[Original post date: October 12, 2020. About 6 months into the Covid-19 pandemic. The stats I quoted are obsolete — “nearly 220,000 Americans have died from it” — but the other points hold up surprisingly well, for health and steering a middle course during a stormy time. Edits to tighten. – pbk]
There’s a theme I’ll be returning to again and again: keeping your eye on the ball, on the proverbial prize. Because we’re pretty good at addressing the crisis of the moment, even if doing so makes us lose sight of what’s more important.
Staying active is vital, but staying safe and sane is even more critical. Thumbs up if you’re regularly breaking a sweat and raising your heart rate, but if you’re lean and strong while still being irritable — or you bring COVID-19 home to grandpa — you may not be doing anyone any favors.
The following are 7 points for your consideration, and I can elaborate on any of them in future posts, just let me know in the comments:
1. Coronavirus is real
It’s not a hoax, and it’s not the flu or a a version of the flu (I saw this on Facebook just today and couldn’t believe it — influenza season hasn’t even started yet!). If you don’t believe that at the time of this writing, nearly 220,000 Americans have died from it [as of 7/18/21, it’s over 600,000 – pbk], believe this: the number of patients I myself have seen with close COVID contacts or symptoms has gone up dramatically, from a couple questions a week, to daily appointments.
2. Strongly consider a social media/network news diet
Take stock for a moment: from the time you open your eyes until you fall asleep at night, how much time do you spend on aggravating or stressful news? If the answer is nearly non-stop — and even while not thinking about the suck, your subconscious is chewing on the suck — no surprise if you’re white-knuckling it through life.
You have only so much bandwidth to deal with stressful events. You can increase your capacity to deal with stress, but it’s simpler to Stop Adding To The Pile. And it’s simplest by far to Stop Feeding Yourself Easily Consumed, Stressful Input.
Set a hard limit on the time you’ll spend daily accessing the news and social media — say, 20 minutes. If there’s a meteor strike you need to know about, someone will fill you in.
3. Spend that regained time outdoors, every day
The average person spends about 2.5 hours a day on social media (I think that’s a gross underestimate); if you cut that out and don’t purposefully fill it with something else, that regained time will fizzle away.
[That concept will get its own post; read that last line again. In my experience as a medical director, doctors still go home late, even if you trim an hour from our workflows: there’s always more work to do, more labs to check, so we just add to our work pile. Cutting out waste is great, but only if you PURPOSEFULLY take advantage of what you’ve regained. – pbk]
Consider filling your formerly-social-media time with something quiet, so you can literally hear yourself think.
Standing in your backyard while staring at your iPhone doesn’t count, nor does going for a walk listening to a story about political strife. Without being plugged into your tech, go for a walk, or garden, or do some stretching, or work out.
Even better, do those activities with family. How much time do you spend, in the same room staring at your respective smartphones? Get some sun, move your body, and reconnect with someone close to you — check off lots of to-do boxes all at once. And leave the chatter of opinion pieces behind you.
4. Choose activities where it’s impossible to fret at the same time
Yip Chun, son of Wing Chun kung fu master Yip Man (Bruce Lee’s instructor), described Wing Chun sparring as something akin to the ideal mental activity, because you can’t spar and stay preoccupied with your daily troubles without getting pounded. When you do Wing Chun, you automatically stay grounded in the moment.
Going for a walk outdoors Is Cool, as Keanu might say, but you can stroll and still worry about the state of the world. You can’t worry while hiking strenuously, or cycling on the road, or my personal pandemic favorite, practicing archery — any activity that demands your full attention on pain of dangerous goof up.
Take the earbuds out to turn off your autopilot. Engaging in the activity at hand tends to interrupt the cycle of nail-biting, teeth-grinding worry.
5. Meditate, meditate, meditate
The basic prescription: 5-20 minutes, every morning and evening, every day.
Outdoor activity has multiple benefits (vitamin D generation, endorphin and neuroplasticity stimulation, bone and connective tissue strengthening, etc), but as a break from stress, it may not be enough.
