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Training Your Mind for the New Normal

A focus on physical health is more important during the current crisis

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The ongoing pandemic has understandably left people feeling anxious about the future. While sheltering in place is one of the best tools to fight the novel coronavirus, personal health goes beyond just avoiding the virus. Focusing on what we can control will reduce coronavirus-related anxiety and improve our overall health. Here is the information I am sharing with my clients and my family to help them be resilient as we adapt to an unprecedented new normal.

Regular exercise is crucial. Physical activity is our magic bullet, not only to manage anxiety and uncertainty, but to improve overall health. Some coronavirus comorbidities (e.g., hypertension, diabetes) are linked to severe effects of the disease such as hospitalizations and even death. These conditions are reduced or even eliminated through regular physical activity. Research shows that any exercise is better than no exercise. So even a small bit of exercise—a short walk or jumping jacks in your living room—can improve your mood and health. Set exercise goals, make calendar appointments and reward yourself afterward (e.g., Netflix or a tasty treat).

Have a regular sleep schedule. Sleep is critical to ensuring that the immune system functions effectively and defends us against infections like the novel coronavirus. Moreover, without enough sleep, individuals are more likely to experience negative emotions—including irritation and sadness—that can interfere with relationships. And relationships are already under strain from having to spend more time than normal with housemates. Individuals may also be more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors that might put them in danger of acquiring infections. If you're having difficulty sleeping, go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Have a dark, cool place to sleep. Avoid caffeine, and exercise before bedtime.

Avoid snacking. Although it is tempting to sneak handfuls of chips or candy, this type of food is only a short-term fix and can even make your mood worse over time. Instead, try to fill up on fruits, vegetables and whole grains before eating sweets or other snacks with empty calories. These "whole" foods are linked to a better mood and more consistent energy throughout the day.

Just breathe. As the world changes around you, you can always follow your breath to guide your relaxation practice. Deep diaphragmatic breathing (i.e., breathing using the muscles in your belly) has been shown to stimulate the immune system, oxygenate the blood and create a state of relaxation. Practicing just a few minutes a day can be helpful, and because you are always breathing, you can do it anywhere. Consider setting an alarm or using other daily activities (e.g., eating lunch) as a reminder. Apps like Insight Timer and Headspace can also guide you in your practice.

Limit exposure to news and screens. Although keeping up with the latest coronavirus news is important for one's health, following the news too closely may actually be harmful. In past research, the amount of time spent following news coverage of a national tragedy like 9/11 contributed to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety. We are all drawn to the overflowing negative headlines, but setting limits on your social media through apps on your smartphone or your computer will help you manage your exposure. Consider turning off news notifications and limiting screen time.

Seek professional help if you need it. If you are overwhelmed and have symptoms of depression or anxiety that do not go away over time, or if you experience strong feelings or behaviors (e.g., drinking or smoking too much) that interfere with your work or social relationships, you may want to seek professional help from a counselor or therapist. Consulting a therapist can help you better understand your problems and to find solutions that can change your life for the better.

Learn to accept. If we follow the national guidelines, we are doing what is recommended and are preventing infection. But regardless, we are all still dealing with a world around us that is hurting. Sometimes, it is helpful to work on what therapists call "acceptance." That does not mean you have to enjoy events that you find challenging. It just means recognizing that we can make a choice to live with uncertainty.

This new coronavirus presents challenges unlike anything we have experienced before. There is no perfect way to conduct our lives in this new era. But these tips can help keep us healthy and resilient for what lies ahead. We must treasure the relationships and gifts we do have and take one day at a time. Remember, breathe.

Dr. Michael V. Stanton is a Licensed Clinical Health Psychologist and Assistant Professor at California State University, East Bay.

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