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Is your mental health suffering with worry about COVID-19, work, and loved ones? Here’s how to think well and be healthy!

Eric Ho
20 March 2020
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Table of Contents

In a rush? If you want to reduce your worry, improve your mental health , and be healthy during the COVID-19 outbreak, you can skip directly to my smorgasbord of top tips for self-care.

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First off, this is not a post offering you medical advice!

You’ll probably be relieved to hear it!

There are plenty of experts who are giving very sound advice about how you need to change your behaviours. Yet, as I scan across the globe at how different authorities, people and cultures are tackling the pandemic, there are some areas where the advice and approaches conflict. 

This itself can be a cause of worry. 

As you’re someone who is a reader of my articles, I know you’re wise enough to work out what to do.

That said, If you’re interested in hearing more from me about my thoughts, please get in touch with me.

This also isn’t a productivity article telling you how best to work from home, if that’s something you’re not used to doing.

There are plenty of other great resources that show you how to do that.

In this article, I want to invite you to explore ways in which you can limit or avoid feelings of anxiety and worry about COVID-19 and working from home.

And by doing so, support your mental and physical health, so that you can be present for yourself, and the people around you.

The rupture in our familiar foundations forces us into survival mode

“The state of the world affects our states of mind and our states of mind affect the world”

Are you someone who is suddenly adjusting to new daily routines because of COVID-19? 

Perhaps you’re adapting to working from home, worrying whether you’ll have a job, or adjusting to a new environment?

Perhaps you’re taking on the burden of worrying about life (and lives) in ways that are unfamiliar and scary.

Of course, if you’re in a part of the world that acted early on, adjusting your routine will be old news. 

The things we have taken for granted as a normal part of our daily lives: travel, socialising, the collegiate aspect of working in an office, our health.

These foundations have been shaken.

Do these responses to what’s happening around you feel familiar to you?

There’s no rule book amid the uncertainty

As humans, we’ve evolved to survive, and the biochemical mechanisms that do that enable the “primitive” parts of our brain, like the amygdala, to respond to threats in ways that prioritise our survival.

These reactions and the emotions stem from sudden uncertainties about the future, the absence of a rule book to deal with the situation, and the fact we are human beings.

It’s important to acknowledge that all of these reactions and emotions you may be feeling are entirely normal. 

After all, we are human beings, not human doings.

We have as much control over our emotions fizzing into our anxiety-ridden minds as a bear has control over his urge to dip his paws in a pot of honey (particularly a stowaway one from Peru!).

These emotions trigger our sympathetic nervous system into “fight – flight – freeze” mode. That, in turn, triggers the elevation of cortisol levels, the stress hormone, into readying ourselves to survive.

They’re wonderful when we are escaping wild animals that want to eat us. 

But like workplace stress, when our brains think endlessly about the problems our new COVID-19 circumstances offer up, our instincts to survive these “threats” cause our stress levels to remain high.

And as you know, chronic stress and elevated cortisol negatively affects your mood, sleep quality, concentration and, importantly, your immune system’s ability to fight off disease.

It’s time to focus on you

Many of the clients that I work with have a hard time looking after themselves. They’re at the top of their game, exemplifying leadership in its many forms, and yet their ability to turn the focus of care – mental and physical – on themselves is often a big challenge.

I was one of the worst examples of not prioritising myself! 

So what can you do if you’re feeling anxious and worried to preserve your mental and physical health?

After all, being placed in quarantine or self-isolation can have a severe impact on your mental health in particular [1]. And working from home with others around you doing the same can bring fresh challenges to those relationships.

Choose how you respond to your worries!

As humans, we have the capacity to respond to our emotions – to set a course away from cycles of worry and rumination – to a place where we can feel positive and well, and thereby regain our human compassion to care for, lead and support those around us. 

Whether you are leading an organisation, managing a team, or looking after the vulnerable at home or in your local communities, focusing on prioritising and protecting YOU is paramount. 

