10 Helpful Reminders: Rx for a Pandemic & Every Other Day Too
Updated: Jul 31, 2020
1. The Physical & Mental Toll of Worry in a Time Such as This
2. Pandemic Rx: Gratitude
3. Productivity, Habit & Discipline During Uncertain Times
4. Pandemic Rx: Exercise
5. Solitude & our Power Separate from the Rest of the World
6. Pandemic Rx: Unplugging
7. Developing Resilience & Perseverance
8. Pandemic Rx: Greenspace
9. The Restart and the Value of Optimism
10. Pandemic Rx: Play, Nostalgia and Creativity
One: The Physical & Mental Toll of Worry in a Time Such as This
"Cultivating a measure of intelligent detachment in your life can be a valuable instrument of peace.” – Elizabeth Gilbert
A pandemic of stress, worry, anxiety
No one alive has experienced anything like this global pandemic and shutdown, the effects of which will no doubt be deep, widespread and long-lasting.
Even pre-pandemic, Americans were more stressed out, worried and anxious than ever.
From financial and housing worries to career and relationship stress, a 2019 poll by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) indicated that our collective anxiety was already on the rise. This virus certainly isn’t helping.
Anxiety is a disorder in reaction to our stress that has emotional, physical and mental components.
This last component includes worry: the thoughts associated with our stress and fears, that can and do run amok. A new APA poll adds COVID worries to our already-packed list of stressors.
As we hunker down to distance ourselves, half of America (48%) are worried about becoming infected with coronavirus. Forty (40%) percent of us worry about becoming seriously sick or dying from the virus; and a majority of Americans (62%) worry about our loved ones contracting the virus.
Beyond the spread itself, about half of us also fear shortages of food, medicine or supplies and almost one-third worry about lack of potentially-necessary tests and healthcare.
Most Americans are worried about the pandemic’s impact on their financial situation and 68% of Americans have concern about the long-term impact all of this will have on our economy.
There is an upside to a little bit of worrying - especially when our life or the life of a loved one is on the line. Normal levels of anxiety actually motivate us to work harder, problem-solve and help us prepare for the future. In the case of coronavirus, worry may cause us to be extra diligent, when it’s most important.
The problem is worry doesn’t much lend itself to moderation.
Most worry is not rational
Actual facts, if you can find them, help immensely. There’s already enough to worry about without adding random conspiracy theories or one or the other sides’ political agenda.
Way back before coronavirus, you know, a couple of months ago, the general consensus was that about 85% - 90% of what we worry about never actually happens. Let’s just go ahead and assume that whatever the majority of us are worried about right now is real and true and worth the fret.
That doesn’t mean it helps.
Indeed, all that worry and excessive stress actually clouds decision-making, blocking new ideas or solutions or a new perspective that can help us. In fact, studies have linked the stress hormone to a drop in mental function/IQ and brain mass, and memory loss.
Living for long stretches in a heightened state of anxiety, we do harm to our mental health and our physical well-being. If there was ever a time to focus on our own health, it’s now.
The physical toll of stress and worry
While our brain is working us up into a tither mentally and emotionally, there is also a real physical toll happening as well: anxiety and worry lead to high blood pressure and can increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke.
Stress leads to weakened immune systems, stomach ulcers, backaches, panic attacks, heart palpitations, skin conditions and problems with the bowels. Basically, anxiety can take down every part of your body.
Research shows that living with long-term stress even shortens our life expectancy.
Uncertainty and anxiety
Little right now is certain and there is much outside of our control.
Uncertainty has been found to play a key role in anxiety. Our level of worry is determined in great part to how we are able to live and accept the uncertainties of life. The more fearful we are, the more anxiety we have.
Whatever lies ahead, it is actually possible to come out mentally and psychologically stronger after this. But that won’t just happen on its own. To help dial down the anxiety, let’s focus on what we have control over.
Step-by-step we can focus on just the next single thing at a time. We can plan and prepare and possibly reduce the chances of negative events.
After we do what we can, it helps to try to release control and emotional investment in the outcome. It will be or it won’t be. Or maybe it will be wearing a different hat and we won’t recognize it.
To not drive ourselves crazy, we then have to let it go. They call it: “intelligent detachment”.
Easy for they to say.
Sometimes though – like exactly like a time like this - you may have to deal with bad events and you won’t be able to emotionally detach no matter what. If you can’t stop the worry and stress, it helps to at least contain it; limit its power over your life.
