Normally, when I pull into the driveway of my home, there is a sense of relief. I put the car in park, shut the engine off, and appreciate the silence as I take a deep breath. Then I slowly exhale out all of the stress from my day as a doctor of internal medicine, so that I don’t bring my work home with me.
But now, with the global awareness of the dangers of COVID-19, my normal day is not so normal. Seeing the signs in myself that I usually look for in patients, I am realizing that I have been coming home absolutely spent, more so emotionally than I can ever remember.
Over the past few days, my familiar routine of exhaling the stress does not seem to be working any more.
“What’s wrong Mom?” one of my teenage kids asks me.
I try to reply, feeling the lie leave my lips as soon as I say the words, “I’m fine, just a long day sweetie.”
I can feel his confusion, as what I am saying likely does not match what my body language is saying.
To myself, I think, ”No, I’m not fine. I am exhausted, stressed, worried, sad, mad, and everything in between!”
Then I smile as best as I can, excuse myself from the table, and head to my room. I shut the door, and try a few deep breaths and exhale each time nice and slow to calm my mind.
But it doesn’t work, and my mind still races.
You don’t have to be a doctor on the front lines of the fight against a pandemic to have this type of change in your regular stress levels. With government-mandated shelter in place orders, schools shut down, and your mainstreet a ghost town because all non-essential businesses are closed, it’s no wonder we are all carrying more stress, fear, and anxiety than normal.
Like you, I am now faced with a new problem that I didn’t have to deal with only a week ago. (No, the problem I’m talking about is not running out of toilet paper or hand sanitizer.) The problem is trying to not translate my stress to my family.
The reality is that my attitude can bleed into my family, coworkers, patients and all my surroundings. If I’m a mess, then others around me who depend on me daily are only getting a very minimized version of me. And my stress levels are likely to influence their stress levels.
So what do I do to maintain stability and productivity in this new reality? Here are five things I am working on to make sure that I, and as a result my family, can thrive during these difficult times.
1. Remember to Perk Up
No one wants to hang around Debbie Downers. I have found that the stress around the real-life changes that are happening is making me feel down, and my family knows, no matter how much I try to tell them differently. If I’m deflated, then I’m only setting the tone for others around me to feel the same.
In order to perk up, I suggest you distract yourself from what’s going on by engaging in something different, listen to upbeat music, take hot showers, play with family pets more (pets are great at bringing joy — especially dogs), and revisit good stories.
2. Learn to Laugh More
Laughter is universal, and something that science has shown can improve your mood. But how do you laugh when all you see in the news is anything but funny? I have been blessed with a sense of humor and I am realizing how important it is right now! When times are stressful, it’s a great time to throw a joke here and there, watch a funny YouTube video, or search Twitter’s funny filter in the search tab (it actually exists).
Find humor and levity where you can, and put a smile on your face or someone else’s. And remember, a bad joke can still be funny because they end up laughing at you and not the bad joke. So don’t be afraid to try.
3. Embrace Sleep (and Don’t Feel Guilty About It)
Science shows that those who are sleep-deprived are also immuno-compromised, putting them at risk for catching COVID-19. Regardless if you are a good or poor sleeper (like me), now is the best time to embrace sleep and not feel guilty for it. Getting good sleep (seven to nine hours) can not only support your energy to go on the next day, but it will also increase your immune health.
Check out Arianna Huffington’s 6 Rules for Better Sleep, and try her suggestions to wind yourself down.
4. Eat Like You Are in the Mediterranean
Did you know that people who eat a Mediterranean diet are overall healthier? It’s true because the foods they eat are mostly plant-based, legumes, nuts/seeds, fish, and minimal intake of red meat. The Mediterranean diet eliminates all processed foods. The fact is that a healthier diet translates to better immune health. I have taken full advantage of this opportunity to remind my teenage boys why I’ve been talking to them for years about the Mediterranean healthy diet.
You don’t have to be from the area to eat like Mediterraneans do. Start with eating apples, celery, and bananas for snacks!
5. Take Advantage of Technology
As families are forced to self-quarantine, technology can connect us to our friends, family, and the outside world! I come from a big family, the youngest of nine brothers and sisters, have 28 nieces and nephews, and yes we all get along. We all live in different cities/countries/continents but we stay connected with FaceTime/Skype/Facebook messages.
Now is the time to stop making fun of social media, and start trying it out. Don’t get overwhelmed. Find out which platforms your friends are using, and ask them to teach you how to use it! If you need an excuse to try out Twitter, find me at @reyzanshali and say hi!
As a doctor, I can tell you with confidence that you don’t need to make an appointment with me to get a prescription for peace at home. You just need to be aware that your stress can be contagious. So find the fun in daily activities, laugh more, get some rest, eat like you are on vacation in the Mediterranean, and get your devices charged and connected to the internet.
Make a new healthy normal in your home, and tell them that it’s doctor’s orders!
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