Without looking after yourself, and showing yourself some compassion, it’s much harder to show up your very best and be there to care for, lead and support those around you – whether they are colleagues or loved ones, or both!

“Crowd out” your negative emotions and worries

Have you heard someone tell you to “keep calm and carry on”, or “just get on with it”.

Or “don’t worry, it’ll be fine”, or “we’ve experienced worse before!”.

Sympathetic, consoling statements like these often come from someone who has a genuine desire to help.

But how useful have they been to you when you hear them?

Do you find yourself going back to your worrisome thoughts after statements like these?

The alternative approach

If you find yourself stuck in a repeated mental loop of worry, turn your attention to self-care.

By doing so, you replace your natural, human instincts for self-preservation and survival into compassion for yourself.

You move away from your “fight – flight – freeze” response to one of “rest – relax – digest”.

The more you focus on these things, the less room you’ll have to focus on your negative thoughts and emotions.

They’ll be crowded out.

What crowding out is not?

It’s important to note that the purpose is not to remove, suppress or ignore your negative thoughts and emotions. We don’t have any control about how they arise. 

But you DO have the choice about how you respond.  

I encourage you to experiment with the smorgasbord of options below.

Find the ones that fit into your life, and build them in to your daily routine so they become the habits that form the foundation of good mental and physical health.

They’ll reduce your stress response and boost your mood and immune system.

And they’ll also help you relieve the anxiety and worry you may have at stressful times.

My smorgasbord of top tips for self-care

When you build resilience in your mind, you can conquer any challenge life throws at you!

Below I share the tools you can incorporate each day: social connection, consciousness self-awareness, food, supplements, sleep, movement and exercise.

They’ll support your mental and physical health in times of stress and dislocation. 

Armed with those tools, you can then re-focus your efforts to care for, lead and support those around you, and feel calm and in control about doing so.. 

I wrote previously about the principles – rooted in Functional Medicine and ancestral health – of how to thrive. This article takes those principles and applies them to how to look after your mental and physical health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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1. Social connection

We are human beings, not human doings. Connection with others is really important for your health and sense of wellbeing and happiness. 

As we self-isolate, or are placed in quarantine, this can have a big impact on our mental health.

Experiment with these ways to maintain social connection, and reduce the negative impacts of social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

1.1 Start your day with gratitude

Gratitude is a critical foundation of my morning routine. I write down the two or three things I am grateful for.

This is what I wrote down in my Bullet Journal after I caught myself looking at some videos online showing the plight of individuals in intensive care, and medical professionals battling to save people. 

Rather than worry about those emotionally challenging moments, I took inspiration and wrote down what I was grateful for: “being alive and breathing air”.

The simple act of writing down what you are grateful for each day reduces inflammation and relieves stress in measurable ways. Do it more, and it helps crowd out negative thoughts.

There are apps you can use to journal, like reflectly, thinkup, and happier. If you like traditional pen and paper 5-minute journal is a good resource. Of course, you can keep it simple and use a scrap of paper!

In a 2016 pilot study of patients with heart failure, the patient group who did gratitude journaling saw a decrease in inflammatory markers (CRP, TNF-α, IL-6) and an increase in heart rate variability, which corresponds to a decrease in the stress response [2].

1.2 Reconnect with a friend

Crises tend to bring people together. Old friends may have contacted you to see how you are. Make contact with a friend by phone or video conference and find out how they are!

They’ll be grateful for it!

1.3 Call a loved one

When was the last time you phoned someone you loved? Was it recently, or have you let things drift more than you’d like? Are you worried about them?

Now is a great opportunity to call a loved one and ask how they are.

1.4 Support your local community

Whilst the action needed to curtail the spread of COVID-19 is global, a successful response is hyper-localised effort. 

