4 Ways To Take Care Of Your Physical, Mental & Social Well-Being Right Now
Stress is at an all-time high right now. Between the hard, important work people are doing to create social change and the trials of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, feeling permanently on edge is the order of the day. But to keep our bodies and minds going strong, all of us—especially those on the front lines—need to be making room for self-care right now.
As author and activist Audre Lorde tells us, "Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation," and as an integrative physician, I couldn't agree more. I'm always looking at a patient as a whole person with their complete physical, mental, and social well-being in mind. In my practice, I witness on a daily basis how self-care rituals can affect not only an individual's personal sense of well-being but also how they can set the tone for the health of the entire household.
If you've been having a hard time lately, consider one of the following methods:
Give yourself an email vacation.
Turn off those push notifications whenever you can—Brenda from HR can totally wait for you to get back to her. I really recommend giving yourself a few hours before you check your email in the morning and taking other small email "vacations" throughout your day or week.
And this isn't just based on my own practice. In one small study, for example, when participants reduced email time, they were able to focus longer on their task and had measurably lower stress levels.
Feed your microbiome.
Sometimes—especially when we're stressed out—we all want to throw back a big double-bacon cheeseburger followed by a pint of ice cream. And there's a good reason we feel that way: These kinds of foods are actually proven to make you feel good—temporarily. A diet high in saturated fat and sugar actually stimulates the same rewards centers in your brain as activities like gambling or sex. And they're habit-forming, too—in fact, animal studies have indicated addiction to sugary foods1 can be even worse than cocaine addiction.
But even though these foods can make us feel great in the moment, the unhealthy fats and sugars alter our gut microbiome and contribute to significant brain fog and inflammation. These diet-induced changes can, in turn, have a negative impact on mental health, mood, and how your brain functions. While there's nothing wrong with enjoying our favorite treats every once in a while, now's a good time to pull back on processed meals and added sugars.
Instead, go for a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and fiber-rich grains, which will keep your gut microbiome happy. This can be as easy as adding some raspberries or blackberries to your morning oatmeal or sprinkling your lunch or dinner salad with some steamed lentils. Additionally, a quality probiotic can be a great way to help your gut flora stay balanced and healthy. Trust me, your gut and brain will thank you.
Turn off the TV and throw yourself a living room dance party instead.
Bingeing on some comfort TV is an incredibly normal response to what's been going on. But as good as rewatching your favorite show for the fifth time may feel in the moment, try to stay aware of how much screen time you're getting—it turns out spending more than two hours a day2 on our devices has actually been clinically proven to harm our mental health.
What's more, research indicates negative screen time effect is worse for women than it is for men. This is thought to be related to the ways in which different genders have different coping mechanisms to stress. Men may be more likely to engage in distracting behaviors in response to stressful triggers—like going out for a bike ride or playing sports—whereas women are more likely to internalize and ruminate.
So I'm not saying you shouldn't check your Insta feed or rewatch your favorite seasons of Parks & Rec (I'm not a monster!). But after a couple of episodes, consider switching to another activity like puzzles, drawing, or living room dance parties, instead. You might not feel it in the moment, but the effects may radiate throughout the rest of your day (and week, for that matter).
Find a few mindful moments during your day—ideally in sunshine.
We're all experiencing anxiety about when and how we can return to the kind of lives we led pre-COVID—and that stress is wearing us down. Studies have shown that the human mind focuses on the present moment only 53% of the time. That means that our mind wanders nearly 47% of the time. While daydreaming may sound fun, it's not necessarily time well spent. Not being in the present has been shown to cause unhappiness, rather than vice versa.
Luckily, there are tools you can use to be more present more often. Mindfulness practices have been shown to help reduce the anxiety, depression, and pain associated with this kind of issue. So the next time you're feeling overwhelmed and frazzled, stop what you're doing and take a few minutes to be mindful of everything you're feeling throughout your body. Pay attention to your breathing. Even better, take a five-minute break outdoors: Just soak in the sun and listen to the sounds around you (bonus points for that dose of vitamin D). There are also plenty of effective meditation techniques that can help bring you back into the present, in a short amount of time.
Remember how important it is to put your own oxygen mask on first. You can't be a good parent, partner, team member, or active member of your community if you aren't well. Making sure you're paying attention to your emotional and mental well-being is critical for yourself and for those around you, so self-care should be a priority.
There are plenty of great ways to perform self-care—these are just a few that may work for you to stay healthy and grounded in this moment.
Dr. Shadi Vahdat is a board-certified physician specializing in integrative medicine. She has degrees with honors in Molecular and Cell Biology from University of California, Berkeley, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and Scripps Green Hospital. When she was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition and advised to start immune suppressing medication shortly after finishing her medical training, she knew she wanted a different approach for treating her condition. Navigating a new course for her health journey meant she needed additional training in nutritional and lifestyle medicine, so she completed a fellowship in traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture at UCLA East West Medicine and Helms Medical Institute. Additionally she has completed yoga teacher training, breathwork meditation training, and certification in functional medicine from Institute of Functional Medicine. She continues to take care of patients in all stages of health and illness, from minor ailments to life-threatening conditions, and holds an academic position at University of California, Los Angeles as assistant professor in Hospital Medicine. She is also the Founder and Medical Director for LiveWell Center For Integrative Medicine in Los Angeles. She has authored research papers in cardiovascular medicine and is a regular medical contributor for a number of publications.