This fall we’re all finding ourselves challenged in new ways. 2020 has been a long haul. The coronavirus pandemic ebbs and surges through communities, complicating annual rituals like Halloween and keeping us isolated from our friends, family, and neighbors. Economic hard times are visible in the empty storefronts and the red-ink budgets of our cities, towns, and state. Periodic social unrest, distance learning, wildfires, a poisonously contested election, even an infected quarterback and the empty seats at Gillette Stadium are a constant reminder that things are not normal right now. Keeping healthy habits while under stress takes conscious effort, commitment and a plan. Here are some important things to keep in mind.
This is not the “new normal,” especially as it relates to the pandemic, this will end. A day is coming soon when you won’t need a mask to buy a loaf of bread, when you can shake hands without hesitation, and when you can hug your relatives and share a holiday meal without worrying about the amount of ventilation in your dining room. The coronavirus is definitely serious business and common sense efforts to avoid transmission are just that: common sense. But a bevy of vaccines are in development, therapeutics and intensive care unit knowledge have advanced, and early evidence is that while reinfection with the virus is possible, the symptoms become milder as the immune system recognizes the virus earlier and takes action. Eventually the SARS COV-2 virus will join its cousin coronaviruses as commonly circulating particles which for the vast majority of people cause little or no symptoms along with low rates of circulation in the population.
Taking care of our physical and emotional health is really important, especially now. Evidence is appearing every day that rates of depression, anxiety, and problem drug and alcohol use are higher than ever. The effect of the pandemic has been to take existing health and social problems and make them much worse. Already in this country we have been grappling with an epidemic of drug overdoses and suicides, obesity, disparate health outcomes due to racial and ethnic differences, and educational inequalities in underprivileged districts. The data shows that in each case we are more challenged in 2020 than we were a year or two earlier.
As individuals, we all play a small but important role in turning these numbers around. The biggest impact you can have is taking care of yourself and those around you. Have you gained weight in the last eight months? Are you sleeping normally? Are you drinking more alcohol or finding yourself spending more time distracted by screens? Are there concrete steps you can take to counteract the trends of ill health brought on by the pandemic? Of course there are! If the gym is closed, you can go for a walk or a bike ride. You can dust off the free weights or treadmill in the basement and make a commitment to start exercising each morning for thirty minutes. A warm winter coat will help you stay outside and stay connected to others in a safe manner as the weather turns colder. Using video chat like FaceTime and Zoom can help us stay close with friends and family we would normally be visiting in person. Try meditation. Try yoga. Try making building a model airplane, or sewing, or juggling. Trying to learn something new and staying active will help you feel more resilient and engaged. Discovering new things about ourselves helps us with the changes around us that we have less control over. Feeling good is also contagious!
If you’re worried about the number of people who have died from coronavirus this year, did you know how many people die every year from preventable causes? Sounds morbid but if you total the number of people estimated every year to die from smoking, obesity, and alcohol, you will find a number more than four times the number of current COVID deaths. That’s not just 2020, it’s every single year. Maybe now is a good time to stop smoking or lose weight or go to a virtual AA meeting. There’s a simple and profound saying in Alcoholics Anonymous which we should all remember: One day at a time. Do something healthy to get yourself through today, you’ll feel better tomorrow. Rinse and repeat. Today is not a dress rehearsal, it’s the real thing! Staying alive and healthy through hard times takes patience, bravery, and kindness. Help yourself, help each other, and one day at a time we will get through.
Also remember to take care of your existing health problems, this is so important. If you have hypertension or diabetes or high cholesterol, or if you should be getting routine screening like mammography or colonoscopy, or if your kids need immunizations, please take care of yourself and your family by scheduling an appointment with your doctor.
Hospitals and clinics are open. In-person health care remains vital for a wide range of problems and telehealth is available for everything else. We have made the necessary changes to accommodate social distancing, masking, air filtration. It is safe to go to the doctor. It is safe to go to the hospital. No medical problem gets better by pretending it isn’t really there. (I’m going to take my own advice and get my teeth cleaned!). Be smart, have courage, take care of yourself.