This is an example of the local groups that have been formed in the UK to help local communities:

Offer help to your immediate local community. It can make a major difference to the quality of people’s lives, particularly if they are elderly or socially isolated.

1.5 Express your appreciation

I have a section in my Evernote where I’ve collated all the instances (since June 2018) that someone has appreciated what I do for them.

Why? It’s a place for me to acknowledge and appreciate my strengths, positive qualities, and achievements. 

When we’re in the midst of ruminating about the “world coming to an end”, even when it isn’t, it’s difficult to shift one’s attention away from bad news and events. Picking up my appreciation journal in these moments is another tool that allows me to reframe that moment, reduce my worry, and crowd out the negativity.

Whenever you receive an appreciation, some recognition, or positive feedback that feels meaningful, take a moment to add it to your appreciation log along with the name of the person who said it and the date that you received it.

1.6 Spend time on activities that nourish you to crowd out those that don’t

Do you find yourself spending large chunks of time read the news about COVID-19?

Are you flicking through your social media feeds, captivated by what other people’s experiences of COVID-19 are?

It’s easy for your precious time to be eaten up in our hyperconnected world by devices and apps that don’t create a direct human connection that nourishes your emotional wellbeing.

Identify the activities that give you pleasure.

It might be going out and tending to your garden. Or playing some board games with your family. Hiking in the mountains. Or meditating.

Whatever it is, focus on bringing in these activities into your day so you’re spending less time on the newsfeeds and social media.

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2. Consciousness self-awareness

This sounds like a grand term – one that Gywneth Paltrow might coin. 

It’s really about switching off your autopilot response to bad news and emotions.

Your aim is to be aware of what you’re doing – what you’re worried about, or ruminating over – so that you can choose to take action, rather than reacting impulsively or instinctively.

When you find yourself shuttling backwards and forwards between worry and more worry about how to cope with COVID-19, notice yourself in those moments and experiment with something from the list below.

Experiment with the tips below to support your mental health and how you feel.

2.1 Acknowledge your emotions and feelings and call them out

One of the most effective ways to reduce a worried, wandering mind is to call out the emotions or feelings you’re experiencing. 

For example, if the thought of “losing a loved one” or “losing my job” or “the world is coming to an end” keeps coming into your mind, take a moment and name to yourself that this thought is arising in your mind. 

Naming it helps to re-activate the prefrontal cortex, which helps you to bring it fully into awareness and dis-identify from the thought, creating a bit of space and objectivity.

You might say to yourself: “worry, worry, worry” or “thinking, thinking, thinking”.

Then breathe, relax and soften those areas in your body – your shoulders, your chest – where you might be feeling tension.

Now that you have a little space between you and your thoughts and feelings, name something positive. 

Re-direct your attention intentionally to something positive. 

Perhaps you could yourself “What IS going well in my life?” or “What IS something about myself that I appreciate or value?”

2.2. Practise mindfulness or meditation

having a regular mindfulness or meditation practice trains your mind to be present in the moment, and to calm a wandering mind. Regular practice literally rewires your brain, helps you put some space between your emotions and how you respond, and helps take you out of that “ruminating mind”-mode. [3]

Like any skill, you need to practise to improve. Be in this one for the long haul, rather than expecting a magic quick fix. 

Your mind and body will thank you!

2.3 Focus on your breathing

The foundation of practices like yoga, tai chi, mindfulness, meditation is a focus on your breath.

If you catch yourself feeling tense – perhaps you find yourself arguing about the lack of space at home now that you’re confined to close quarters – focus on your breath, and notice how the air flows in and out of your nostrils, how it moves to fill your lungs and chest. 

2.4 Go outdoors in nature

Nature has a wonderful effect on mood and wellbeing – lowering blood pressure, reducing stress, increasing your concentration.

A stile covered in snow at the top of Swirl How, Lake District National Park

This is a picture I took at the top of Swirl How at 802 metres in the Lake District National Park, four hours into a six hour hike.

