How to Take Care of Yourself if You Have a Serious Health Condition During This Crisis

Prioritizing sleep, mindfulness, and moments of joy can help more than ever.

Mila Supinskaya Glashchenko/Shutterstock
Mila Supinskaya Glashchenko/Shutterstock


COVID-19 has tested all of us, and in many cases it has demanded new levels of strength and resilience. But for those people dealing with serious health conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, or any kind of disability, the pandemic has only intensified challenges that were already formidable. These patients often face increased health risks and lowered immunity, which means that formerly straightforward tasks like shopping for food or getting to essential hospital appointments can become overwhelming. Whether you are at home on your own or living with family members, you may not have the professional help from caregivers you had been getting previously.

“People, for example, with cancer are going through a lot of stress anyway, dealing with their diagnosis and  prognosis; often they have social and financial concerns, too,” Dr. Santosh Kesari, M.D., Ph.D., a neuro-oncologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, tells Thrive. With COVID-19, he says, all those worries are magnified, as these patients have a higher risk of contracting the virus. It’s crucial that they (as well as those supporting them) take care of themselves.

If you’re a patient with a major health condition, here are seven tips to help you maintain your physical and emotional well-being throughout the pandemic.

Connect with family and friends

“People with cancer — or other conditions — depend on close relationships to stay positive and to improve,” Dr. Kesari points out. “That is difficult now with social distancing, so virtually connecting with loved ones is extremely important.” If you feel lonely (especially if you’re living alone), reach out to one friend or family member per day with a text or a phone call. That will help you feel more connected.  

Make virtual appointments with your medical team

Patients should utilize all the online resources their doctors and hospitals are offering, Dr. Kesari advises. “Schedule virtual appointments with your physicians, social workers, and psychiatrists when you can. They can be just as valuable as face-to-face consultations.”

Catch up on a household chore or two

Getting involved in the running of the house, even if it’s just to put away a couple of dishes or sort the mail, can provide a sense of accomplishment, because you’ll be making a meaningful contribution and will feel useful, says Dr, Shanthi Gowrinathan, M.D., a psychiatrist and director of psycho-oncology at Providence Saint John’s in Santa Monica. “I am a big believer in encouraging patients to join in the family’s routine and schedule.” Depending on your dexterity, even if you are in a wheelchair you may be able to help fold laundry or set out ingredients for a meal.  

Spend time in nature

Nature is very healing at all times, and particularly right now for patients,” Dr. Gowrinathan says. “While minimizing the risk of exposure to the virus, being outdoors — even just sitting outdoors — can be profoundly comforting.” But she points out that if you can’t get outside, watching nature videos or T.V. programs can be beneficial. Dr. Gowrinathan recommends videos by cinematographer Louie Schwartzberg. There is research that has shown connecting to nature, even virtually, can be healing. “It’s helpful for the reduction of anxiety, stress, and can help depression,” she notes. 

Pick up a hobby

Depending on the severity of your condition, Dr. Gowrinathan recommends engrossing yourself in a pastime that’s meaningful to you. “I’ve been saying to my patients: ‘Go back to something that you used to love to do and you don’t do anymore, like painting or knitting.’” Doing something different can stave off stress and depression, which is especially important because Dr. Gowrinathan notes that for people with serious health conditions, life can feel particularly monotonous now. She also suggests going out for a drive, if you can, to lift your spirits: “Even if you don’t actually go anywhere and stay in the car, it can break up the routine.”

Move

With social distancing mandates, many patients aren’t able to attend their regular outpatient physical therapy sessions. If you can’t do vigorous exercise, just do the best you can, Dr. Gowrinathan says. Research has shown that exercising outdoors has greater physical and mental benefits. But any exercise, even gentle stretching, is great. “One of my cancer patients used to be a ballet dancer,” Dr. Gowrinathan says. “Right now, she can still do some of the core moves. Another patient who loves cycling just bought a stationary bike.” If you are healthy enough, you can try an online workout.  FitBit is currently offering a free trial subscription for 90 days, including access to FitBit Coach.

Practice mindfulness

Meditating, or even just breathing exercises (like slowing down your breath for a minute or two) can help patients feel more positive, Dr. Kesari and Dr. Gowrinathan agree. Research has shown that the regular practice of meditation can improve your health because it can lower the negative effects of not only high cortisol (the stress hormone), but also high cholesterol and high blood pressure. If you don’t have a regular practice yet, try starting one with an app like Insight Timer or Headspace.

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