Call it: That’s enough stress and worry for today.
Don’t let it take over your life. We empower worry by feeding it. Don’t give all your anxiety a voice - or an audience. Recall the ancient proverb: Misery loves company, especially online.
Worried thoughts are within our control to turn off. The mind is reactive. It will follow us where we lead it. We can replace those thoughts with habits that serve us instead.
No matter what there is to worry and stress about – and there may be a lot - that’s not all of your life.
There’s still plenty of good things going on.
An immediate elixir for what ails us, gratitude brings relief from our worry and strife. Like right now, if you’re not in a hospital bed, sitting beside one or planning a loved one’s funeral, give big thanks.
Pandemic Rx: Gratitude
"As long as you are breathing, there is more right with you than wrong with you, no matter what is wrong.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn
These days we’re reminded of how fortunate we are for many basic things we take for granted. Gratitude can help us appreciate all we have.
In uncertain times like these, gratitude helps us focus and delineate our true needs from our wants. Like with workers and businesses, life right now is being separated distinctly: necessary from unnecessary; critical vs. not.
A time such as this demands we be grateful for the problems we don’t have. OK, yeah, it’s bad. But it very likely could be worse.
Cultivating daily gratitude is strongly correlated with greater levels of happiness and better physical, psychological and mental health. Gratitude helps to reduce stress and improves self-esteem.
Gratitude improves our relationships and reduces depression. It has proven therapeutic with mental health issues and has helped in overcoming trauma.
It’s all-season, all-reason effective. It works in traffic. It works in the hospital. It works in divorce court. It works in a hurricane. It works in a pandemic. Research has shown we can get better at this skill and make our life better in the process.
In the midst of this storm like we’ve never seen before, gratitude can only help things.
“I wept because I had no shoes, until I saw a man who had no feet.” – ancient Persian saying
Productivity, Habit & Discipline During Uncertain Times
In times of uncertainty, it helps to stay productive and busy.
Rather than focusing on what makes us anxious, on problems and the unknowns ahead – many with few answers right now – let’s turn our attention to the things that could use some tending.
At moments such as this, idle time is not a friend.
Our list of to-dos or never-gotten-to projects can benefit greatly from this time, never mind our psyche.
You cannot control what’s happening out there for now. When nothing’s normal, let’s play pretend by keeping up regular routines and habits as much as possible.
Discipline & habit
If there’s a part of you at all that is disciplined, now is the time to put that part in charge.
Especially during tough times, it is self-discipline that keeps us moving in the direction of our goals. One foot in front of the other, even in the rainstorm.
Whatever comes next, it’s going to be challenging and require we push through everyday resistance: the world’s and our own. Our level of self-discipline and our habits can be our best friend or worst enemy.
Give yourself an action plan and then follow it every day. No matter what. No matter how you feel.
Research has shown that self-discipline is a greater predictor of success than intelligence.
Discipline is about not allowing ourselves to be distracted – by a screen, by other people, by our own doubts, negative thoughts and especially our own apathy and inertia.
It means laying a brick every single day towards what you want to achieve. And then tomorrow another.
Depending on what you are trying to build, you will have many days of laying bricks where the growing structure may look nothing like where you want to end up. But it’s not about this day or tomorrow. It’s about a day in the future when you’re standing atop all you’ve built. It’s about holding a picture in your mind and being willing to do what it takes to make it real.
Over time, the self-discipline that allows us to get things done and exert self-control, becomes a habit.
Our habits are who we are.
What may start out as sheer will and discipline can become part of our make-up and can create positive, lifelong habits despite the effort. It can move from drudgery to enjoyment.
Self-discipline is about not letting ourselves or our goals down. It’s free, completely within our control and one of the biggest keys to success.
People willing to hunker down day after day in pursuit of a dream will eventually succeed because inertia is a powerful force that will hold the majority of people in place. If it were easy, everyone would do it.
In times of turmoil especially, regular positive habits can be lifesavers – and some of them quite literally.
Pandemic Rx: Exercise
“I do it as therapy. I do it as something to keep me alive. We all need a little discipline. Exercise is my discipline.” – Jack LaLanne
For stamina and strength, and as your greatest defense against this virus, the habit of regular exercise is one of the best gifts you can give yourself.