One of my favourite activities is to go hiking – placing one foot after another, reaching a  summit, and seeing the expanse of nature unfolding in front of me.  Or perhaps you’ve been outside and bathed amongst the trees in a forest or in woodlands, which the Japanese call shinrinyoku?

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3. Food

Now more than ever is the time to focus on food as a way to boost your immune system.

What you eat can determine your mood and sense of wellbeing, the amount of energy you have and the quality of sleep you get.

Food is one of the most important influences on not just health, but wellbeing and mood.

3.1 The right foods support your immune system

Food is not just there to taste good. It is information. Food tells our body what genes to turn off, or on. It regulates our immune system and primes our bodies to fight disease. 

It does all of these things naturally, but only when we feed our bodies the right building blocks.

By focusing on a paleo-template approach and incorporating nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory, whole-foods, we give our bodies the instructions it needs to do all of these things naturally. 

Since those with diabetes are more likely to die from COVID-19 this is a great opportunity to cut sugar and refined flours which suppress the immune system.

Until I publish my own book, there are plenty of other trusted resources out there that delve into the details of all of this. Here is one, and another, of my favourites.

3.2 What one thing could I change about my diet to have the biggest impact?

If you don’t have the time or wherewithal to delve into those books, the simplest expression of the paleo-template principle to follow was expressed by Michael Pollan:

Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” 

If moving to a paleo-template approach seems too much of a step right now, the biggest contributors to improving your gut health (and therefore your immune system), your mood and your energy are to cut out:

  • refined flours
  • industrial seed oils
  • sugar

They are the biggest sources of inflammation that you can introduce to your body. 

Here are some additional things that you might focus on.

Drink bone broth

Drink broth made from pasture-raised, organic beef or lamb bones.

It’s a great way to get gut-nourishing, gut-healing collagen, amino acids, minerals, glycine, and gelatin. 

Eat fermented foods

These support your microbiome and immunity. Try sauerkraut, kimchi, natto, miso, tempeh, unsweetened yogurt, kombucha, and kefir.

Liberally add garlic, onions, ginger, and lots of spices (oregano, turmeric, rosemary) to your food

Garlic and onions offer wide spectrum antimicrobial properties. Herbs and spices are the most nutrient dense foods we can feed ourselves.

Eat multiple servings of colourful fruits and vegetables

They’re chock full of vitamins C, A, as well as phytonutrients that support the immune system. Think leafy greens, peppers, sweet potatoes, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower), and squashes.

If you’re at home and want to eat along these lines, one of my lunches might inspire you!

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4. Supplements

A word about supplements!

First off, it’s always best to get your vitamins and minerals from whole foods in the way I’ve mentioned above.

The world of supplements can be a confusing one, with lots of money being poured in to support health claims which are not often supported by science.

Here are two resources from Chris Kresser and Mark Hyman that I trust. I hope you will find useful.

[23 MAR UPDATE: Chris Kresser now recommends exercising caution to avoid bee propolis and high doses of vitamins A and D.

Research has emerged suggesting that propolis and mega doses of A and D may not be a good idea, because at least in theory, they could increase the expression of ACE-2 [angiotensin converting enzyme 2] receptors . The reason ACE-2 receptors are relevant is because coronavirus can get into our cells by hijacking ACE-2 receptors.

However, you can and should still eat adequate amounts of A and D in food.]

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5. Sleep

Good quality sleep supports your immune system. It gets your body battle-ready to fight off disease and infection.

And it will also help you deal better with any negative thoughts and worry as the COVID-19 situation unfolds.

Here are some tips to help you get the best quality sleep.

5.1 Get up and go to bed at regular times

Even if you’re working from home, aim to wake up and go to bed at the same time each day.

Have a wind-down period before bed: Before the time you want to fall asleep, switch off from the outside world. Dispense with your phone, switch off the messages, the newsfeeds, the addictive video feeds, and do something relaxing. 

