COVID-19 has upended our daily routines, our future plans, and our lifestyles. Here are some of the best ways to manage stress, sleep, physical activity, eating well, and more to take care of you right now.
The COVID-19 pandemic has radically changed the way we live, from our work to our learning to our social lives. Our new reality poses a unique set of challenges for all of us.
Now more than ever, practicing self-care is essential when it comes to taking care of our emotional health and well-being, says Christine Carter, PhD, a sociologist and senior fellow at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California in Berkeley.
“Self-care is not selfish,” says Dr. Carter. “This is a time of incredible anxiety and stress. Focusing on what makes us feel nourished, on what gives us meaning, is part of easing those feelings and giving us a more solid foundation.”
Self-care can include myriad practices that you find both enjoyable and that in some way promote your physical, emotional, spiritual, or mental health. According to the definition from the World Health Organization, self-care is the behaviors you do to take care of your own health and can include hygiene, nutrition, leisure activities, sports, exercise, seeking professional healthcare services when needed, and much more.
And in the midst of a global pandemic, the need to care for our own health — all aspects of it — is of the utmost importance because, let’s face it: Navigating this new normal is not easy. Whether it’s struggling to get your kids to partake in online learning, productively working from home all day long, sharing tight quarters with housemates for much longer hours than you’re used to, or being cut off (physically, at least) from loved ones, we feel you.
So how can you balance your day and also empower the ones you love or share a common space with to do the same? Fear not! Everyday Health has you covered.
We’ve rounded up this list of self-care tips meant to inspire your health and wellness anytime — while enabling you to feel less stressed and more resilient in anxiety-ridden days like these.
1. Prioritize Sleep — Your Mood and Immune System Are Counting On It
When it comes to taking care of your health and well-being, sleep is pretty much always part of the answer. Getting enough good-quality sleep keeps your immune system running at its best to fight off infections, like the one caused by the new coronavirus. Indeed: There are parts of the body’s immune response that happen only during sleep. Scientists know sleep is also one of the top ways we can help keep stress in check, as sleep deprivation can make us more sensitive to the effects of stress, ramping up our reactions (or overreactions). Finally, the brain needs sleep to function; without it you’ll be less patient and focused, make poor decisions, and be more moody, irritable, and emotional.
2. Work. It. Out.
Spending a lot more time at home does not mean you get to be a couch potato. Staying active not only keeps your body healthy physically (keeping your risk of chronic health issues down and lowering your chances of acute illness, like COVID-19), it also helps up your mood and well-being. Exercise releases endorphins (hormones that make you feel good!), sharpens focus, and aids sleep. Staying physically active also lessens the risk of mood disorders, boosts energy, and improves mood overall. Talk about a one-two punch against the midafternoon slump!
3. Downward Dog Like You Mean It
Are you a yogi or have you considered starting a yoga practice? Now is the time. Yoga offers a laundry list of health benefits, from busting stress to stretching out inactive muscles to building strength to providing a burst of physical activity (depending on the type you do). Why might yoga be an especially useful tool to add to your coping arsenal right now? It links movement with breath. Because both these factors can affect our body’s stress reactions, yoga can be a silver bullet in tough times.
4. Skip, Jump, Hop, and Get Silly
Basically, if it makes you feel like a kid and a little silly, it can be a mood booster. Play in any form can cause a cascade of positive neurochemicals like serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine, according to Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD, author of Habits of a Happy Brain, who is based in Oakland, California. Even just a minute of child-like activity can cause a good-chemicals surge, especially if you’re feeling stressed.
5. Avoid Mindless Snacking; Eat Intuitively Instead
Are you now spending your days within eyeshot or arm’s reach of your snack drawer? Rather than self-impose strict rules on what foods are off-limits, try intuitive eating. It’s not a diet so much as a way of eating that’s all about giving your body what it needs when it needs it. Intuitive eating doesn’t restrict any specific foods or have you counting calories. It’s a practice in which you listen to your body and pay attention to what you need in the moment. Is it time for a meal or a snack? You eat when you feel hungry, and you stop eating when you feel full. For inspiration, look no further than Instagram.