The weekly recommended amount of physical activity works out to about 21 minutes a day, on average, of moderate cardio exercise. For parity purposes, that amounts to a single episode of the 10-episode season you watched in one sitting.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, almost 82% of adults and adolescents do not get enough physical activity. As this vast majority likely shares some of the same ‘pre-existing conditions’ exacerbating COVID-19, this is as good a time as any to run down a reminder of the benefits:
Exercise reduces the chance of heart disease, stroke, disease and some cancers. It promotes brain health as we age. It helps us manage our weight and strengthens muscles and bones.
Exercise also helps reduce stress and anxiety, and improves our mood; It helps reduce levels of depression, and improves our energy levels and sleep quality.
It’s key to our overall health and well-being.
At least it is for me.
Before my gym was shuttered over coronavirus, my regular fitness routine included running two or three 5K runs each week and on alternate days climbing 200 flights of stairs.
Through the sheer power of self-discipline, I’ve averaged one-hundred (100) 5K runs a year over the past 17 years. Through that process, working out has become a non-negotiable habit in my life. Just let a global pandemic try to stop me.
Neighbors who never saw me before have front-row seats to the crazy person running up and down, up and down. As my 12-year-old’s new P.E. teacher, my single pupil less-enthusiastically runs one of my three miles. The great news about exercise: one can still reap the health benefits, scowl or not.
Being able to keep up regular routines in the midst of upheaval is like a comforting friend that says:
See, not everything is chaos.
Solitude and our Power Separate from the Rest of the World
The gifts of solitude
When we are over-connected, we can sometimes forget about the power we have separate from the rest of the world.
Few of us would have chosen these circumstances of social distancing, but since we’re here, there are many benefits that we can reap from time alone.
Intentionally making time and space away from others, and from incessant noise and the bombardment, pays dividends for our mental, emotional and physical well-being. Beyond the calming effects, quiet alone time has shown to reboot our brains by increasing memory function and even IQ.
Solitude helps our productivity and aids our concentration. Being able to focus on a task alone in silence has been shown to aid our imagination and creative problem-solving, our fragile ideas free from outside opinions.
The capacity to be alone
While counter-intuitive, spending quality time by ourselves actually reduces feelings of loneliness and isolation. Studies also confirm less depression among people who enjoy time alone.
Developing the capacity to be alone has shown to boost mental strength, allow us to better manage our thoughts and emotions, and help direct our actions in ways that can serve us.
Solitude plays an important role in allowing us to step back, evaluate our progress in life and make necessary readjustments. Time alone helps us clarify our thoughts, our plans, our goals and our dreams. Here we can reorganize and redirect.
Being so connected to everything and everyone all the time is ironically, separating us from ourselves. We need quiet to feel our own feelings and to reflect on our life away from everyone else having a say.
The ability to find satisfaction in solitude is linked to increased life satisfaction and levels of happiness. That’s because science shows that our authenticity, our intuition and our self-confidence - all benefits big-time from solitude.
Separate from the rest of the world
Solitude has been shown to nourish self-awareness and ironically, social awareness.
It helps us become more comfortable with and accepting of ourselves; and less likely to lose ourselves in the personalities and preferences of others. Study after study confirms how seriously we are influenced by the people around us; that our friends and family actually determine who we become and what we view as possible for our life.
Even without a virus, positive or negative, the people in our lives are contagious.
One of the smartest things we can do for ourselves is to be discriminating about who we spend time around. There are those who strengthen us and those who decidedly do not. This time and distance can provide the space necessary to see who’s what.
In solitude we grow our empathy and compassion. It’s when we’re alone that we recognize and appreciate our important relationships.
During this pandemic: from social distancing to supporting and depending on neighbors, family and friends – even complete strangers – this all feels like a test of our collective empathy, of our humanity.
What are we willing to give up to consider the needs of our fellow man? A lot it seems. Just not TP.
At some point life will resume and we will meet up with other humans again. Perhaps not all the same ones.
Rebounding from these circumstances will be challenging enough. Being surrounded by the right people can make all the difference.
Pandemic Rx: The Power of Unplugging
Pain is on our doorstep and in the media 24/7. Especially these days.
One of the most valuable things we can do for ourselves is take time to disconnect.
Research shows that silent, unplugged time is crucial for our emotional and mental health.
Yet, even before a worldwide pandemic, the average American was spending between 5 and 6 hours a day glued to a screen. Added up, that’s almost 8,000 days of the average person’s lifespan – nearly 22 years!
