General guidelines for staying healthy during any viral epidemic can be boiled down to this: regular and thorough handwashing; avoiding touching your eyes, nose, and mouth; seeking medical attention if symptoms occur; and keeping up to date on virus-related information from reliable sources. These are standard public health recommendations with which most, if not all, of us are well familiar. However, there is no modern precedent for the viral pandemic we are currently experiencing worldwide, and very few, if any, of us were emotionally, financially, or physically prepared for the challenges we’d have to face due to the strict stay-at-home orders most state health entities issued to their citizens.
While restrictions on public gatherings are crucial for preventing the spread of a contagion in a pandemic world, the indeterminable period of quarantine and coinciding social distancing mandates have complicated things for many of us on a personal level.1 That’s because staying healthy is more than just taking preventive measures. Good nutrition, staying active, a consistent sleep schedule, and managing stress are only a few of the cornerstones for maintaining physical and mental well-being, and these goals can be hard to achieve when you can’t leave the house. Even as stay-at-home orders begin to lift, the “new normal” will likely maintain social distancing rules, which for many people may present some of these same challenges. Here are a few tips on staying mentally and physically healthy while social distancing.
Maintain Healthy Eating Habits
Stay-at-home orders can challenge healthy eating habits. The loss of daily routine can cause increased anxiety, not to mention boredom, which, for some people, can lead to mindless/disordered eating habits.2 Disruptions in the logistics of meal-planning can also negatively impact eating habits. Stay-at-home orders for many families have meant more mouths to feed. For example, many households have had to take in aging relatives unable to care for themselves while in isolation, as well as young adult children who were either still attending college or were not yet financially independent when the pandemic hit. More mouths to feed means more groceries to buy, which not only increases the financial burden on the family, but can be further impacted by food shortages that some areas have experienced.
With a little thought and planning, you can still provide meals that are healthy and cost-effective for yourself and your [increased] family. Make a meal plan for the week and stick to it. Make a grocery list based on your weekly meal plan and only buy the things on your list. Buy in bulk when possible. Having a plan and sticking to a schedule can foster a sense of comforting predictability. This also plays an important role in managing your environment. For example, if candy isn’t in the cupboard, you can’t eat it. Simple carbohydrates and processed ingredients, which are commonly found in baked goods, can create a yo-yo effect on blood sugar, which can drive anxiety and worsen mood.2,3 Instead, eat foods rich in magnesium or omega-3 fatty acids, which can reduce anxiety,4,5 such as leafy greens, legumes, and wild salmon. Beans and potatoes are healthy, filling, and inexpensive, and can provide the base for any number of healthy dishes.
Moderate or Avoid Alcohol Consumption
Anxiety surrounding the pandemic, coupled with social isolation, is enough to make many of us want to reach for that extra glass of wine, but you might want to think twice before you guzzle. While the occasional alcoholic drink might be enough to temporarily reduce feelings of stress, it is not a healthy long-term coping mechanism. Consuming alcohol can actually elevate feelings of panic and anxiety and can exacerbate depression.6 It also clouds judgment and even weakens the immune system. The World Health Organization has given a specific warning about alcohol use during the COVID-19 pandemic, recommending that people avoid alcohol so that they can remain vigilant, act quickly, and make decisions with a clear head.6,7 Instead of having that drink, focus on activities that keep you connected with friends and family, even if this means doing it in a virtual environment. For example, start a virtual book or movie club or cooking group, and “meet” every one or two weeks via a group video chat app (most are free [e.g., Zoom, Skype, Google Duo, Discord]) to discuss the latest book or movie or prepare a new healthy recipe together. Video group chats are also great ways for family and friends, in general, to remain connected while physically separated, particularly for those who live alone. Staying in touch, even if just virtually, with friends, family, and even coworkers, not only can help combat feelings of anxiety, but can also enforce accountability when it comes to drinking habits.
Stay Physically Active
Exercise routines have also taken a hit during quarantine for many people. Many gyms have closed, and social distancing guidelines have limited access to fitness classes and partner workouts. Although it might be tempting to skip out of the physical activities you normally do, lack of exercise can negatively affect your physical and mental well-being and decrease immunity.8 That’s why harnessing the power of exercise is one of the most valuable tools to maintaining quality of life during the pandemic. Some people might even find that they have more time to exercise now than ever before.
Local trails and parks might be open, and are good places to go to get out of the house, provided you remain vigilant about social distancing, but activities that are home-based might be best for some people. There are plenty of indoor activities from which to choose, including creating your own home workouts. For example, use a chair for squats, get your cardio in by climbing stairs, or use the wall or floor for push-ups.9 While it may not be the same as your full-featured gym, there might be more at-home offerings than you realize. Get creative. Many gyms are offering online classes that can be done with little or no equipment, such as yoga and Pilates. If you want to get outside, try gardening/doing yard work. And Youtube® is an excellent source for free streaming workout videos for people of all fitness levels.
Loneliness from social distancing can negatively impact emotional and mental well-being. Symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress are commonly reported psychological reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic.13,14 These feelings can all be heightened by the ongoing uncertainty of the times. Feelings of hopelessness can be debilitating and can lead to self-harm behaviors, such as binge eating and substance abuse.15
There is no miracle antidote for curing loneliness, but finding alternative ways to connect with others can help. If you are feeling overwhelming loneliness, sadness, hopelessness, and/or anxiety or are having thoughts of suicide, call a friend or family member or a mental health hotline (e.g., National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255) right away, and make an appointment to see your physician or a mental health professional. Don’t wait for the symptoms to just “go away.” Many physicians and therapists are counseling their patients remotely using telemedicine.
