April 21, 2020
The Shelter in Place Advantage
By Julie Gregory, Chief Health Liaison for Apollo Health.
We inexplicably find ourselves living in an unprecedented period in our nation’s history, sheltering in place to protect ourselves and those we love while also helping to “flatten the curve” and slow the spread of COVID-19. If you’re feeling stressed, you’re not alone. Your entire way of life has changed seemingly overnight. While it’s easy to give in to anxiety and the subsequent (often impulsive) unhealthy behaviors that accompany stress, I hope to encourage you to make a different choice. Reframe this “loss of freedom” as an opportunity to be free to focus on yourself.
Accept your new normal. Readjust your expectations. If you feel overwhelmed by stress, limit your exposure to the news. Put on calming music instead. This is a perfect time to actively start a stress management program. Consider treating yourself to the audible version of Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the father of modern mindfulness. Becoming more mindful will consciously help you make choices that move you towards greater health.
Don’t forget to move! Nothing is more energizing and healing than time spent outdoors. While some parks and trails are closed, there are still many places where you can safely enjoy your daily walk while still practicing social distancing. Smell the fresh air, feel the sun on your skin, observe nature blossoming into spring- blissfully unaware of the pandemic. If you miss your gym or exercise class, take advantage of the multitude of free online workout opportunities now available. Google to find an option that suits you. I’ve been enjoying CorePower Yoga and YMCA360, which offers yoga, barre, weight lifting, and programs for seniors.
Follow the ancient wisdom of Hippocrates and “Let food be your medicine and medicine by thy food.” We all have to eat for fuel, and this is a perfect time to learn new recipes to both nurture ourselves and to optimize health. Understand that stress can lead to powerful carbohydrate cravings. This is a real physiological phenomenon in which our brains involuntarily prepare to meet the demands of the stressor by sending a strong signal that more glucose is required. Carbohydrate-rich foods provide a ready supply of glucose, and they also stimulate the production of serotonin, our body’s “feel-good” chemical. Do your best to resist. This demand for extra glucose isn’t real. There are no actual fires to extinguish or mountain lions to outrun. Loading up on carbs will undermine your quest for insulin sensitivity and inhibit your ability to endogenously create ketones to fuel your brain. Look for healthy versions that imitate the carbohydrate-rich junk foods many of us have been craving, starting with some delicious ideas from Carolina’s Kitchen.
With fewer trips to the grocery store, challenge yourself to creatively use whatever produce you have in your refrigerator on a conservation basis, using the oldest first and preserving the freshest for later. I’m making lots of innovative and tasty “whatever goes” salads, stir-fries, and soups to make my groceries last and to spread out my shopping expeditions.
While the shelter-in-place orders may have literally downsized our worldview, this also provides us with extra time to focus on upsizing our brains. Stay social. Even if you live alone, make a point to even more deeply connect with friends and family by phone or through videoconferencing. Connecting with your loved ones during this period is a way of showing your love and nurturing your support system.
Use this opportunity to build cognitive reserve. Learn! If you have a dusty guitar and a secret desire to be a rock star, now’s your chance. Fender is offering free online lessons for three months. Yale has a multitude of free courses, ranging from Modern Poetry to Financial Theory. Keep your mind challenged. If you enjoy puzzles, do sudoku or crossword puzzles. Because dyscalculia, difficulty with math calculations, is a common symptom of cognitive decline, I enjoy the challenge of brushing up on my math skills. Math is Fun is a great website with challenges for all abilities.
Remember that sleep is one of the most powerful strategies we have for upregulating immunity and restoring health. If stress is affecting your sleep, consider exploring apps like Calm, Pzizz, or Headspace that offer sleep stories, guided sleeping, and “sleepcasts.” Adopting a good sleep hygiene program is more important now than ever.
Keep a steady bedtime and wake time, wear blue-blocking glasses to promote melatonin production and don’t engage in stimulating activities a few hours before bed, sleep in a completely dark room or wear a sleep mask, and keep the temperature cool (around 65 F) to promote restful sleep. To learn much more, treat yourself to “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker, Ph.D.
Use shelter-in-place to your advantage. Just as a caterpillar spins a silky cocoon and burrows in before emerging as a butterfly, you can use this period to refocus on your health and emerge renewed — stronger, healthier, cognitively sharper, and more joyous than ever.