6. Swap Out One Coffee for Decaf
Caffeine is one of the most researched substances with more than 10,000 studies to date, according to a November 2017 study published in Food and Chemical Toxicology. Not surprisingly, that’s led to a wide range of conclusions, but one that’s fairly consistent is that having too much can lead to less-than-ideal effects, the researchers conclude. They note that getting more than 400 milligrams of caffeine daily — check your consumption with this chart from Center for Science in the Public Interest (and remember that not every cup of coffee is equivalent when it comes to caffeine content; it depends on the roast of coffee and how strong it’s brewed) — can affect your central nervous system, gastrointestinal system, and sleep quality. It can even increase anxiety and stress. So enjoy your buzz, but try limiting your daily amount.
7. Enjoy the Healing Power of Baking
“Self-care comes with the idea of nourishing yourself, on every level. And doing something creative can promote that feeling of well-being,” says the productivity expert Tonya Dalton, of Asheville, North Carolina, author of The Joy of Missing Out: Live More by Doing Less. “That can include baking, because for many people that act of creating something delicious feels like pressing a reset button.”
Plus, she adds, it’s an easy project for including other family members, like a spouse or kids. That can give you a sweet burst of social time that ends with a delicious result.
8. Reach for High-Protein Snacks When You Need an Energy Boost
What should you be noshing on when you feel hungry? Keep high-protein bites on hand to help you get to the end of your to-do list for the day. You’ve heard it before: Protein helps you feel full longer and avoid the energy crash you might experience after the high of a carb-heavy snack subsides. Think hard-boiled eggs, nuts, Greek yogurt, and nut butters and veggies. (Bonus: You’re literally feet from your fridge, so there’s no need to pack snacks ahead of time or tote them around for the day.)
9. Keep Stress-Busting Foods on Hand
Yes, you read that correctly. Certain foods can actually have a stress-lowering effect. Warm foods like soup or tea are soothing, and the omega-3s in fatty fish may improve mood. Avocados are packed with vitamins C and B6, which are known to help reduce stress. Dark chocolate is antioxidant-rich, which is great for thwarting stress (do savor in moderation, however, as it’s a calorie-dense food). Other foods that can help include whole-grain carbohydrates, bananas, oranges, water, and leafy greens.
10. Leave Stress-Inducing Foods in Not-So-Convenient Places
Though you may be inclined to indulge in treats or your favorite cocktail, know that this may be counterproductive. Foods that exacerbate or mess with stress in a less-than-savory way include caffeine, alcohol, and refined sugars. You don’t have to cut them out completely, but do limit your intake and enjoy them in moderation.
11. Whip Up a Mocktail With Health-Boosting Ingredients
Give your liver a break and try mixing a healthy mocktail. Steer clear of the sugary juices and syrups and opt for healthier choices like hibiscus tea, kombucha, sparkling water, and fresh fruits. You can also combine fun flavors like grapefruit and mint, or green tea and oranges.
12. Go Punk Like Lady Gaga: Practice Kindness and Gratitude
Lady Gaga says she practices being kind to others and being grateful for what’s going right in her life. Clinical studies have found that people who regularly practice gratitude journaling (writing down what you’re grateful for) report better well-being, physical health, and increased optimism about the future. Practicing kindness is sometimes easier said than done (particularly when we’re in tight quarters and tension is high), but remember that everyone is going through a tough time right now.
13. Practice Positive Self-Talk
A major aspect of self-care is the “self” part, and that includes how you view yourself and, importantly, the language you use when talking to yourself, says Jen Sincero, a Santa Fe, New Mexico–based life coach and the author of You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life. Appreciate the small tasks you do during the day and remember to tell yourself “good job” — whether it’s a work task, making time for exercise, or keeping your patience when disciplining your child. Celebrate your daily successes with positive self-talk. It might feel weird at first, but your brain will soak up that self-care goodness, and research suggests it can help begin to turn your thoughts and feelings in a happier direction (according to a paper on the topic published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology).
