COVID 19 has stretched many of us far beyond our usual coping mechanisms. It is important to understand the difference in managing acute stress and planting the deep roots of resilience. The fight or flight quality of the first few weeks or months of a crisis cannot be sustained because we essentially exceed our surge capacity. Chronic stress is more like being a tree and hoping you have developed deep roots – which bend in a storm, but do not break.
Resilience has several common definitions:
- the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.
- the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.
So, how can we recover, stay tough and spring back? By planting and watering our roots so they grow deeper. This requires attention to the fundamentals of self-care, which unfortunately is a term that has been overused. Glossy magazine and Instagram posts are replete with tips for yoga and meditation practices – both admirable and when sustained, helpful. I fear that we must first get back to basics. Nutrition, exercise, sleep, connection. These essential practices are often the first to get tossed aside during chronic stress. As you are reminded of them, keep in mind not to let perfect be the enemy of good.
Nutrition: fueling your body, mind and spirit is about eating real (not processed) food, heavy on plants. Instead of worrying, and then feeling guilty, about what NOT to eat, just make sure you get some real, plant-based food every day in addition to whatever else you eat. Start with one meal a day. You will feel better and have more energy.
Exercise: move your body every day with enough exertion to raise your heart rate, outside if possible (sun and fresh air amplify the benefit), for at least 30 minutes. That’s it. It sounds simple because it is, but we let our notions of the “best exercise plan” prevent us from doing anything at all. A daily, brisk 30-minute walk has been shown to provide enormous health benefits. It serves double duty if you can use it as a break during a stressful part of your day.
Sleep: prior to COVID, only 1/3 of adults got a minimum of 7 hours sleep per night; “Coronasomnia” has worsened this epidemic of sleeplessness. Loss of routine, more screen time, worry and financial stress are but a few of the reasons. We are literally exhausted, which renders us vulnerable to illness, accidents, memory loss, irritability and depression. Set a bedtime and wake time and stick to it. Your body learns the cycle. Limit caffeine to morning, and if you drink alcohol, don’t do so immediately before bed. Avoid device time minimally one hour before sleep. Maintain a bedroom free of work and excessive sensory input if possible. Mostly, do not use late hours to cram in all the unfinished business of the day. Protect and prioritize your sleep routine as you would your most important obligation of the day. Good sleep also importantly stimulates the “up-cycle” of improved energy, healthy eating and better mood.
Connection: perhaps the most challenging aspect of COVID has been the loss of simple human interactions, seeing faces, feeling a warm embrace, attending community gatherings. It is crucial to plan ways for connection. Schedule social visits over FaceTime or Zoom, send a calendar invite for a phone call with a friend or family member. Meet in the park for a distanced picnic or book club. Research shows that having even one person with whom we regularly connect is protective and restorative.
It is never too late to fertilize your roots like your life depends on it. Not only will you be able to better weather the storms, but you will also thrive in between.
by Lea C. Watson MD, MPH, LLC
Geriatric Psychiatry Consultation and Training
& SHC Medical Partners faculty
For more information, visit leawatsonmd.com.
Dr. Watson is a board certified adult and geriatric psychiatrist with a passion for creating a culture of appropriate psychotropic prescribing in long-term care settings. She prioritizes common sense, avoiding harms and keeping the patient’s and family’s goals of care at the heart of all endeavors. Because of the shortage of geriatric psychiatrists in the United States, she developed a model of consultation and training to extend the reach of this highly needed, but limited specialty to the people that need it most – the primary care providers responsible for care, and families.