Five steps you can take right now
A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll reported 80% of Americans feel the country is out of control. (https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/6938425-200266-NBCWSJ-June-Poll.html) The country has struggled with the COVID-19 pandemic, violence, racism, unemployment and conflicting information. Surrounded by these events, we can feel a loss of control. This can negatively affect our well-being and contribute to burnout. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/12693291_Six_areas_of_worklife_A_model_of_the_organizational_context_of_burnout.
We can control some aspects of our lives to benefit our physical and mental health. Below are 5 strategies accessible to everyone now and in the years to come.
- Control what you consume
During the COVID-19 pandemic,a survey reported that 54% of Americans were cooking more and 46% were baking more (https://www.hunterpr.com/foodstudy_coronavirus/). Cooking at home saves money, and also has health benefits. Home cooking has been associated with healthier diets by containing less sugar, calories, and fat. (https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/public-health-nutrition/article/is-cooking-at-home-associated-with-better-diet-quality-or-weightloss-intention/B2C8C168FFA377DD2880A217DB6AF26F). Cooking is also an opportunity to incorporate more plants into your diet. Eating a variety of plants, specifically more than 30 plants per week, is associated with increased diversity of the gut microbiota https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5954204/. The microbiota are trillions of microorganisms living within us that help our immune system function, assist with nutrient metabolism, communicate with the brain, and perform other vital functions for our health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5392374/. Lower diversity of the gut microbiota has been observed in obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, and some autoimmune diseases. https://www.bmj.com/content/361/bmj.k2179.
Here is a roadmap for better nutrition and health while preparing meals at home:
- Limit intake of processed foods, sugar, and alcohol.
- Increase intake of fiber rich, nutrient dense fruits and vegetables. When grocery shopping, stock up on a variety of fresh and frozen produce as well as whole grains.
- Add plant-based proteins to your meals such as beans and legumes. These are inexpensive sources of protein that also provide fiber. Try replacing some animal protein at meals with plant-based protein.
- And if you are baking more, try using 25% less sugar, enjoy a serving, and limit your portion size by placing the rest in the freezer.
We live in a time of continuous, round the clock access to news and opinions. It is important to be informed of current events and experiences, but repeated exposure to the news cycle can negatively affect our mental health. When people were exposed to only negative broadcasts, they became more sad, more anxious,and even started to worry more about other unrelated concerns. (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.2044-8295.1997.tb02622.x?sid=nlm%3Apubmed. Prolonged social media use also has negative effects on mental health. It can increase feelings of depression, anxiety and loneliness. Frequent social media use during the COVID19 pandemic in Wuhan, China was found to be associated with mental health problems, particularly high rates of depression and anxiety. .https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0231924#sec014. Limiting social media use can decrease loneliness and depression. https://guilfordjournals.com/doi/pdf/10.1521/jscp.2018.37.10.751. Here are some ways to stay informed of current events and use social media while protecting your own health.
- Set a reasonable time limit for watching the news, reading online content and using social media. Use an app or timer to track social media use.
- Regularly search out positive news or inspiring human interest stories. Most news outlets have a page dedicated to good news. Actor John Krasinski successfully launched the web series Some Good News that was watched by millions during the COVID19 pandemic (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCOe_y6KKvS3PdIfb9q9pGug)
- Most social media platforms enable sensitive media content to be filtered
Sleep deprivation is detrimental to our health. According to a 2015 consensus statement by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society, adults should get 7 hours of sleep nightly. Sleeping less than this on a regular basis has been associated with adverse health outcomes such as increased infections, weight gain, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, depression, and increased risk of death. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4434546/pdf/aasm.38.6.843.pdf)
- Establish a regular bedtime, make the bedroom as dark as possible and try to wake up at the same time each day
- Limit caffeine, alcohol, large meals and electronic screen use in the evening.
- Remove electronic devices from the bedroom.
- Exercise daily, but not too close to bedtime.
- For additional information on sleep hygiene,see the Center for Disease Control (CDC) website https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/sleep_hygiene.html
Regular exercise can reduce stress, improve immune function, and improve sleep. Exercise also reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and death. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6947527/)
There may be more substantial benefits with outdoor exercise, but indoor exercise is beneficial too(https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21291246/). Be creative! An exercise program can consist of strength training, aerobic exercise and flexibility. The American College of Sport Medicine recently published guidelines on how to stay active during the coronavirus pandemic.https://www.exerciseismedicine.org/assets/page_documents/EIM_Rx%20for%20Health_%20Staying%20Active%20During%20Coronavirus%20Pandemic.pdf
- Schedule daily exercise when you are less likely to be interrupted or distracted.
- Start with thirty minutes of exercise daily. If you can’t manage 30 minutes, break it into smaller time slots.
- If possible, exercise outdoors, while maintaining physical distancing.
- Make a conscious effort to move as much as possible during the day. Take breaks at regular intervals and walk.
- Take time to be mindful
Mindfulness practices are varied and include journaling, meditation, cooking, yoga, breathing exercises, and many more. Take time to slow down and practice selfcare. Breathing exercises are helpful as they can be performed at almost anytime, anywhere. Breathing can often be shallow and rapid. Controlled breathing practices slow the breath and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. This helps calm the body and also takes the focus away from negative thoughts. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/proper-breathing-brings-better-health/ Breathing practices also can reduce anxiety, stress and insomnia. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0193953X13000026?via%3Dihub.
- Spend a few minutes each day becoming more aware of the breath with each inhalation and exhalation
- Try to reduce mouth breathing by focusing attention on inhalation via the nose.
- A great technique for controlled breathing is the 4-7-8 breath developed by Dr. Andrew Weil https://youtu.be/YRPh_GaiL8s. Start by sitting in an upright position and place the tip of tongue on the roof of the mouth. Quietly inhale through the nose for 4 seconds, hold the breath for 7 seconds, and then exhale through the mouth for 8 seconds making a whoosh sound. After this breath, Dr. Weil recommends completing 3 more breaths to complete the cycle. The technique can be performed twice daily to start.
- Connect with nature.
Spending time in nature can decrease anxiety and depression (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21996766/). Some are lucky to have access to a garden, backyard, or parks for walks. Many adults and children, particularly in urban areas, have limited access to green spaces. If spending time outside is not an option, there are ways to experience nature inside. Even virtual natural experiences have beneficial effects. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6231506/
- Grow plants inside.
- Listen to recorded sounds of nature.
- Virtually visit a national park or botanical garden. (https://www.bbg.org/news/stroll_through_the_japanese_garden_in_bloom_video)
- Hang up pictures of natural spaces.
- Watch wildlife videos. https://www.youtube.com/BBCEarth
These five strategies can help reduce stress and improve well being. Start with one of the above. Combine several of these approaches for additional benefits, such as a brisk walk outdoors in a park. Stay active and engaged with your communities and loved ones. By finding small things we can control, we can better weather the things we can’t control.