The COVID-19 pandemic is the greatest health crisis of our lifetimes. With neither proven treatments nor vaccines to prevent the disease, we are reluctant to leave our homes. While researchers work at warp speed to find therapies and discover and test a vaccine, we are left to cope on our own.
To avoid being infected — and to increase our chances of surviving if we are — we need to take care of ourselves: Self-care has become the new primary care. This means optimizing our health in mind, body, spirit and community.
Fortunately, strides in integrative medicine now give us a roadmap for how to do this. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996 at age 52, I had excellent conventional medical treatment but no help activating my own healing potential. Since then we have learned that lifestyle factors are implicated in most cancers as well as other chronic illnesses. Taking charge of our well-being is every bit as important as clinical care.
What I learned on my journey back to health applies equally well to staying healthy during this pandemic. We must practice the basics: social distancing, wearing face masks and washing our hands frequently, but we can do more — much more — to fortify ourselves.
Based on my experience, here are six recommendations.
1. Reduce stress and anxiety.
Anxiety was a predisposing health issue for me in the years leading up to my cancer diagnosis. I recommend a mindfulness practice to reduce stress and lower your level of the stress hormone cortisol. My husband, Bill, and I have practiced meditation now for decades. There are other practices that promote inner peace, including Centering Prayer, spending time in nature, and listening to guided imagery or music. When I feel stressed, I take several 4-7-8 relaxing breaths, a relaxation approach promoted by Dr. Andrew Weil.
2. Move your body.
During the course of your day, exercise for at least 30 minutes. Do whatever works for you: brisk walking is fine. A variety of free fitness classes, such as Yoga, Tai Chi and Pilates, and other resources such as virtual health coaching, can be found online.
3. Eat a healthy diet and drink alcohol in moderation.
Hippocrates said it best: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” The pandemic has encouraged eating together as a family and cooking at home. While you hopefully experiment with healthy new dishes, pay attention to the effect foods have on your body. Author Michael Pollan encourages us to “Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants.”
4. Optimize your sleep habits.
As recommended by the National Sleep Foundation and its expert advisory panel, our bodies require 7-8 hours of sleep a night to rejuvenate. Regularly shortchanging our sleep harms our immune system and contributes to weight gain and mood swings. I find the essential oil lavender relaxing, and guided meditation apps have been helpful as well.
5. Take time to connect with nourishing friends.
As we have been stuck at home for weeks, we have realized how much we have missed face-to-face connections. Loneliness has a wide variety of negative impacts on both physical and mental well-being. Now that we can begin to gather again, prioritize being with people who bring out your best. Remember, relationships can be either nourishing or toxic, so be intentional.
6. Find meaning and purpose.
During my cancer journey I often wondered whether my life really mattered. I loved my work as a psychologist, but at a deeper level there was a space that family and career were not filling. I needed a greater sense of purpose. Over time, I discovered my mission of helping promote healing and well-being. Whatever you believe is calling to you, pursue it vigorously, and your health and well-being will benefit.
As the pandemic crisis lingers, we can develop our own personalized program to increase health and well-being. By addressing these six dimensions of health, we can improve our health and possibly even reverse some of the predisposing chronic conditions that make us vulnerable to the virus.