Perhaps reading, listening to music, reflecting on your day in a journal, practising mindfulness.

5.2 Get outdoors in the morning

Kick start your circadian rhythm and go outside for some fresh air. Obviously, do that without breaking any local quarantine or self-isolation restrictions that apply where you are. 

Having a walk and getting sunlight in the morning (even on a cloudy day) will help you fall asleep at night. As your body’s sleep chemicals (like melatonin) will fire off in the evening at the right time.

5.3 Put your device in another room

Avoid distraction in the middle of the night and put your phone in another room. It’ll help you avoid the blue light that disrupts timing of your melatonin production and upsets your circadian rhythm.

Use an alarm clock instead.

5.4 If you’re having trouble falling or staying asleep

Try 4-7-8 breathing. Dr Andrew Weil’s video is a great explainer. 

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6. Movement and exercise

Experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic creates a perfect storm of worry.

Keeping moving and exercising regularly are important contributors to your mental health and mood.

Keeping active boosts your feel good hormones, and helps you get out of a rumination rut. 

Many of you will have your own favourite exercise routines. But, if you’re not able to go to your classes at your fitness centre, what can you do at home instead?

6.1 Stand frequently

If you’re new to working from home, how much you move may change. You may not be walking along the corridor to your colleagues to have a chat. You may find yourself sat in your chair.

Sitting for long periods has negative consequences on your health. It impairs metabolic function, is associated with lower levels of HDL and increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

Get up every 30 minutes and walk around or stretch.

Think about what you need to do to remind yourself to stand up regularly. For example, if you get stuck on a long video conference, what will you do?

6.2 High Intensity Interval Training

One of the things I do when I’m travelling for work is a high intensity interval training. 

Hotel room burpees are my favourite, but you could do them in your living room or bedroom floor. 

20 seconds “on”, 10 seconds rest.

Repeat 8 times.

Here’s an app that times those intervals for you. [4]

6.3 Outdoors activities

Provided you’re sticking to your local guidelines around self-isolation, try running, cycling or other outdoor activities to help you break up your day 

6.4 Indoor activities

If you aren’t able to go outside, try some press ups, squats, burpees, or going up and down the stairs.

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Incorporating your new tips into your day

Some of the tips I shared with you will resonate with you. Some you’ll not want to try at all.

And many of you will already have a solid routine for looking after yourself.

If you see tips that you’re keen to try, the key is putting them into practice.

Making habits stick is hard at the best of times. There are many distractions that can divert you from, say, your exercise goals. You might create elaborate reasons in your mind to opt for a meal of convenience rather than one that supports health.

These mental loopholes might sound like:

  • “I don’t have enough time to eat well”, or
  • “I think I’ll get through this busy period and then change.”
  • “Maybe I’ll just go for a walk tomorrow instead”, or
  • “I promise myself I’ll start next week”

Start small!

Habits are much easier to form if you start small. So, if you want to incorporate doing squats three times a week, start with a goal of one squat three times a week, and increase it from there.

It might sound so easy – how difficult is it to do one squat?

But that’s the point. Once you see success, you build what we call “self efficacy”: your frame of mind shifts to one in which you believe you can succeed.

Success, however small, breeds success!

Over to you!

What actions are you planning to incorporate to preserve your mental and physical health, and worry less during the COVID-19 pandemic so you can be there for those around you?

There’s no time like now to build in a small change day by day.

If you’re keen to experiment, take the smallest easiest change that resonates with you, and build it in now!

As a health and wellbeing coach, I’m a specialist in creating the conditions for changes in your behaviour so that you can thrive – even in the midst of COVID-19. Get in touch if you’d like to learn more about how I can help you .  

Be wise, be healthy, be well.

Eric

ps If you’re going to incorporate any of the exercise and movement or supplement recommendations tips above, do consult with your healthcare practitioner before trying them, or amending your existing practices!

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