Oh man. Strange times. In some respects, that’s all that needs to be said. We are all on information overload with everything related to COVID-19 these days. The numbers and rates, the precautions, the closures, the predictions and survival guides. So why produce more content? Two reasons: one is that it’s becoming more and more clear that this is just the beginning of something we need to settle into for the long haul. If that is indeed the case, I think it’s important to have a strategy and plan for comfortably and effectively doing so. Secondly, I think this is an opportunity. A lot of us have been given the gift of time with the shelter-in place order. It’s a chance to finally be able to start prioritizing priorities. A time to form lasting habits that we should have been doing long before the coronavirus arrived and should continue to do long after our lives return to some version of normal again.
My research on this started with one goal in mind: avoid getting and spreading the coronavirus aka do my part to flatten the curve. In addition to taking the shelter-in order seriously, I wanted a strong immune system. But I was also functioning on a high level of stress, anxiety and panic which has more power to suppress an immune system than any multivitamin can counter. The wellness formula didn’t stand a chance and I knew it. So I invested my time and energy into figuring out how to deal with the challenges of today in a way that would result in physical and mental strength and resilience and therefore, a strong AF immune system. In the end, I basically developed a how to guide for finding health and happiness in the face of adversity. Here is what I have learned and have put into practice as well as the research to back it all up. In living this out, I have found more resonance than I had prior to this pandemic. These things are all habits I should have prioritized a long time ago. I can thank this pandemic for giving me no choice but to finally do what I have needed all along. I am sure to live a happier, healthier and longer life for it.
Stop watching the news.
This was a big game changer for me. It was the first step I took and it gave me the space and the capacity to do everything else. I still think it is important to be informed so that you know what guidelines to following but that requires very little exposure to the news. Pick one reliable resource that you can check in with quickly to get what you need and then move on. There is an abundance of research that links watching the news with compromising the emotional well-being of viewers especially when the coverage is of traumatic or negative content (for example, a pandemic). Increased frequency of viewing the news is associated with anxiety, depression, uncontrolled fear, pessimism, irrational beliefs and sleep difficulties. Negative news has even been shown to exacerbate a range of personal concerns that aren’t even related to the viewed content. None of us need that right now! You might also want to consider limiting your time on social media if it has a similar effect on your affect. Research shows that social media often results in comparisons that lower our self-esteem and increase depression. Two things that are also of no use to us right now.
Have a schedule. Prioritize your priorities.
Did you know that an affluence of time makes us happier than an affluence of money? I don’t know about you but I very quickly found myself with an excess of time and a shortage of money when the shelter-in place was ordered. At first all I felt was panic and distress. Our society makes us think that money is a measurement of our success and therefore our happiness but the opposite is actually true. It wasn’t until I developed a schedule that I could actually feel the happiness associated with having time. Sure, my schedule may only consistent of meditate, yoga, play with kid, work a little, get outside and exercise but by having them scheduled into my day, I wake up with a plan and I get them all done. Before having a schedule I would start the day having no clue what to do with my time which would spiral me into thinking about how I wasn’t able to do anything I used to. There is also a certain kind of joy that comes from being able to stray from the schedule without any negative consequences. It lets me be in the moment with each thing I’m doing without worrying about making it to the next one. I believe this is what they are referring to when they say time affluence is bliss.
I’ve always been a bit scared off by meditation. I can barely sit still and the idea of silence for any period of time sets my mind off racing to my to-do list which would in turn just stress me out more. Needless to say, I have avoided it up to this point. But then I started to research different methods of meditation and the science behind it. Ashok Gupta describes meditation as a shower for your brain. A way of cleaning it out, getting rid of anything not needed, allowing your brain to start a day fresh and light. Now that sounded like something that might be worth figuring out. I began to play around with different guided meditations and visualizations. The body scan has never worked for me. Neither has counting with awareness of the breath. But in my search, I came across a plethora of strategies. They all have the same goal: mind control with a detachment from your thoughts. It’s just a matter of finding what strategy gets you there and once you do, its freeing. I can literally go from heart racing panic to calm cool and collected in a matter of minutes. It’s a miracle drug and research even proves it as such. Most of today’s diseases can be attributed to a breakdown in our immune system because of stress. The ability to separate our body from our thoughts through meditation can prevent all physiological consequences of stress therefore boosting our immune system and preventing disease. One mechanism of this is through diaphragmatic breathing which stimulates the vagus nerve and can bring us out of the fight or flight mode. The other is that by not being attached to our thoughts, our body never takes on the stress of them therefore avoiding fight or flight in the first place. So its no wonder why extensive research shows mind-body therapies decrease inflammation, improve immune function and reduce sickness through minimizing physiological manifestations of stress and anxiety.
