Wow! Most of us are all cooped up and wondering how to adjust our lives to a different schedule and rhythm due to COVID 19 and the Stay at Home orders. At first glance that sounds like an opportunity to do a lot of things at home that have been needing some attention or to engage in some self-care activities or just read the books that have been gathering dust on the shelves. Nonetheless even if one stands to benefit from some of these changes it is a big adjustment, and many are threatened by financial insecurity if not illness itself. What that equates to is more stress than we normally encounter in our daily lives.
Most people experience at least moderate stress in their normal existence.
It has been estimated that up to one-third of the adult population in the United States experiences enough stress in their routine lives to have an adverse impact on their home or work performance. A certain level of stress may be protective but excessive stress may be harmful through a variety of psychological and physiologic effects.
Chronic stress results in sustained elevations of cortisol that can cause suppressed immunity. Yes, that fact gets my attention too. How do we live under siege from a lethal virus without succumbing to diminished immune function which is vital to keeping us healthy under such circumstances?! I will get to that in a second, but I will digress slightly for a brief moment.
I just listened to an NPR interview with a Bioengineering professor at Stanford University who has been a staff writer for many years at the New Yorker and has followed and written about Dr. Anthony Fauci’s career. Dr. Fauci is a man who defined his career during the AIDS epidemic as an infectious disease expert. I was in medical school in 1991 when that disease was still very deadly, and I did a rotation in an urban hospital with an infectious disease attending and our inpatient load consisted entirely of very sick patients with HIV related illnesses – primarily pneumocystis pneumonia. Dr. Fauci made a tremendous impact on the course of that disease first in the US and then worldwide. I am inspired and in awe of that man – what a hero.
So, to talk about how to best ameliorate stress seems minimalistic in the least compared to Dr. Fauci’s efforts. Or does it? HIV/AIDS was once deadly and still is very serious but thank goodness we have medications that can control it as there are still 3.4 million new infections worldwide. Still stress and stress-related illnesses affect almost every human being in terms of quality of life and risk for short term and chronic illnesses such as hypertension/ cardiovascular disease, obesity, and cancer. You see excess stress (cortisol down-regulated) leads to chronic inflammation and that is associated with every major age-related disease.
So back to the being, stuck at home or at the least more confined than we normally are..
In addition to yoga, treadmill/stationary bike exercise, engaging in virtual social activities to stay connected with one another, and creative projects that are most definitely beneficial we can sit for 5 to 10 minutes and no not clear our heads – be present with our thoughts. We can meditate. And it does not have to be difficult. A good friend of mine who is a therapist regularly teaches her residential treatment clients who are recovering from addiction to meditate. Most of them have never tried to do it on their own. She says with meditation there is no agenda and no destination. You DO NOT have to clear your thoughts. There is no right way and no wrong way to do it. If you are trying to meditate then you are doing it. And you do not have to do it for a long duration to see benefits, but gains are enhanced if it becomes a routine. Brief mindfulness practices have been found to affect emotion, mood, stress, and anxiety in a short period of time such as 3-5 minutes.
We can choose to see the opportunity within a difficult situation such as the current pandemic. Because most of us are more stationary within social isolation we have the chance to build a new routine into our daily lives that takes little more than intention. On average it takes two months and for some only 18 days of incorporating a meditation practice into one’s day for it to become habitual. There are several Apps that may make it easier to get started. Some examples are Head Space, Insight Timer, Calm, Breathe, Mindfulness and Simple Habit. Maybe the best treatment we have currently to help us quell the many stressors and thus enhance our immunity and help reduce the risk for chronic diseases is a mindfulness or meditation practice. There is no time like the present!