Wellness in the Age of Coronavirus

Well… It’s certainly been quite a week, hasn’t it?

It’s amazing how in such a short amount of time, our lives have been flipped completely upside down. Schools are closed, restaurants and small businesses are shutting their doors and having to lay off employees, almost the entire country is working from home, people feel afraid to go outside, handshakes and hugs are a thing of the past, the economy is in free fall… and oh yeah, there’s no toilet paper.

Let’s not sugarcoat it: 2020 is going to be a brutally difficult year. If you’re one of the people who thinks coronavirus isn’t a big deal and everyone is overreacting, stop reading this blog and go read this instead (and then come back and read this once you’re done). The short of it is, we are facing a grim year – maybe even longer – of having to practice social distancing measures. If we don’t, hundreds of thousands of people will die.

I know what you’re thinking: “Isn’t this supposed to be a wellness blog? I just feel worse now than I did before I started reading.” Here’s the thing: we have all suddenly been thrust into a situation where our choices can literally mean the difference between life and death for the people we share community with. That is a huge responsibility, and I think we need to speak honestly and bluntly about it because of the fact that the stakes are so high.

Wellness is no longer just an individual choice. Your wellness is bound up with mine, and mine with yours. So in this new era – the age of coronavirus – what does wellness look like? And how do we stay physically and mentally healthy during such a deeply stressful time?

The Importance of Intentionality

There are times in life when everything is going exactly the way you want it to. You’re crushing it at your job or at school, you have a great social network, maybe you’re in a wonderful relationship, and you have time for the hobbies you love. During these times, wellness is something that comes naturally. You don’t have to think much about maintaining your mental health because it’s just sort of maintaining itself.

Now is definitely not one of those times. Objectively, things really suck right now. And, crucially, the things that help keep us mentally well – like time with family members and friends, social events, and going out into community – are the exact things we’re supposed to be avoiding right now.

I’ve seen a poem circulating on social media recently; it’s a little too long to write out in this post, but you can read it here. You’ve probably seen it; it’s the one that starts with the line “And the people stayed home.” Basically it’s an optimistic, hopeful look on how we can all learn and grow by staying home. We can do art, we can meditate, we can rest, and we can heal. And when it’s all over and we can go back out into the world again, we can use what we learned to heal the earth.

I love the poem, and obviously it’s resonating with a lot of people. But something I’ve been thinking about as I’ve faced the vast expanse of empty time at home over the past week is that it’s not like all of those positive things are just going to happen on their own. In fact, I think the natural impulse might actually be to do the opposite: stay in bed all day, get sucked into all of the horrible news about coronavirus, not go outside, eat food that hurts rather than nourishes our bodies… the list goes on. And to be clear, I’m not saying that to be all holier-than-thou: I’ve spiraled into despair after spending hours reading the news and have had days where I spent a LOT of time on the couch or on my phone.

What’s worse is that with all the empty time, if we don’t use it to do all of those very high-minded things, I think we can quickly fall into shame and embarrassment about not using our time well. For example, I’ve been wanting to work on a drawing all week and still haven’t gotten around to it. The unhelpful, unhealthy thought process that has popped up from that is, “why can’t I find time to create art, when it seems like other people are using this time so much better than me?” Boiled down to its core, what I’m really saying to myself is, “Why can’t I be better? What’s wrong with me?” Feeding that shame can turn into a vicious cycle, where we become frozen in our unhealthy habits and blame ourselves for not breaking out of them. And in social isolation, our worst thoughts can quickly become our only companions.

Wellness is not just going to happen to us now that we have more free time. Now more than ever, wellness is going to require intentionality and structure. If it helps, the way I’m approaching wellness practices right now is to view them as non-negotiable. If you have a job, it’s not like you wake up in the morning and think “Eh, I don’t feel like going to work today, I’m just gonna stay home” (I mean maybe you do that sometimes, but you wouldn’t do it every day!). Going to work is non-negotiable; it’s just something that has to be done. Same with schoolwork, or making time to eat, or taking your dog outside so they can do their business – some tasks aren’t always the most pleasant, but you do them because there isn’t another option.

My theory is that all of us need to start viewing physical and mental wellness practices through this same lens: it’s non-negotiable. You just need to do it, because the alternative is that you will get sick, or that you could spiral into some dark places.

What those wellness practices are will look different for everyone. To give you some ideas though, here are my new non-negotiables that I am trying to practice every day:

  • Move my body every day. For me, that will usually mean going for a run or doing a workout in the park or at home, but on days that I want to rest it can also just mean moving through some stretches or yoga poses.
  • Meditate for at least five minutes every day. This helps me process and make space for all of the feelings that are popping up during this difficult time.
  • Get outside every day (unless the weather is really, really bad).
  • Limit the amount of news I read and the amount of time spent on my phone. My goal for this is to get it out of the way in the morning when I have breakfast and then spend the bulk of the day focusing on other, non-screen time activities.
  • Focus my diet around fresh foods: fruits, vegetables, leafy greens, whole grains, and beans/legumes.
  • Make time to communicate with the people I love.