COVID-19 is a clear health crisis but it seems Americans are doing a fine job of exacerbating the effects on our own:
A recent poll shows that since the beginning of stay-at-home orders, the average American is now streaming TV content a full eight hours every day. And that’s just the TV shows and movies. Added to a full unwork-day of TV bingeing is constant simultaneous social media use.
Given that it’s difficult to be both a quality show binge-watcher and home-school teacher, sixty-five (65%) of parents admit to increased TV and movie time for kids now at home. I’m a parent. I recognize the convenience of a screen. But like us adults, kids will return to the world at some point and it’s worth noting the impact of all of this.
Watching TV is almost literally, a no-brainer:
For big and little people alike all that TV, means we’re not reading, building stuff, playing music or creating art – you know…creative thinking and problem-solving - things that build and maintain healthy brains. All the watching also means sitting for long periods of inactivity and increased caloric intake – already exacerbating the separate epidemics of diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
All the time in front of screens – with the exception of school & work-related uses - have been associated, time and again, with general lower psychological well-being especially in adolescents: higher rates of anxiety and depression, less ability to focus, lower emotional stability, lower happiness levels, less empathy and increased apathy.
Social distancing is not distancing from social. If anything, it’s created a greater dependence.
The ubiquitous social media use that for all connection and constant feedback, it’s actually leading to higher levels of loneliness and depression, with the heaviest users feeling most isolated.
Beyond loneliness, research has also causally linked heavy social media use to a decline in well-being and mental health, especially in young people. For all ages, social media has been linked to anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, lack of ability to focus, hyperactivity and poor sleep.
We all see it: Only 5% of Americans in a recent APA poll saw social media as having a positive impact in their lives. Yet the addiction rages.
Today’s constant demands on our time and attention: unending stimuli and constant bombardment are stressing us out and distracting us from our focus. Always-connected, there is less and less time for our minds to power down and recoup.
We have the opportunity to care less about what everyone else is doing and instead chart a course, shut out the noise and focus on what we want to grow in our own lives.
Our devices are constantly on and so are we. Trading in just a fraction those hours wasted swiping and clicking for a little silence, will pay dividends for our mental, emotional and physical well-being.
And all the more necessary.
Developing our Resilience and Perseverance
“Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.” ― Helen Keller
Built into the human experience are going to be challenging, stressful and traumatic events.
Even without the evening news, there is plenty in our own lives that throw us into chaos and uncertainty: be it a loss of a job or loved one, serious health or relationship problems, or stress over finances.
Yep, this pandemic checks all the boxes.
Psychologist Carol Dweck uncovered two distinct mindsets that affect how well one perseveres through setbacks and struggles when pursuing goals:
Those with a growth mindset generally view effort, learning, adapting and persevering as part of the process. People with a fixed mindset are more likely to get discouraged, give-up or be unwilling to put in the effort because they see problems as unchangeable.
Resilience: skills of adapting and rebounding
Resilience is the ability to recover or bounce back after difficulties. It involves flexibility, calm and an optimistic outlook to see beyond the crisis at hand. These are the keys to getting back up after a singular loss or a series of failures.
The American Psychological Association defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of risk”, not only avoiding a long-term negative impact of a singular event, but also managing and adapting to ongoing stress or disappointments and being able to hold up well under pressure.
A learned behavior, resilience is the ability to adjust to, or recover, following adversity and change. The only way to build that muscle is actually to get knocked down and get back up under our own power. We cannot be resilient in theory. It is only during times of confusion and anxiety where we develop our resilience.
In order to adapt to a new normal and pick up the pieces, the behaviors, thoughts and strategies of resiliency can be a big advantage. We are capable of a lot more than we think and we find this out when the chips are down. One of the most important traits related to resilience is the belief that our own actions drive accomplishments rather than our circumstances.
Resiliency is anything but special. Throughout history and all around us today, person after person, story after story show evidence of the ability to rebound from whatever life brings. It’s part of who we are as a species. Humans are great at adapting to, and sometimes even thriving, under adverse conditions.
Perseverance is an individual sport
Often the sole difference between people that succeed and those who do not, is simply having the ability to just keep at it, while others retreat. Sheer willpower. That difference is often driven by our sense of self.
Persistent people have the ability to ignore an often-unsupportive world around them.