For many people, stress is mostly self-generated: they’re not in danger, but they’re tying themselves up in knots. Few of us receive formal training in managing our mental and emotional states. I commonly hear patients say I just can’t turn off my brain, or I can’t stop worrying about some uncontrollable situation. Meditation gives you practice in a) recognizing your baseline mental/emotional activity level, b) appreciating how the level of chatter goes up and down, and c) reducing the excess. The more you practice it, the better at it you get.
6. Remember the key pillars of health
Not going cray-cray requires juggling several key variables, and it takes conscious effort to give them the daily attention they deserve:
- Physical activity
- Clean nutrition
- Inner work, including meditation
- Socializing and connecting meaningfully with others
- Fun & Creativity
- Having a purpose
- Wider connection beyond yourself
I’d be honored to hear your thoughts on these 8 pillars, which I’ve assembled over the years from a variety of medical and mental health resources. Removing any one of these pillars weakens the entire structure. I believe attending to all of them is necessary, and none are sufficient by themselves. But in healthcare, we usually only address 1-5.
These pillars qualify as health infrastructure. Like water, electricity, or roads for a city, they are absolutely critical even if they aren’t terribly exciting. And that makes them easy to overlook, like neglecting sleep to binge watch an interesting series on Netflix, or breaking your diet when you’re stressed. Missing them has pretty much the negative impact on your health that you’d expect. And consistently maintaining them, as I will discuss in future posts, can yield some pretty amazing results.
7. Safely being active? Same guidelines
Outdoors in the breeze is better than indoors with the windows closed. Fewer people 6+ feet apart is better than group gatherings packed tightly like sardines. Minutes exposed is better than hours together.
MASKED IS BETTER THAN UNMASKED.
Nothing major has changed with the precautions, what has changed is the level of pandemic fatigue: people saying some version of Screw it, It’s a hoax, It’s not that bad, No one I know has it yet so it must be overblown, etc.
[As of Summer 2021, things have changed somewhat. But we’re still not at herd immunity, the Delta variant is currently eating our shorts, and while the vaccines work to prevent serious illness, masks still make sense around others of uncertain vaccine status: you can still get a mild case and pass it to others who haven’t been vaccinated, like Cousin Linda or Ted your brother-in-law. – pbk]
As a martial arts student, I get it. Some people need to be exercising with others, face-to-face and grunting for hours, because their work may involve physical confrontations, and the professional alternative is unacceptable (being unprepared for a fight). Others “need” to be up-close active because they derive too great a sense of self worth to deny themselves the activity any longer.
There are alternatives. Training with a family member or a close, trusted friend as your training partner. Working out at home instead of the gym, doing solo drills with equipment like a heavy bag or grappling dummy instead of a live partner, getting instructional cues from a video curriculum or Zoom session instead of a group class.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. If avoiding COVID-19 in the near future is important to you, you will find and adopt training alternatives that lower the risk to you or your family; if you think think it’s hoo hah, you won’t be bothered.
I’m not about forcing a position on anybody, but I will say this: the coronavirus isn’t hoo hah.
It’s on track to being 10 times more deadly than car crash fatalities, and do you think seatbelts are hoo hah, and drive without them? It’s currently killing about nine 9/11s worth of Americans every month, and do you think national security concerns over terrorism are hoo hah? Probably not.
As for arguments that we all have to get exposed sometime, so why put it off any longer, my take is this: I would rather put off getting exposed the virus until later, when we have more effective treatments, better public health contact tracing, and a hopefully safe and effective vaccine [hello]. We currently have dexamethasone, an inexpensive and widely available cortisone-like medication that reduces the risk of death by about a third in severely ill hospitalized patients. Experimental vaccines aside, the pharmacologic track record is pretty good that in the months or years to come, we’ll have other treatments that carve down the mortality risk even further, to the point that you’d be more likely to beat this than not, if you got it bad.
I think that’s a future worth saving myself for, personally.