On March 27, the state of North Carolina officially issued a 30-day Stay at Home order to go in effect March 30, an extension for some and a new measure for other regions of North Carolina.
It rings, at once, as reassuring: The state will protect the vulnerable, tamp down on the spread, and keep a careful eye on factors that the general population simply cannot know. It rings, too, as purely terrifying for businesses, the economy, and everyone’s personal bank accounts and plans for Spring 2020. In this moment of real uncertainty, there is not one person unaffected.
It occurs to me that it is also insidiously unnerving from a health perspective that extends beyond the physical. Staying physically well is, of course, an absolute imperative right now. But there are many things that thrive in darkness, in isolation, and in fear that are threatening to our health, as well. There was a sigh of defeat and resignation that ran through me even as I knew that the 30 days (or longer) were meant to protect me, my neighbors, the state…by no understatement even the world. It feels important and big. And also unending. And dark.
So here we are. Indoors and confined. Isolated more than usual. How much so is different for everyone, of course, and it is also worth noting that many of us don’t have to be alone to feel alone. So while we are fortunate, in spades, to still be able to go outside, to visit the market, to get prescription medication, even to pickup food from local restaurants, it bears noting that life will not, cannot, get back to “normal” for what seems right now like an ever longer period.
And as strongly as we encourage you to follow, stringently, every measure of precaution for physical health that the CDC advises, this is an encouragement to exercise that same care, right now, for your mental and emotional well-being. That’s not trivial: Anxiety and distress, and even sadness, can spike our levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. That stress hormone, released over a long period creates high levels of inflammation throughout the body, leading to an overworked, over-tired immune system. Health operates on all levels.
Care for yourself so you can care for others – the ever useful “put your oxygen mask on first” airplane metaphor. These are some actionable steps:
- Take at least ten minutes of quiet. Once a day, no music, no phone, no distractions. Call it meditation, prayer, and or simply a few minutes of silence. No matter the name it goes by, there are answers and peace to be found in real stillness.
- Minimize use of social media and news consumption. Now, more than ever, news feeds and phones and the internet are beckoning at every turn. The 24-hour news cycle has never seemed more alluring than when there is an update on this virus every second. And don’t worry if you feel you “can’t help” but get sucked in. It’s not just you: Indeed, drawing from the same intentional engineering that makes gambling addictive, the “infinite scroll” was created to ping the same pleasure centers in your brain, making it nearly impossible to walk away and creating that “where did the last hour just go…?” feeling. Filled with necessary but also often frightening information right now, the internet and the news can be, at least, minimized daily to create space in your mind and emotions for other things.
- Be okay with not being okay. If you feel anxiety, fear, stress, or even just fatigue, name it. Share it. Don’t run from it or hide it. When you share the things you would rather hide, others are given permission to drag their darkness into the light, too. Hold space and listen, and ask your loved ones often what’s going on in their minds and if he or she needs support.
- Ask for help. With the dishes, with the pets, with the kids, with having a quiet work space, or with tempering those feelings above, just ask. And in turn, give help. When we can turn our minds away from our own worries to take action, we are often given the unexpected gift of feeling better ourselves.
- Recognize and give over to the loss of control. This is a true test in recognizing our smallness, our ineffectiveness, our inability to keep the world turning just as we’d like. Instead, simply acknowledge that right now, you can’t have the answers, know the future, or control the outcome. Instead, commit to being in the present moment; the rest will inevitably come.
- Indulge in simple pleasures. Gardening. Reading. Writing. Phone or video calls. Walking, hiking, exploring. Long drives. Music. A movie. Without the vices and virtues of our normally busy lives, we are faced with soaking up the aforementioned present moment in small but beautiful ways.
- Try something new. Rather than unspooling hours on the internet, confront boredom the way we used to have to: by getting creative. This is the time to take a music or singing lesson, to cook an intricate recipe, to sign up for that language course, to doodle or draw. Creating space for our minds to focus on a challenge allows a distraction from all that worry.
- Reach out, remotely. From writing cards to video calls to a simple text message, the beauty of connecting virtually has never been more apparent.
- Eat well, drink water. If you feel off, start with the simple questions instead of the big ones: Do you need to flip your life upside down, or did you just not eat enough nutritious food? Is everything terrible, or have you not had a glass of water in four hours? Care for yourself simply first, and then layer the rest on top.
- Try to recognize the gifts of stillness. There is something to be found in all of this, a pause that’s been granted on an unusually large scale. Without a single social obligation, without need to run dozens of errands, what can you do instead? There is a gift in the stillness, and it’s yours to find. Remember too that if you can’t see that gift now, it doesn’t mean you won’t feel its effects in the future.