This is a recommendation I give pretty much everyone all the time, and this time is no different. If anything, it’s even more important today than every before. Our bodies were meant to move. Increasing your heart rate for 30 minutes a day has been shown to decrease chronic pain and working out 3x a week has been shown to be just as effective as Zoloft in treating depression. There is also a ton of research that associates exercise with boosting immune function. So get moving! The key is to keep it light to moderate for right now. High intensity workouts tend to speed up gains but they are also a stress on the system and can actually compromise immune function. So less is more during this time of high environmental stress. If possible, make it outside as well. Walking 20-30 minutes a day with exposure to direct sunlight has been shown to improve immune efficiency and living close to the natural environment has been linked to many long term health benefits so lets take advantage of living in a Santa Cruz. Nature is at our doorstep! And if you’re not in Santa Cruz, just look a little harder. Nature is everywhere even in the middle of a metropolis.
Eat nutritious, unprocessed foods.
Diet is it’s own rabbit hole so I like to keep it extremely simple. Eat nutrient dense real food. If you wanted to take it a step further, I would recommend limiting sugar, alcohol and refined carbohydrates because they are inflammatory by nature. There might be reason to decrease your caffeine intake as well if you find it increases your anxiety. I would also increase your fruit and veggie intake in addition to drinking a lot of water. Research has shown those that eat 5 or more servings of fruit and veggies had an 82% greater antibody response when compared to those eating 3 servings so when I say increase, I mean load that plate up! Research has shown that what we eat does matter and is a large determinant of our immune system function. Some research does support the use of vitamin A, B, C and D supplements (zinc as well) to boost immune defense but I believe these vitamins are more available when they come from food. Research has also shown that sunlight is more effective than vitamin D supplements. But if you aren’t great about eating a lot of fruits and veggies or getting outside, probably best to take a multi-vitamin to fill in the gaps. I also boost my immune system with a blend of herbs (the wellness formula is my preferred but there are many out there).
Connect to those you love.
Even introverts like myself need social connection. Physical distancing is not social isolation. Connect with your loved ones, family and neighbors as often as possible. We are so fortunate this is happening at a time where most everything can be done virtually. We have a deep-seated need to feel trusted and loved and this feeling of connectedness increases our psychological and physical well being therefore decreasing the risk of depression and physical ailments. Sure, human contact and hugs have their own healing power but research shows that having social ties and being social makes you happier, virtual or in-person.
Serve those in need.
There is a ton of research that associates acts of kindness with increased happiness. So much research that I would consider it a fact. And haven’t you experienced that before? I personally enjoy the act of giving gifts over receiving them. There are a lot of people that could use the help, encouragement and/or support right now. Opportunities to give are everywhere and they don’t have to require money or material posessions. We are participating in the bear movement. You put a bear in your front window so that children in the neighborhood can go on a bear hunt, “gonna catch a big one”. Something as simple as this has brought a lot of joy to me and my toddler. If you have the means to support any of the local small businesses, they could really use the help. Especially those of services that aren’t deemed “essential” by paying them even when you aren’t receiving anything for it or ordering take out from your favorite restaurant, or just writing a review for them on yelp. Buying a burrito has always brought me joy but these days it brings a whole new level of satisfaction and happiness.
Laugh, smile and be grateful.
I didn’t need to research whether laughter makes us happier because everyone knows that’s true but did you know even a fake smile and forced laughter releases the happy chemicals? That was news to me. I started smiling when I felt the most amount of stress, anger grief or panic and subjectively, my mood totally improves! So yes, I will be that person smiling to herself for no reason but really for all the reasons. Also thinking about all the things you should smile about brings happiness. Gratitude practices or journals have been shown to improve health and well-bring. It’s impossible to be sad or angry when you are grateful.
Sleep 7-9 hours a night.
Nothing works right if you don’t sleep. Thats a fact. But what is considered enough? Research says that anything less than 6 to 7 hours a night will have negative physiological consequences but even 7 hours a night is worse than 8 or 9 with regards to your system’s well being. The less sleep you have, the higher the chance of getting sick. The quality of sleep also matters. It’s important to have a “winding down” routine that starts at least an hour before getting into bed and eliminating blue light (from screens) is absolutely essential to calm down the nervous system in preparation for sleep.
Credit Where Credit is Due
Aside from pretty extensive google searching, webinar listening and article reading, the following people are really the ones that know what they are talking about:
Laurie Santos (Professor of Coursera Course: The Science of Well-Being through Yale University)
Chris Kresser (A Leader in Functional Medicine)
Ashok Gupta (Developed the Gupta Program for re-programming the brain)
More Information, Guidance & Coaching
If you want more: