Since the first cases of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 appeared, the spread of the infection has been both rapid and global. Social media and news outlets allow us to follow its devastating progress 24 hours per day. Many of us now have the time to do so – governments have introduced unprecedented measures, including closing businesses and confining people to their homes. For some who catch the virus, the physical toll is enormous, even fatal. For many of us, the impact of the virus will be limited to our livelihoods and mental well-being as we juggle concerns over family health, paying bills, dealing with isolation, and distinguishing fact from fiction in COVID-19 reports. Unsurprisingly, an increasing number of people have reported feelings of anxiety and fear;(1) in fact, there are suggestions that, in China, the general public are more traumatized by the outbreak than front-line nurses.(2) And with research indicating that stress not only depresses our immune response, but increases our risk of catching infectious diseases and the length of time we are ill(3), finding some calm within the storm has never been more important.
9 tips for staying safe and sane during the COVID-19 outbreak
We have rifled through the treasure trove of 1 million+ publications in Dimensions for expert advice to guide us through the weeks and months ahead.
1. Adopt or foster a pet
The benefits of having an animal at home are many…. Studies have found that pets can help combat loneliness, a problem for many self-isolating right now. Stroking a pet not only reduces the higher cortisol levels associated with stress, it also boosts your immunity; for example, college students who petted a dog for only 18 minutes showed raised immunoglobulin A (IgA) levels, which are linked to healthy immune function. The good news is it doesn’t have to be your own pet – borrowing a family member’s or a neighbor’s works just as well.
2. Hug a household member
Our bodies release the nonapeptide oxytocin whenever we are in close contact with a loved one or bond socially. Studies show that the “love hormone” oxytocin induces stress-reducing effects; for example, reduced blood pressure and cortisol levels. While many countries are asking citizens to maintain a 1.5 meter distance, direct contact with household members is still generally allowed (unless they are self-isolating).
3. Talk it out
Quarantine can be a lonely business. Luckily, hearing the voice of a friend or loved one over the phone can induce feelings of well-being – in fact, the sound of a mother’s voice can be as comforting as a hug. Sharing does help – research shows that if you are stressed about something, talking with someone who understands how you are feeling – and ideally is experiencing that feeling at the same time – provides relief from stress.
But it seems that video chats offer even stronger bonding opportunities. Although many guidelines discourage media exposure for children under two, live video calls can help children aged 12-25 months form relationships with the person they see on the screen; great news for family members separated from young children at this time.
4. Leverage online support
While many studies have found that excessive social media use can have a negative effect on mental health and well-being, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. A 2019 paper reported that abstaining from social media can lead to a drop in life satisfaction and an increase in loneliness. Social media platforms are also a place people can air their concerns and seek like-minded people to connect with. And, in traumatic times, they allow people to express collective emotion, which in turn creates a stronger sense of solidarity and resilience. And don’t forget the online services, games and apps out there designed to help people with anxiety – research suggests they can be highly effective.
5. Work in your garden
Unless you are self-isolating, in most countries your garden isn’t out of bounds. A review of published research found that gardening reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety for those with mental health issues. This echoes evidence uncovered by occupational therapy gardening research, which found that it reduces stress by creating “a profound and intimate connection to the natural world”.
6. Appreciate nature
If you are still allowed to, try to exercise outside each day – it’s better at improving mood than exercising indoors (e.g. walking on a treadmill). While anytime spent outdoors is widely believed to be good for us, a 2019 study suggests that a minimum of two hours a week is ideal – and that’s whether you’re walking, admiring the view, or sitting on a bench. There is also a suggestion that nature sounds (e.g. ocean waves, stream, thunderstorm and birds) can have a beneficial effect on our mental health.
7. Keep physically active
The positive benefits of physical exercise on our sense of well-being has long been known, and it can help with a range of mental health issues from PTSD to depression and anxiety. Many of those worst hit by COVID-19 have been the elderly but the good news is that physical exercise can improve the gradual deterioration of the immune system brought on by ageing and increase responsiveness to vaccines. It’s also a great way to burn off energy from being cooped up in the house and can help us sleep better, which research shows is a great way to boost immune functionality.
8. Try to be mindful
Mindfulness training and meditation has a positive impact on improving mental well-being and decreasing stress. It seems the benefits of practising mindfulness can be long-term – a study that revisited students four years after their initial mindfulness course found they showed significantly better scores on mental distress, mindfulness, avoidance coping and problem-focused coping than those who had received no training.
9. Think about what you eat (and drink)
Various studies indicate that vitamins can help us keep stress at bay whether that’s in the form of an increased fruit intake or taking supplements such as magnesium and vitamin C. There’s also the “food-mood connection” to consider – high intakes of fruit, vegetables, fish and whole grains may be associated with a reduced depression risk. The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued a warning about drinking too much alcohol during lockdown. Research suggests it is sage advice – alcohol can suppress the immune system and even make us more susceptible to pneumonia and acute respiratory stress syndromes. While increased alcohol use can lead to a corresponding increase in anxiety-like behavior.
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