Perseverance is just continued effort to no matter the resistance. Because the resistance is guaranteed. It will come from the world: maybe they don’t like what you have or who you are. It will come from your head: perhaps today you are unmotivated or are doubting yourself.
Success at anything is going to take repeated effort. And sometimes those efforts must happen when the wind and spit and dirt is in your face and not at your back – just make sure you’re wearing your mask.
Perseverance has been found to be the most critical factor in long-term achievement.
It may not go the way you planned it. It will probably take longer than you expected. There will be times of little or no movement or even the feeling of going in reverse. The rule is simple and concrete: Keep on going. No matter what.
The skills of adapting and rebounding involve flexibility, calm and an optimistic outlook to see beyond the crisis at hand. These are the keys to getting back up after a singular loss or a series of failures.
The power in resilience, perseverance and in the willingness to delay gratification is not about intelligence or even about resources. Available to everyone, it’s built out of patience and sheer determination.
We can learn much about resilience and patience from the natural world, and from plants in particular.
And they can teach us a whole lot more beyond that.
Pandemic Rx: Green medicine
Don’t let the malls, all the concrete and the ubiquitous screens fool you. We are designed at our core for connection to the natural world. Since ancient times, the therapeutic properties of nature and its greenspace have been well-established.
A common way people interact with nature is through gardening and tending plants. Scientists have found that the interaction between person and plant is key to mental and physical well-being.
It can be especially helpful these days.
A comprehensive review of studies (Soga et al.) explored the broad positive impact that exposure to plants and gardening has on our overall health. So much so, that access to greenspace is being heralded - by both social scientists and medical professionals alike - as something close to a cure-all.
Mental health benefits
Spending time in a garden or in other greenspace, can help us slow down and breathe through difficult times. So too can potting a single plant.
Gardening and interacting with plants help reduce psychological stress, and alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression. Natural surroundings also help improve mood and increase levels of optimism.
Our brain thrives in the garden.
Interacting with plants has shown to increase our problem-solving ability and strengthen our attention span. In a world drawn to distraction, being in a garden or tending to plants indoors, greenery helps us be in the present moment.
Being in the garden or in other natural settings can help us deal with unpredictability and promote peace of mind and acceptance of things we have little control over. It also promotes a growth-mindset and fuels our perseverance. In the dirt and with the roots we wait and watch and learn to try again.
Studies show that natural spaces aid with concentration for children with ADD/ADHD as well as lower rates of dementia later on. Time in the garden feeds brain functioning throughout our lifetime.
Beyond the brain, the rest of our body also benefits tremendously from the time spent with plants.
Physical health benefits
According to current government statistics, not enough American adults eat fresh fruits and vegetables and kids are eating even less. For children, exposure to fresh foods grown in their own or a community garden, can establish a pattern of nutritious eating and the rewards of a healthy body that comes with it.
Gardening has shown to help lower our blood pressure as well as our body mass. It has shown to reduce the risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease – also known as those perilous ‘underlying conditions,’ which are sadly and fatally exacerbating the coronavirus pandemic.
But the benefits of the garden begin even before the bounty.
Working even a small plot of space can be a workout. Studies at Harvard Medical School examined how 30 minutes of gardening activities can burn 135 calories for a 125-lb. individual. Gardening can help develop strength and motor skills.
“The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature. To nurture a garden is to feed not just on the body, but the soul.” — Alfred Austin
The upsides continue
Beyond our mental and physical health, green space keeps on giving. Research confirms a whole host of psychological benefits associated with the gardening, including: increased self-esteem, life satisfaction and quality, and increased kindness and generosity.
This can be especially valuable to share with kids who might be spending even more time on screens these days learning remotely. Research has confirmed that spending just two hours each week in natural settings helps our mental and physical health and well-being.
A garden project
I like my plants like I like my kid: hearty, independent and with the ability to withstand the lean times. That’s why I love a succulent.
As the new Garden teacher, my one-student class and I will be prepping and designing a serious succulent garden project. Like with any big project, there will be many scowl-inducing days of de-weeding, cutting, pulling and soil preparation prior to actual planting.
There’s also brain work involved for my lone pupil in researching the common and scientific plant names and light, soil, water and other requirements for the up to 40 different clipping types currently being babied in preparation.
Nurturing these plants will remind us that things take time, that not everything will go as planned and most importantly, that no matter the circumstances, there is something good and beautiful that can come out of all this.