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Now is the Time for Radical Self Care

by DR. LISA LARKIN

Everyone is doing the best they can. This is a nice way to think about people generally, but right now, it seems especially true.

As a women’s health care clinician and one who believes in evidence-based medicine, I am coping during this time by doing what I do every day: I am looking at the data. Unfortunately, the data is frightening. The rapid COVID-19 escalation in the United States has presented us with a future that is uncertain and relies on many variables. In the coming weeks, depending where you live, the situation might become more intense for you as people you know are affected personally. Or perhaps you are already living this reality.

No matter where you live, we have all lost our equilibrium in the last few weeks. We are all doing the best we can.

In my practice, when we face questions that data cannot answer for us, we return to the basics. We control what we can with the best knowledge we have to stay healthy.

Staying Well and Boosting Immunity

If you are well, you want to stay well and give your body its best chance to fight infection. Many of my patients are asking how to boost their immune systems. Is there a supplement that could help? I wish there were better data, but what we have learned is that supplements do not equal good nutrition. Vitamin C, for example, in pill form is not the same as Vitamin C in your diet. That means, right now, we should be trying to eat as healthfully as possibly.

This is easier to say than it is to do—I know this personally. And trips for fresh foods are limited. But generally, I return to:

Nutrition, combined with sleep, exercise and stress management, are the foundation for a healthy body and a strong immune system. These are the basics and they remain true.

Stress Management and Your Health

We’ve lost a lot in recent weeks. Routines, structure, interactions with friends and family, ability to exercise at our usual gym–things are all different. If you’re feeling very tired, it’s not just because you might be doing more than normal. It’s your body’s natural stress response to these many changes, and possibly, feelings of grief over what’s happening.

If you didn’t have a stress management strategy previously, now is the time. If you are overly revved up and anxious, your body is releasing a lot of catecholamine, fight-or-flight chemical messengers, and that can affect your immune response. If this occurs for too long, this on its own can produce negative health effects.

We all handle things differently, so we will all need to explore our own methods for stress management and continue checking in with them in the coming months. Are your coping methods healthy? Here’s what I try to keep in mind:

Exercising Your Mind

In addition to managing the stress we’re likely experiencing during this crisis, I encourage my patients to stay mentally stimulated. We know from numerous studies that feelings of loneliness and isolation can have physiological as well as psychological impacts—things like sleep disruption, decreased immunity and exacerbation of existing health conditions. In addition, you might start to feel a little “foggy,” especially if you’re not challenging your mind. Physicians recommend to our older patients to engage in meaningful and challenging activities to maintain their cognitive abilities as they age. I suggest doing the same types of activities to keep your brain sharp while you’re self-isolating. Consider:

Keep in mind that while crosswords and conversation are helpful, research shows that exercise is still the single most important activity older adults can do to decrease cognitive decline.

Taking Care and Staying Vigilant

Many of my patients are not just caring for themselves, but also elderly parents, children of all ages, or both at the same time. They are also helping their communities in the ways they can right now while maintaining social distance. These times are calling on us to show radical amounts of kindness and compassion, for ourselves and for others. It has been heartening to see this response and people caring for each other and sharing small joys when possible.

This must be, after all, a unified and collective effort. The extension of the federal social distancing guidelines through the month of April is a good thing. We must continue our social distancing efforts to reduce the impact of this virus on our country by “flattening the curve,” reducing the otherwise impossible demands on our health system, and most importantly, by decreasing  the number of deaths. I implore you to continue to do your part and comply with the latest national and local guidance on social distancing.

Going Forward

We have all faced hardship before. What I have learned in my life is that with every hardship and unexpected crisis can come an unexpected gift. Let’s look for those. And let’s do our best to take care of ourselves and others.

If you find yourself in doubt, return to the basics. We are all doing the best we can. And we will create a new path forward.

This essay was featured in the April 5th edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.

DR. LISA LARKIN

Trained at Yale and the University of Chicago, Dr. Lisa Larkin is a women’s health internist, menopause and sexual medicine expert, and a physician and consumer educator who has been in practice for more than 30 years. She is Founder and CEO of Ms. Medicine, a national healthcare organization dedicated to advancing evidence-based women’s primary healthcare.