14. Change Your Passwords to Be Your Mantra
This one is good for your mental health and your digital security. For a password you use regularly — such as unlocking your laptop or accessing online banking — change it to an option that’s meaningful but still security-minded. For example, if your mantra is “I am enough every day,” use the first letters of those words and pair it with numbers and symbols, as in: 20#IAeeD&21.
Repetition is a powerful trigger for your brain, according to Dr. Breuning. If you think of that phrase numerous times a day when using your password, it’s easy to have it “soak in” as an affirmation.
15. Make One of Your Pens a ‘Magic’ One
Yes, we acknowledge that this one sounds hokey (and no one’s done a clinical trial yet to back it up). But this method can help some people change their mindset in a positive way, and it’s worth giving it a try in case it works for you, says Sincero. We create powerful connections with objects — just think of your favorite toy as a kid or a memento from a special trip. And we can tap into this positive connection whenever we want, just by “assigning” a significant attribute to that object and using it in that way. Try out your new magic pen by writing a love note to yourself first.
16. Take a Few Minutes to Practice Diaphragm Breathing
Calm and measured breathing can have immediate effects on your mental and physical state, whether the tension comes from the relentless news cycle or your ever-present housemates. Do your breathing practice regularly to start or end your day in a positive way, or try it in a moment when you need a little more zen. Need guidance? Certain meditation apps, such as Calm, have free web-based resources that will help you along.
17. Try Alternate-Nostril Breathing
Deep breathing is very useful for slowing down the nervous system, says Henry Emmons, MD, a psychiatrist in Minneapolis and the author of The Chemistry of Calm. If anxious thoughts keep pinging around, try this alternative strategy, he suggests. First, exhale completely, then inhale deeply. On your next exhale, gently place an index finger against your right nostril to close it off. Inhale using just your left nostril. Then move your index finger to the left nostril to close that one off and exhale through only the open right nostril. Continue alternating sides and repeat for 15 rounds.
18. Give Yourself a Meditation Break
You don’t need any special equipment or space for this one; you can do it anytime, anywhere. Simply put, meditation is thinking deeply or focusing your mind for a set period of time. The benefit: Meditation can help reduce stress, ease symptoms of depression and anxiety, and regulate negative thinking. If you’re looking for another tool to add to your arsenal to combat stress, consider it. Just as with deep breathing, you’ll be happy to know there’s no shortage of meditation apps available.
19. Try Chilling Out With Music
Turn off the TV with the talking head in favor of some mood-boosting tunes. Music therapy employs music to help people cope with physical or emotional needs, according to a definition from the University of Minnesota. And it’s actually been found to lessen symptoms in people with mood problems, such as anxiety and depression, and lift self-esteem. And you probably don’t need a clinical study to tell you that blasting your favorite jam will put a smile on your face.
20. Practice Mindful Listening
Mindful listening is another way to soak in the present moment and let go of lingering worry and stress, says Dr. Emmons. Take a few seconds and sit back, really listening to all the sounds around you, even if that’s just the hum of an overhead fan or the panting of the dog at your feet. Try to integrate this into your day as tiny, 10-second breaks. The more you do it, the more habitual it will become, Emmons says.
21. Stand Up and Stretch
Although embarking on a full-on workout is helpful for taking care of yourself, sometimes all you need is just to change your body position for about 15 to 30 seconds to give yourself a restart, Emmons says. When you make a conscious and physical shift, like standing up and stretching, your mind recognizes the change and responds in a beneficial way. Consider it a mini-break for mind and body alike. Try standing up and stretching your arms high overhead, bending over to touch your toes, or sitting on the floor in a cross-legged position for a hip-opening stretch.