Physical distancing doesn’t have to mean social alienation. If you’re getting cabin fever, remember that the internet has created countless ways of bringing people together in a virtual environment. This ranges from internet support groups to online board games. Large social media platforms are another way to connect with friends and loved ones and share information. In addition to instant messaging and video chats, the “crisis response” and “safety check” buttons on Facebook allow for more frequent status updates.17 However, moderation is key. Social media can be flooded with news of the pandemic, and taking breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories can lessen anxiety.
This pandemic has pushed the world into unchartered territory. Subsequent social distancing has presented many challenges, whether it’s learning to work productively from home or finding ways to effectively manage stress. Though the world is slowly beginning to reopen, a lot of uncertainty remains. Focus on what you CAN control—the health of your body and mind.
Flattening the curve—The bell-shaped curve that illustrates the rise and fall of new coronavirus cases in a given population.
Social distancing—Measures that are taken to increase the physical space between people to slow the spread of the virus.19 In addition to keeping a distance of six feet from others, other examples include working from home and postponement of major events for large groups of people.
Self-quarantine—The act of separating oneself from others to prevent the spread of infection. This could be to either prevent yourself from being exposed to a contagion or to prevent exposing others to a contagion you, yourself, may have been exposed to, whether you have symptoms or not. Self-quarantine for COVID-19 typically lasts 14 days.19
Isolation—The act of separating sick people with a contagious disease from people who aren’t sick.
Containment—Efforts used to mitigate the spread of a disease.18 Examples include shutting down mass transit operations and contact tracing.
- Bokat-Lindell S. How to Socially Distance and Stay Sane. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/17/opinion/coronavirus-social-distancing.html. Updated March 17, 2020. Accessed May 26, 2020.
- Naidoo, U. Eating during COVID-19: Improve your mood and lower stress. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/eating-during-covid-19-improve-your-mood-and-lower-stress-2020040719409. Updated April 7, 2020. Accessed June 1, 2020.
- Murphy M, Mercer JG. Diet-regulated anxiety. Int J Endocrinol. 2013;2013:701967.
- Boyle NB, Lawton C, Dye L. The Effects of Magnesium Supplementation on Subjective Anxiety and Stress-A Systematic Review. Nutrients. 2017;9(5):429.
- Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Belury MA, Andridge R, Malarkey WB, Glaser R. Omega-3 supplementation lowers inflammation and anxiety in medical students: a randomized controlled trial. Brain Behav Immun. 2011;25(8):1725-1734.
- Alcohol and COVID-19: what you need to know. The World Health Organization website. http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/437608/Alcohol-and-COVID-19-what-you-need-to-know.pdf?ua=1. Accessed June 2, 2020.
- Parker Jones K. Stress Drinking – Alcohol Consumption Increases During COVID-19 (Interview Transcript). https://healthcare.utah.edu/the-scope/shows.php?shows=0_p0xim6x3. Updated April 23, 2020. Accessed June 2, 2020.
- Exercise is Essential for Well-Being During COVID-19 Pandemic. Nuvance Health website. https://patients.healthquest.org/exercise-is-essential-for-well-being-during-covid-19-pandemic/. Accessed June 2, 2020.
- Tips for Staying Healthy While Social Distancing. University of Miami Health News website. https://news.umiamihealth.org/en/tips-for-staying-healthy-social-distancing/. Updated March 30, 2020. Accessed May 26, 2020.
- Coping with Stress. Center for Disease Control and Prevention website. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/managing-stress-anxiety.html#everyone. Updated April 30, 2020. Accessed May 26, 2020.
- Body J. Take Steps to Counter the Loneliness of Social Distancing. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/23/well/family/coronavirus-loneliness-isolation-social-distancing-elderly.html. Updated March 23, 2020. Accessed May 26, 2020.
- Ducharme J. How to Stay Physically and Mentally Healthy While COVID-19 Has You Stuck at Home. https://time.com/5804130/covid-19-social-distancing-wellness/. Updated March 18, 2020. Accessed May 26, 2020.
- Galea S, Merchant RM, Lurie N. The Mental Health Consequences of COVID-19 and Physical Distancing: The Need for Prevention and Early Intervention. JAMA Intern Med. Updated April 10, 2020. Accessed May 26, 2020.
- Rajkumar RP. COVID-19 and mental health: A review of the existing literature. Asian J Psychiatr. 2020;52:102066. Updated April 10, 2020. Accessed May 26, 2020.
- Bader M. Dealing with the Uncertainty of the Quarantine Timeline. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/what-is-he-thinking/202005/dealing-the-uncertainty-the-quarantine-timeline. Updated May 26, 2020. Accessed May 26, 2020.
- Chandra R. Coping with Loneliness and Isolation During COVID-19. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-pacific-heart/202005/coping-loneliness-and-isolation-during-covid-19. Updated May 26, 2020. Accessed May 26, 2020.
- Merchant RM, Lurie N. Social Media and Emergency Preparedness in Response to Novel Coronavirus. JAMA. 2020;323(20):2011–2012
- Gross J, Padilla M. From Flattening the Curve to Pandemic: A Coronavirus Glossary. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/18/us/coronavirus-terms-glossary.html. Updated March 18, 2020. Accessed June 1, 2020.
- Walensky RP, del Rio C. From Mitigation to Containment of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Putting the SARS-CoV-2 Genie Back in the Bottle. JAMA. 2020;323(19):1889–1890.