By Dr. Graham A. Colditz, Siteman Cancer Center
We are beginning to see signs that our steps to curb the spread of COVID-19 are paying off. While the infection is still spreading swiftly in certain areas, in others that have adopted strong physical distancing and stay-at-home policies, the infection rate is leveling off and even dropping.
And that’s great news. If positive trends continue, some restrictions may start to be slowly lifted in certain areas. But that doesn’t mean a quick return to our pre-pandemic lives, as much as we’d like it to. Even in places that have seen good progress, the virus has not disappeared. So, we must continue efforts over the longer term to prevent new waves of infections.
Exactly what this will look like for our communities and nation, no one really knows. But it most likely means maintaining some level of physical distancing and staying at home, as well as following other safety recommendations, into summer and beyond.
As we move into this new, marathon period of pandemic response, it’s important to think about ways to adjust to our new normal – and maybe even find some silver linings. Here are a few ideas worth considering.
Try to keep parts of your day and week distinct. Spending so much time at home, we might feel the different parts of our lives blending together. And that lack of structure can be tough. To make things seem more normal, think about how you can make parts of your days and weeks feel distinct. For example, when your children’s remote school day is over, have them put away their computers and other work and do something different: play a board game, do jumping jacks, take the dog on a family walk. If you’re working from home, try setting similar boundaries. Dinnertime can be a simple way to mark the end of the “regular” work and school day. In the same way, it can be refreshing to make weekends feel different from weekdays. If possible, try to limit work and do things you might not do on a normal weekday: a big cooking or art project or a longer walk outside (staying safe). Don’t be afraid to get creative.
Unplug – when you can. Internet use has surged since stay-at-home recommendations began. And, certainly, websites, podcasts and gaming and streaming services have been a fabulous way to stay entertained during the long hours at home. Yet, it can be equally important for our mental well-being to simply unplug for part of the day – no computer, no phone, no television. Instead, pick up a book or magazine, do a puzzle, go for a walk (staying safe) or even do chores. The break can be a reset, leaving you feeling more energized.
Mix things up. Routines can help us get through our days. But with stay-at-home recommendations continuing, that structure can begin to feel monotonous. Peppering new activities into your schedule can help keep things interesting. Even little changes can be good, like making a special breakfast on Wednesdays or seeing how many days in a row you can exercise. Experiment to see what works for you, and try to make it fun when you can.
Make use of resources. Local and national organizations are working hard to get people through these challenging times. If you have a need related to food assistance, mental health, work, domestic issues, parenting, substance use, schooling, elder care or something else important, help is probably available. Local governments, local news media and workplace human resource departments offer valuable information and resources. Web searches work, too.
Be flexible. One of our best coping tools now is flexibility. As things stretch on, what has worked for us – and for businesses, schools and governments – may not work longer term. Trying to be adaptable to shifting situations can help us get through the next weeks and months as stress-free as possible. This doesn’t mean there won’t be challenges, frustrations and raw emotions, but it may help us deal more positively as they pop up.
Pat yourself on the back. We all have a lot going on – even as we spend so much time in one place. So, it’s good to stop and take a step back and celebrate our successes, big or small. Maybe your son learned a song on the guitar, your daughter received an academic award or you worked out. Take time to acknowledge those things. We deserve a pat on the back as we navigate our way through a pandemic.
COVID-19 has touched nearly everyone’s lives, some immeasurably so. As we move into the next phase of the response, it’s important to continue working together to slow the spread of the infection and to keep looking after each other and ourselves. Try to maintain activities that boost your health and well-being: connecting with friends and family (virtually), staying physically active, eating healthy food and, of course, washing your hands. We’ve got this.
It’s our health. Let’s take control.
Dr. Graham A. Colditz, associate director of prevention and control at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, is an internationally recognized leader in cancer prevention. As an epidemiologist and public health expert, he has a long-standing interest in the preventable causes of chronic disease. Colditz has a medical degree from The University of Queensland and a master’s and doctoral degrees in public health from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.