This is a relatively tough time for Americans, but it’s tough times that reveal our true character. We all have a role to play in fighting this virus. For many it means staying home and avoiding other humans. While social distancing helps us collectively, it can be hard on us individually. Our mental health can erode. Depression, anxiety, and paranoia can set in. We can start believing that there is a global conspiracy led by Bill Gates to hurt the economy and cover up the murder of Carol Baskin’s husband. There can be a silver lining, if we do the right things. We can stay healthy, avoid depression, and we may even learn a few things about ourselves in the process.
Below are the top 10 things you can do for your mental, physical, and emotional health in a home isolation situation.
Author’s disclaimer: To be clear, I am taking this pandemic extremely seriously, both professionally as a physician and personally as a parent and son. That being said, there are jokes in this article. Humor is not a reflection on the seriousness of this pandemic but rather as a ploy to get you to keep reading.
10. Get Sun. Because many of us are not supposed to go anywhere, we stay inside. That’s a mistake and leading us to increased levels of depression and pastiness. Most of us have an area to get sun while maintaining our social distancing like a balcony, patio, backyard, roof, window, or mega-yacht. Use this space. Vitamin D from sunlight is crucial for our mood, mental health, and immune system. Lab rats show narcotic-like withdrawal symptoms when sunlight is removed from their habitat. Humans tend to get sad and tired. When I’m getting sun, I try to take off as many layers as I can without getting additional legal charges from my uptight neighbors. Also, morning sun is best for setting our circadian rhythm, exercise, and mindfulness while afternoon sun is best for drinking a lot of wine.
9. Set goals. When I set goals like “Become fluent in Ancient Greek,” “Write the great American Novel,” or stop saying “that’s what she said”, I’m bound to fail. Instead I set the bar low, like learning a card trick, practice mindfulness for 20 minutes, or baking. These goals help to keep us busy, which also helps loneliness, boredom, and the temptation to shop online or spend the whole day treating your body like an amusement park. You know what I mean.
More importantly, these goals will keep our minds’ sharp. The concept of brain plasticity is a two way street. Brain damaged individuals can experience improved function over time by connecting neurons, but this concept can work in reverse. Sharp people can become dull and connections can disappear because of brain plasticity. Six weeks of nothing but the Kardashians and Pornhub can turn a once brilliant mind into a functional idiot.
Once you have your goal, make a specific plan to accomplish it. Ex: I will practice mindfulness for 20 minutes immediately after I brush my teeth or I will practice chainsaw juggling after my 3rd whiskey of the morning. A goal without a specific plan to accomplish it, is just a daydream. I read that on a poster somewhere once. When we fail to plan, we plan to fail, also from a poster. Hang in there, it’s almost Friday. Poster.
8. Sweat. Exercise has found to be as effective as 20mg of Prozac for treatment of depression, and the side effects are way better. I know we can’t go to the gym. Despite this, I’ve been getting great workouts using the “100 pushups” app , Yogaglo.com, and Beachbody.com. Here’s an article on how to get started working out from home: 36,000 Seconds. An Exercise Call to Action by Dr Jason Valadao.
7. Snack. I don’t normally snack because it is terrible for maintaining a healthy weight. That being said, when I’m home like this, I can’t help myself. So this makes our snack choices super important. I’ve been stocking up on pickles, veggies, hummus, nuts, full fat Greek yogurt, nut butters, frozen berries, and popcorn. What do all these things have in common? They’re not processed foods and they won’t lead to crazy amounts of weight gain. Also, their fiber will feed our gut microbiome which promotes better emotional well being and also better poops. To achieve smarter snacking, the key is better decisions at the supermarket because now more than ever, if it’s in the house, we will eat it. Willpower is a finite resource, we shouldn’t use it up by having temptations like potato chips, Cheetos, and Ben and Jerry around the house. Ben and Jerry are a couple of very fit firefighters who live down the street from me…actually they can stay.
6. Prioritize Sleep. I’m working hard on this, here’s what I’m doing. A psychiatrist friend pointed out that with every single mental illness in the DSM 5 (official book of psychiatric diagnoses), we see a sleep disruption. I’m not saying that every psychiatric problem is caused by poor sleep, but sleep is an issue with all. Sometimes it’s a chicken and egg problem. Sometimes it’s a vicious circle, but if we don’t get adequate sleep, our mental health can not improve.
