Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

A blog about words, wordplay, and etymology, with slightly more than occasional political rants.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Achtung baby

The news about COVID is encouraging - projected deaths are now much lower than they were initially, social distancing is working. Still, people are dying, and a whole lot more people will be dead before this is over. The whole world is upside down and the fact that we can't leave our houses serves as a constant reminder of how friggin terrifying everything is.
Public health officials keep reminding us of the stuff we can do to avoid getting sick - hand washing and staying home and all that. But they don't talk about one of the most important methods for fortifying the immune system: managing stress.
I know that the idea of trying to manage stress while trapped in your house with a superflu in the air and unemployment looming and screaming demon children tearing your house apart sounds absurd. But the fact is that the stress we're all under is killing us - some of us literally. Stress is the reason we're exhausted even though we never leave the house and it's the reason we can't stop shoving Fritos in our faces. Stress is why my fibromyalgia's flaring and it's likely why your asthma or acid reflux or IBS is acting up. And most importantly, stress is kryptonite for our immune systems. But at least there are some things we can do about it. 
Now, before I go on, I want to make it clear what I'm not saying. I'm not minimizing this crisis or telling you that your fear isn't valid. I'm not telling you to stop worrying and learn to love the plague. This post is about finding moments of calm in the terrifying chaos of this crisis, about caring for our bodies by tending to our minds. It's about taking what control we can of our health and giving our immune systems a fighting chance.

So, we've all heard about mindfulness meditation a hundred times, and adult coloring, and journaling and bubble baths. But here are some science-based stress reduction methods you might not have heard of. No one of these are going to work for everybody, but I hope I'll have included enough that there's something for everyone. 

  • Commune with nature:
    Research shows that just 20 minutes out among the trees, even if you're just sitting on a park bench the whole time, can significantly lower your levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol does all kinds of nasty stuff to your body, including chowing down on your white blood cells.
    Bonus, sunlight boosts your levels of vitamin D, which is necessary for immune function.
  • Consider fostering a pet:
    Okay, if your life is already a steaming pile of chaos, this is a terrible idea and you should move along. However, shelters are badly in need to folks to shelter their critters (so that they can have as few humans working at the adoption center as possible). And as it turns out, petting a cat or dog can actually lower depression, anxiety, and blood pressure. 
  • Play Tetris, of all things. The game distracts the part of your brain that deals in "narrative conceptual thinking," essentially cutting off your ability to fixate on whether you remembered to Lysol the doorknobs or how much time you let the kids play on the iPad today. I suspect this isn't limited to Tetris. I've got this game called Merge Dragons on my phone that accomplishes what years of trying to force myself to meditate couldn't. I Love Hue is a good one for people who don't especially like video games. Here's a list of mobile games that other folks have found useful in managing stress.
  • Laugh: The list of health benefits from laughter is so long it sounds made up. It releases endorphins which relieve pain, chase away stress, and may have a positive effect on anxiety and depression. Laughter stimulates circulation and relieves muscle tension. It even causes the release of neuropeptides that help your body fight disease. And what on earth are you supposed to laugh at in this epoch of despair? I don't know. Cats?
Friends, take care of yourselves as well as you can. Try to remember that, as scary as things are, even if you get this thing, and even if you're in a high risk group, your odds of beating it are better than your odds of not. Remember that I love you. I'm staying home for you. I hope you're staying home for me too.

You can find more information about the impact of stress on your health in Richard Sapolski's wonderful book Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers.

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