Your owner’s manual: A psychiatrist’s guide to weathering… anything
Practical advice on caring for yourself in a time of national emergency
I’m intrigued by things that promote wellness, longevity, and happiness. Many of them are baked in, though we often screw them up because we think we know better. Indeed, common sense tells us, and science supports, that we have a robust capacity to survive adversity — to heal and bounce back.
I come up with ten big-ticket items, there may be more. And like an owner’s manual buried in a drawer, it’s time for a read.
1. Adequate sleep. Huge literature to support this. Insufficient sleep is associated with early death from all causes. And if you don’t get close to the recommended amount (eight hours for adults, more for teens and children), do something about it. Huge implications for sleep –or the lack thereof–and immune health. Indeed, some cruel experiments with rats show that we die sooner from a total lack of sleep than a total lack of food. And the cause of death is the complete collapse of our immune system. This is no time to skimp on sleep, especially for caregivers and those with active infections and other health issues.
2. Exercise and physical activity. The current recommendations to decrease heart disease and risk for stroke are 150 minutes/week. Studies –and me– push this closer to an hour/day, and don’t let two days go by in a row without doing something. It’s not just for physical strength and flexibility, but good studies demonstrate decreases in anxiety, depression, migraines (both frequency and severity), and the risk of Alzheimer’s among many other benefits. The brain juice that gets released during exercise does wonderful things, and includes natural opioids, cannabinoids, and stuff that enhances new neuronal growth (Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor). It doesn’t appear to matter what type of exercise you do—Yoga, weights, tennis, hiking, Tai Chi/Qigong, walking the dog/boyfriend/wife… duration is the key.
3. Social interaction. Phone a friend, spend time with those in your home, and don’t multitask. Be with them. I suggest we ditch the corona-term “social distancing” and replace it with physical distance, as that’s the goal.
4. Nutrition. It’s our fuel. The choices are limitless, and rather than wolf down what’s before you, maybe take some time to taste and appreciate each bite. It’s a remarkable thing to consider the journey that every grape, banana, or package of hamburger has taken to arrive on your plate—from the farmer, often in another country, who grew or raised the thing, to the packers, shippers, and store clerks who set it out on the shelves.
5. Mental flexibility, humor, and optimism. Those who have these attributes and can hang onto them in times of hardship make it though in better shape. When God hands you lemonade… make cocktails. Or something to that effect. The sun will come out tomorrow, and if it doesn’t, how fabulous for the mushrooms and daffodils.
6. Hygiene. The drug companies would like us to believe they’re responsible for our much-improved longevity. In general, they’re not. But sanitation and plumbing are. Wash your hands. Take a shower. Wipe down surfaces that others have touched, embrace your inner OCD.
7. Meaningful activity. Work and play. Give back to others, plant a garden, try something new. Download that piano app and commit to daily practice. Plug in the sewing machine, get out in the garden, work on that book, design a website, read a book (preferably one of mine and then leave a review on Amazon), paint, bake something challenging, pray, meditate, play with your cats/dogs/hamsters/child…
8. If something is broken, fix it. Don’t let medical stuff fester and get worse. Listen to your body. Most of us can’t stand going to the doctor –me too– but pay attention. Pain is there for a reason. Don’t ignore it.
9. Be kind to yourself. Embrace who you are. Attend to your emotions. Similar to number eight, and woven through all the above, identify what promotes your emotional health and practice daily. (This bit about practice cannot be overemphasized). Be mindful of how much time you spend listening to doom-and-gloom news feeds. Stay informed but get what you need and then change the channel, both literally and figuratively.
10. Avoid quick fixes with drugs and alcohol. While these make people feel great in the short run, when used habitually or to excess, they shorten life and generate misery. In truth, drugs work, just not well enough.
That’s my list for today. As these op-eds include space for people to respond, I would love to see what others might add that works for them. And remember, the key to all the above is not just knowing the thing, but doing it.
Charles Atkins, MD is a psychiatrist, member of the Yale volunteer faculty, and author with a recent book on opioid use disorders, and a PARADE special edition magazine on the Science of Sleep. His website is www.charlesatkins.com.
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