? Are you anxious? Are you overwhelmed? Pull out some pens, markers and paper and start doodling, start a stream of consciousness drawing! Write, vision board, draw a picture of who you are, how you're feeling, what is on your mind, what is in your heart, what is overwhelming for you right now. What are your superpowers? What are your top 5 survival skills? What are you grateful for? What is going well? What is hurting like hell? What do you wish for your life and the people around you? How do you want to help? What do you wish you could do right now? What would you invent if you had the know-how? Who do you really wish you could talk to right now? What relationships do you want to heal? What do you want to let go of? How has your life has prepared you for this moment? What seeds do you want to plant this spring?
Finding our sense of strength, resilience, knowing ourselves and finding esteem is a non-linear experience. Living is a creative act. Growing in wisdom is something we do through exploration.
Take this image I made a couple of years ago for instance. I was not thinking when I started it. It was not planned and yet what emerged was insightful. It's called "'Growth Anthem' - A homage to earth, air, fire, water, the sun and the moon ~ the elements that make growth possible. How is our world-changing? At what point do we collectively start worshiping and encouraging the thriving of life and growth of the natural world over the growth of the dollar and industry?" All this I thought about while creating it.
Movement & Creativity - Yes, our routine and ways of life have changed, but really cool things are happening and are possible now too! Join virtual fitness classes, yoga sessions, worldwide meditations, dance parties, concerts, global chats, workshops and conferences. Find creative ways to express, learn, move and connect. Over the years my pen pals and I would send each other really elaborate parcels with games, books, letters and works of art through the mail. My friends and neighbours would leave each other gift baskets, groceries and notes on each other's doorsteps when times were difficult. I've been dancing and baking to stay in movement and leaving baked goods, and meals at the doors of my neighbours in quarantine lately.
Practice Gratitude - There are a lot of mental, emotional, physical and relational benefits to keeping a gratitude practice. Our perspectives change and we start to feel happier and healthier when we start making note of that which we are grateful for. Spending just 15 minutes to write down a few things you are grateful for, before bed (keeping a gratitude journal), can improve the quality and length of your sleep, according to a 2011 study published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being.
Nurturing ourselves in order to nurture the future...
I've been reading the reflections of elders who have lived through mass epidemics and pandemics in the past. Something really wise emerged from their words. They acknowledged that life was not the same after. That there was a lot of fear during but they suggested taking the time to reflect on the kind of world you want to have and live in when the pandemic is over — and consider what "returning to normal" really means. The beauty of reading reflections from those who have lived a lot longer than we have is - that times like these, pass and what we do now matters.
This is, whatever self actualization means to you.
But I want to share two thoughts:
1. Taking Mindful Action - increases our sense of efficacy and self-esteem. It helps us feel capable and in the driver seat of our lives when so much is unknown.
2. Service to others is a powerful path to greater meaning, well-being and happiness.
“If we think only of ourselves, forget about other people, then our minds occupy a very small area. Inside that small area, even a tiny problem appears very big. But the moment you develop a sense of concern for others, you realize that, just like ourselves, they also want happiness; they also want satisfaction. When you have this sense of concern, your mind automatically widens. At this point, your own problems, even big problems, will not be so significant. The result? Big increase in peace of mind. So, if you think only of yourself, only your own happiness, the result is actually less happiness. You get more anxiety, more fear." - Dalai Lama
Finally, I wish you well wherever you are, in whatever state you find yourself. May you know kindness. May you know peace. May you know well-being.
My heart goes out to those of you who have been in isolation alone, those who have been hospitalized, are currently sick, recovering and those who have passed away alone, in the midst of all of this. You will be remembered. Your life matters. Your need for hugs, familiar faces, touch and comfort will never be forgotten.
In love and solidarity in the healing of our world, sincerely be well...
Raven is a licensed massage therapist and teacher; currently self-isolating and applying her other skills to address the social health challenges of the pandemic. Her knowledge of health, wellness and trauma comes mainly from massage therapy and bodywork, however, she has also completed World Health Organization training to support COVID-19, country preparedness and response and studied Communications and Sociology with a public health focus at Simon Fraser University.
References & Further Reading:
David Sinclair's Apr. 1, 2020. "Lifespan Newsletter".
Lachlan Brown. Jun.14, 2018. "How to practice mindfulness for a happy and peaceful life".
Neel Duggal. "How To Increase Your Red Blood Cells Count".
Jillian Kramer. "7 Foods That Secretly Stress You Out".
CBC's The Current. Apr. 10, 2020. "Three senior Canadians reflect on health crises they’ve experienced in the past".
Harrison Jones. Metro Apr. 8, 2020. "Smokers told to quit now as they are ’14 times more at risk from coronavirus’".
Trauma & Co. 2020. "Trauma & the Complex Intersections with Being Human"
Irene Lyon. Apr. 9, 2020. "Recovery from being overworked, healing guilt, POTS, panic, and more".
Amy Morin. Apr. 3, 2015. "7 Scientifically Proven Benefits of Gratitude".
CBC's The Current. Apr. 9,2020. "Our adrenaline can't 'outpace' COVID-19, but Brené Brown offers 3 tips to better cope".
Brene Brown. 2011. Ted Talk. "The Power of Vulnerability".