With our mandate to stay home, it’s tempting to stay up to 3AM playing Animal Crossing. Besides eroding our mental health, this can weaken our immune system, and cause weight gain. Sleeping in a little is fine, but we should get to bed at the same time every night. I aim for 9–10PM. Despite being #6 on the list, this is the most important thing.
5. Relax. Give yourself permission to take a sensual bubble bath for one. Enjoy some wine, your favorite music, or a cup of tea. If you watch TV, do this intentionally as well. Make a list of quality movies you’ve never seen, and start watching. Also, avoid excessive amounts of news, reality TV, and anything on the Bravo network as this can lead to depression and loss of IQ points. IMDB’s Top 250 movies and top 150 comedies is a good place to start, but is also a bit ridiculous. How can the top comedy of all time be a silent film and not Spaceballs? Also, if you haven’t seen Game of Thrones, you should. Also, HBO is free right meow.
4. Create. Making a vegetable lasagna or a batch of pecan sandies for a neighbor can brighten their day and yours. Just leave the gifts on their porch or something. Exploring your creative side by writing poetry, painting, or even making a new recipe can be very satisfying. I have been drawing charcoal sketches of my dreams and giving them to my friends. The sketches come in three genres: erotic, horrific nightmares, and both.
3. Make a schedule. I plan the next day while winding down for bed. Having a loose plan keeps me from looking at memes on Instagram through 2nd breakfast and into happy hour. My day plan* has a couple “core” items that will help me move forward in life, a few “FTA (feed the animals)” activities that keep me from getting evicted or fired, and some “Sharpen the Saw” items to keep me from wearing down. I keep the list small and work until it’s done, but when it’s done, I cease being productive. Here’s a copy of today’s plan.
2. Cook. Some of us are gonna be great cooks after this. Some of us will be full blown alcoholics. Some of us may be both. COVID-19 isn’t a pass to start immediately binging on processed food (see #7). The only time we should eat processed foods is in a survival situation.
So for now, we should cook real food and save the Twinkies, Hot Pockets, and Slim Jims for when shit really hits the fan. Also, “Cooking” doesn’t mean you have to make a six course meal for you and your cat. Making soup or even perfecting your morning coffee ritual counts too. Here’s mine.
1. Connect. Check-in with people who may be struggling. Email your best friend. Call your mom. Host a virtual happy hour. DM your supervisor’s daughter. You’ll be glad you did, probably.
What not to do. Normally, I am a big fan of extended fasting, but for most of us, this is the wrong time. We are already deprived of some things, let’s not make things harder on ourselves with extra pressure. I am continuing some light intermittent fasting, which is essentially breakfast skipping, but I still find this to be quite easy, even in relative isolation.
While it might be tempting to start a major DIY home improvement project, these can end with trips to the ER, so it’s best to defer such activities. Also, don’t change your medications until you can chat with your doctor. Basically, pretend like hospitals are a breeding ground for a highly communicable disease that poses a threat to you and your family, because that is pretty much the case.
As a side note, lack of time is the number one reason people give for not exercising, meditating, reading, sleeping enough, corresponding, and cooking. Just saying.
Finally, the book “Solve For Happy” has been the impetus for an incredible positive change in my overall mood and happiness. I can’t recommend it highly enough, especially now. Since I’ve read it, I’ve noticed that my shower crying has decreased in both total time and intensity.
In conclusion, we shouldn’t feel pressure to use this time to start a side business, lose 50 pounds, or prepare for a triathlon, but if we set some small intentions for our time in isolation, when we emerge from lockdown, we can be a healthier and happier version of ourselves with positive habits, new skills, and based on our recent purchasing patterns, super clean buttholes.
If we don’t take care ourselves, we can expect to return from isolation with a beer belly, soul crushing depression, pre-diabetes, scurvy, and an internet porn addiction. The choice is yours. Choose wisely.
*My day plan is taken from a combination of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and the motivational speaker Brian Ward.