What a strange time we suddenly find ourselves in. The global situation develops rapidly, advice changes daily. Scroll back six weeks and the future seemed very different indeed.
This abrupt, marked change to our daily lives and routines can be frightening and bring up feelings of anxiety, stress and even panic.
None of which are good for our immune systems, which we need to rely on even more right now.
Some of us have lost incomes, not knowing when they will return, or even if our industries will exist in the same way. Some are working from home. Some homeschooling their children.
And some are among the most vulnerable, finding themselves confined to their homes and unable to mix freely in their communities.
This is problematic for reasons beyond the physical. We humans are a social lot, by nature. When we find ourselves isolated for long periods of time, our mental health can suffer, which in turn affects us in a physical, bodily way too.
It’s an unpleasant feedback loop that, unless checked, can cause stress, anxiety and dampen our immune response. Everything in our body is interlinked, so we need to think of our system as a holistic entity, with everything working in conjunction, and ideally, balance.
Commune with nature.
Walking, running or cycling in nature (at a respectful distance from other nature-seekers, of course) relieves stress, bringing much-needed clarity and calm. Not to mention the benefits to our immune systems from topping up the vitamin D supplies.
Now this may not be possible if you are stuck in an apartment with no balcony, no garden, and you live in a city where you are not able to walk to somewhere that has, well, nature.
A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that even looking at pictures of nature can replicate these effects. Participants’ stress levels decreased as their parasympathetic nervous system response was activated (or ‘Rest and Digest mode’ - more on this below.) So try watching a David Attenborough documentary or listening to a relaxing nature soundtrack.
Getting daylight every day is important for our circadian rhythm, immune health, and mental health, so even if you can’t get outside, sit next to the window, tune into the birdsong and take some deep breaths.
Movement is so important for our immune system, but also for our mental health. Apart from your daily walk/exercise outside, can you set aside ten minutes in your day to move your body, yoga, dance, skip, lift weights...the choice is yours.
There are many free internet resources, even more so now. Maybe your favourite yoga teacher has moved their classes online, or you have always wanted to learn to dance.
There are gentle chair yoga classes if mobility is an issue, or even tune into Joe Wicks’ PE classes in the mornings!
Mix it up, move about, keep the endorphins pumping around your body, it’ll thank you for it.
Beautify your space.
If you are working from home, this means making yourself a workspace away from everything else, and making sure it doesn’t cross over into your leisure area.
Get some plants, clear up the clutter, light some candles, create space. No working from bed, scrunched over your laptop.
And if you work from your pyjamas all day (no judgement here) at least have different nighttime, sleeping pyjamas you can change into.
Write yourself a schedule.
What would you like to achieve today? Maybe it’s a day for video calling your entire contacts list. Or learning to tap dance. Homeschooling your child. Maybe you are working from home and you struggle with procrastination.
Whatever situation you are in, you can benefit from a little routine and structure. Shower, brush your teeth, get dressed as if you were going outside. Schedule in breaks, exercise, time outside and a clear end of day.
Mark out your weekend. Make sure this feels different to the ‘work week.’ Just because you can work at any time from your laptop, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
Be strict. Close the laptop, put the phone on aeroplane mode, mark out your leisure time. Save something for the weekend.
Prepare for sleep.
Try to go to bed and get up at the same time every day, even if you don’t have to work at the moment. Having that routine is vital for a healthy sleep cycle.
Sleep, along with other lifestyle factors such as daylight, exercise and a healthy diet, is vital for immune health. Listen to Neuroscience Professor Matt Walker’s Ted Talks on sleep as a superpower, and how the lack of sleep can dull the immune response and aggravate the nervous system.
Looking at a screen just before bed may keep you awake, so try a different routine. Meditation, reading, yoga - whatever you need to calm the mind.
Take time out to breathe.
You do this anyway (hopefully) but you can do it better.
We breathe, as a reflex, something like 20,000 times per day. But we can breathe consciously, which calms down the nervous system, and has the happy side effect of enabling meditation.
How? Put simply, when we concentrate our attention completely on the process of breathing, we are not concentrating on anything else.
We are not multitasking, looking at our phone, or jumping frantically from thought to thought, anxiety to anxiety, thinking about next week or next year or….you get the picture. Instead, we are simply breathing, nice and deeply, from the belly, and giving our minds a little break by concentrating on that process.
And that’s it.
Mindfulness, meditation, whatever you want to call it - giving our minds a rest is as good for our mental health as going for a big jog through the countryside.
Meditation, or breath awareness, has another quick side effect, in that it calms down the nervous system, turning off the adrenal glands, and enabling the body to shift into its ‘Rest and Digest’ mode (the opposite to ‘Fight or Flight.’)
So we start to digest our food properly, enable cellular repair...all from sitting quietly and breathing. Easy.
Learn a new skill.
This really is a time for you to do that thing you’ve been meaning to do.
Me, I am learning to code. It’s challenging, but is giving me structure, and stretching my brain, making me feel productive and valuable. I am also spending time each day improving my Portuguese, which is even harder than coding.
These little wins can see you through the difficult times, giving you something to aim for each day - even if it is just 25 minutes.
In fact, I use a productivity technique called the Pomodoro Technique. Set a timer for 25 minutes and work for the entire time, without looking at your phone, using social media or tidying up the cupboard you haven’t opened for six months.
And then have a five-minute break. Make a cup of tea, stretch, pace, play the guitar, listen to a song and dance - whatever you like, for five minutes. And then set another timer, work for another 25 minutes. Do this in blocks of four and then have a longer break, make some food, go for a walk, and come back to it.
Or finish for the day and pour a gin. Whatever you need.
Ignore all of the above.
Sometimes. It is ok to be overwhelmed, ok to feel tired. If you need to stay in bed and watch films all day, then do it. If you need to turn your phone off because it seems like everybody else is doing inspiring things and are totally ok (they probably aren’t) then turn it off.
If you need to close the curtains and eat all the chocolate you bought to last through the apocalypse, go ahead.
It is ok not to write a novel, not to learn a new language, or finally finish The Count of Monte Cristo (I have tried SO MANY TIMES.)
It is ok just to survive, to rest, to wait. Be as gentle and as kind to yourself as you would be to the people you love.
Rachel is a yoga and meditation teacher based in Lagos. She has taken her yoga classes online, and caters for all levels - for more info email email@example.com