Departure from our normal routines, and being stuck at home all day, while coping with added stress has caused several bad habits to resurface.
Some of the downstream effects of these behaviors aren’t benign, though, and can harm our mental health, and immune function as well, which is the exact opposite of what we’re trying to be mindful of.
So what’s at the root of these bad habits? And what can you do now, to avoid having to undo damage after we come out of this pandemic?
Normally, our days are divided up into some variation of: work, preparing meals, exercise, caring for kids, and sleep. Rinse and repeat. So now that we’ve been thrust into an extended period where some of us are working from home, some not working at all, and everyone is dealing with some degree of uncertainty and worry, we’re left feeling unprepared.
Behaviors we relied on prior to the COVID-19 pandemic to help us cope with stress, release tension, and let off steam were part of our anxiety toolbox.
We built these stress management behaviors over the course of our life as we figured out how to balance our responsibilities and capabilities. These mechanisms developed gradually beginning in adolescence, and morphing as we entered into adulthood and demands upon our abilities changed.
During the course of this pandemic, our environment has changed, and very quickly, so what does our pandemic anxiety toolbox look like now? Many of our normal behaviors we use to cope with stress and anxiety aren’t an option right now, and we’re falling back on bad habits instead.
Take a look at the most common bad habits we rely on during the coronavirus pandemic, and ways you can find better coping mechanisms to support health, and keep yourself mentally balanced.
During times of high stress, it’s common to return to comfort foods. These are foods from our childhood, family, or other emotionally soothing time in our lives. They make us feel good by releasing neurotransmitters in the brain which interact with our mood and sense of well-being.
In the short term, this feels pretty good, but these comfort foods also tend to be high in carbohydrates (sugar) and fat–a combination the brain is wired to crave during periods of stress. When this feeling doesn’t resolve, it can create a dangerous cycle of cravings following by crashing.
In addition, sugar slows immune function, and contributes to gut dysbiosis, which can have lasting negative impacts on health (1).
What to do instead:
Stick to the foods you know are good for you, because they’ll maintain steady energy to the brain and muscles without the crash, and without affecting your mood negatively.
Frozen veggies, sweet potatoes, squash, and quality protein shine right now because they can be stored easily, are less perishable than fresh produce, and are easy to prepare.
But also, compromise. Be forgiving with your eating patterns and incorporate an indulgence where it’s needed. Should you snack on sugary cereal all day without eating a regular meal? No. But could baking cookies later this week be a good time to un-stress and bond with your kids or spouse? Absolutely.
With more time spent at home, we’ve become successfully re-immersed in our devices. Creating digital discipline is something we’ve been working on as a community since learning that clicking and scrolling interacts with brain chemistry in a way that mirrors addiction (2).
But because social media has become an easy distraction from the stress of our lives, it’s usually the first thing we pick up when we need a break from reality.
Unfortunately, obsessively reading coronavirus news (as many of us are doing when we pick up our phone or tablet) doesn’t help our mental health, and the increase in blue light exposure can drastically interfere with sleep patterns, which can spell trouble for immune function.
What to do instead:
Stay the course with digital discipline. Allow yourself to connect with friends, and maintain healthy social connections via technology (since we can’t do that in person right now), but set restrictions on mindlessly scrolling.
Physically set a timer to put down your phone after scrolling Instagram or Facebook, and move on to your next task. Which can be as simple as making a cup of tea–just something to reset the brain from scrolling.
And, do not read coronavirus news before bed if it’s something that contributes to your levels of anxiety. This is an act of self-care to ensure your nervous system stays in ‘rest and digest’ mode to promote a restful night’s sleep.
What do we do when our lives have been upended, and we’re left to create our own schedules every day?
Turns out, we just don’t.
While some of us may be relishing this at-home time, others are listlessly going about their days in limbo feeling lost and unproductive.
A total departure from our scheduled routines can disrupt sleep, cause us to miss meals (or the opposite: snack all day), neglect to take medications or supplements, and generally harm our well-being.
Stick to as normal a routine as is possible. Rise in the morning, eat breakfast, or continue with your morning routine.
Support normal metabolism function by drinking water soon after waking, and eating a
maintain healthy energy to the brain, supporting cognition and a stable mood throughout the morning.
Do not use your time at home to stay up late watching a show, or scrolling social media. This can feel like an impromptu vacation and tempt us to make a departure from sleep habits, but this has one of the worst impacts on immune function.
Melatonin, the sleepy-time hormone, has powerful antioxidant function and keeps inflammatory cytokines at bay (3). Do everything you can to promote consistent sleep, and if you haven’t developed a solid bedtime routine yet–now is a great time to do just that.
During the first week, we may have seen this break in our workout schedule as an accidental blessing, but as we round the corner into week 3 of a stay-at-home directive, many are starting to feel low energy, and even lower motivation.
Exercise and movement do much more for our health than maintain a physique and muscle mass.
As you increase your heart rate during exercise, you increase blood flow to your brain and muscles, which carries oxygen and other nutrients to cells (4). The best afternoon pick-me-up might just be a quick workout to get your blood pumping.
Everyone from local gyms, to large fitness companies have adapted to support us through virtual workouts. This is one industry that didn’t miss a beat providing excellent alternatives to our regular workouts.
That being said, finding motivation to workout at home can be difficult. Schedule this time in your day and take actions that help you adhere to it.
Exercise also facilitates the movement of lymph fluid throughout the body, supporting immune function, and detoxification processes (5).
If you’re working from home, try standing at your desk, or setting a reminder to stretch or walk every hour. Even these little actions are cumulative throughout the day and will keep us more resilient in the long-run.
Be kind to yourself. Many are struggling to navigate a completely new situation with unique stressors.
We are all adapting the best way we know how, but be gentle with the expectations you place on yourself. If you compare yourself to your previous metric of productively and purpose, you’re likely to fall short. The ways you normally feel productive and happy may not apply right now, and that’s okay.
You are enough if you’ve brought joy to those around you (in whatever small ways you can), taken care of your mental well-being, and done a small favor for your physical health.
COVID-19 brings with it many new worries, but life will go on, and so must we.
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