Starting a new wellness habit can feel daunting, but I truly believe that now is the perfect time to start – not just because of the free time a lot of us now have, but because I genuinely believe that all of us need to prioritize our individual wellness right now in order to get through this thing. If you’re new to trying out things like this, that’s okay; feel free to reach out to me if you need some advice. The most important thing is to be gentle with yourself; I can tell you that I have not met my meditation goal every day. But instead of shaming myself for missing those days, I simply accept that I didn’t meet the goal that day and aim to meet it tomorrow. Celebrate the achievements and accept the mistakes, and remember why you made the goal for yourself in the first place.

If you don’t feel motivated to practice wellness habits for yourself, here’s the other side of the coin: we don’t just need to practice wellness right now for ourselves. We need to do it for the sake of our community.

Wellness as a Community Responsibility

This virus is connecting all of us in a way we never have been before. The choices I make today – to wash my hands, to stay indoors, to work hard to stay healthy – could be the difference between you and your loved ones getting sick or staying well, and vice versa. This is an exercise in empathy and compassion; our ability to get through this crisis depends in huge part on our ability to care about one another. And while that’s undoubtedly frightening, there’s also something kind of beautiful about it.

We need to choose hope, optimism, and love for one another every single day of this pandemic. We need to do this because the alternative is to sink into despair, cynicism, and selfishness. Obviously that’s no way to live as an individual, but it would also be catastrophic to the community at large.

What does this mean? On a practical level, we ALL need to:

  • Wash our hands. Like, all the time. And for 20 seconds EVERY TIME. No half-assed hand washing, people!
  • Practice social distancing. In lay terms, this means “stay the hell away from everyone.” Stay home as much as you are able to, and if you need to meet up with anyone, stay at least six feet away from them. I know that this is really challenging for mental well-being, but social distancing is the most important thing we need to be doing to slow down the spread of the virus. Check out this great article from Vox on what it means to “flatten the curve,” and why social distancing is so important.
  • Disinfect highly touched objects and surfaces a LOT. This includes the obvious things, like door handles and light switches, but also don’t forget to disinfect your phone frequently.
  • You can check out the CDC’s full list of preventive measures here.

In addition to those everyday practices, we also need to recognize that this crisis is hitting some people a lot harder than others. For nearly 30 million kids around the country, school is a dependable source of breakfast, lunch, snacks, and sometimes even dinner. With schools closed, those dependable meals are gone. Food banks who can normally depend on restaurants and grocery stores for donations are seeing those donations dry up – all while the number of people who need food assistance has skyrocketed. Small businesses are being forced to close their doors and lay off employees, while the arts sector has had to cancel countless concerts and shows. Those being kept in immigration detention centers – most of whom are there due to civil immigration violations, and probably would not have been detained at all in previous administrations – are facing the terrifying possibility of a coronavirus outbreak in detention centers.

In short, there’s a lot of need right now. And if you are able, here are some ideas on how to help:

  • Volunteer at your local food bank if you aren’t in one of the risk groups for COVID-19, or donate if you can’t volunteer.
  • Find out if there are ways you can still financially support your local businesses by purchasing products online, buying gift cards, or ordering delivery if you feel safe doing so.
  • Donate blood. Thousands of blood drives across the country have been cancelled, and as a result our country is facing a severe blood shortage. You can sign up to donate blood here.
  • Donate to immigration groups like RAICES and support their initiatives, like sending an email to ICE demanding the release of people in detention who are at risk of contracting coronavirus.

One Last Thing

This post is getting pretty long, so I’ll wrap it up with this final thought. Something that I think will be crucial to getting through this is to make space for emotion. Anger, depression, sadness, hopelessness, grief – frankly, I have felt ALL of those emotions in just the last week. It’s normal. I imagine that a lot of you have felt similar things, because honestly, how could we NOT be feeling those emotions right now?

But something we all need to remember is that even though we can’t go see the people we love in person right now, that doesn’t mean we need to cut them out of our lives. Now is not the time to try and stifle emotions in solitude; now is the time for vulnerability and honesty. Reach out to people when you need help; and when you’re feeling okay, reach out to people you know have trouble asking for help, or the people who are being hit really hard right now.

We’re in a strange and unprecedented place right now of being told that the only way to save each other is to avoid each other. While that’s true, I also think the way we save each other is to be there for each other; to love more openly than we have allowed ourselves to before; to forgive more easily; to open our hearts to our community and to give: give money, give volunteer hours, give blood, yes, but also give the gift of your time. Pick up the phone; call your grandparents. Call your parents, your siblings, your friends, your neighbors. Be open and honest in asking for the support you need, and be ready to give that support in return.

The only way we get through this is together. Take comfort in that, but also take responsibility. Find space for that intentional wellness. And take a deep breath; you’re not alone.

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