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Looking after your wellbeing in times of uncertainty


Gaye Cunnane, Director of Health and Wellbeing, Royal College of Physicians in Ireland  

Professor of Rheumatology, St James’s Hospital and Trinity College Dublin

©ILFA Newsletter Spring 2020


The world as we know it has shifted in a very short period of time. The expressions ‘surreal’, ‘scary’, ‘unbelievable,’ now regularly crop up in conversation. There is no chance encounter (at a distance) that does not involve the terms covid19 or coronavirus, new words in our vocabulary that were unknown or unfamiliar just a few weeks ago.

The situation has infiltrated itself into our everyday lives. Things we have always taken for granted – eating out, visiting family, spending time with friends, even hugging, are no longer recommended while this threat is amongst us. Many people have lost their jobs or have been forced to discover new ways of working, while those at the frontline have had to face the problem head on, using their skills to look after the sick or keep the medical centres and essential services running.

The advice from the World Health Organisation and other authorities has been clear and cohesive, with social distancing and rigorous hygiene measures amongst the best strategies to avoid contracting the virus.  This is a time, like no other, to prioritize to your health and wellbeing, so that you can give yourself the best chance of getting through this difficult period and be in a position to look out for others too.

Good nutrition is the cornerstone of optimal health. With restaurants closed, there is an opportunity to be creative about cooking and storing food, exploring different recipes, and involving all those at home with meal preparation. For frontline workers, having proper breaks with healthy snacks, as opposed to coffee and chocolate, will mean lasting energy during long days.

Sleep is essential for immune function and should never be considered a luxury. Do what you can to optimize your sleep, while remembering that rest or relaxation periods also help to restore energy levels. If you struggle with sleep, there are some helpful online resources that are worth exploring.

Our bodies were built to move, and exercise should be a daily routine where feasible. There are many benefits from being outdoors, but if physical activity is difficult, try to identify other options, such as chair-yoga which helps to build strength and resilience.

One of our greatest current challenges is in the management of our mental and emotional health. Although it is tempting to check constantly for updates on Covid19, this behavior can hugely increase anxiety, while over-frequent use of social media results in a plethora of information, not all of which is accurate. I would recommend confining your sources of information to reliable news outlets, and think twice before forwarding on any stories, no matter how well-intentioned – you may be harming someone else’s wellbeing in the process.

If your routine has been altered, try to establish another one. Be mindful of work/life boundaries if you are working from home. Communication is key if you are living with others whose lives have also been disrupted. Set goals, which give you both hope and purpose. It can be helpful to spend 5 minutes each morning setting an intention for the day and a further 5 minutes in the evening reflecting on any positives the day has brought. Sometimes, it is the small things that give us the greatest pleasure.

It is quite normal to feel anxious during these challenging times. If these feelings are overwhelming, make sure that you tell someone who can acknowledge them and give you perspective. Learn some helpful breathing techniques to calm the normal physiological responses associated with anxiety, such as fuzzy thinking, sweating, fast heart rate, etc. 

Although we need to stay physically apart at present, it is important that we keep in close touch with family, friends, neighbours and colleagues. Have a shared cup of tea or coffee on FaceTime, check in with telephone conversations or email, send a friendly text, or consider a virtual party via the internet. Thinking of others helps us put our own troubles into context. We are a global community fighting a common cause.

If you have symptoms of physical or mental distress, it is always okay to look for help. Phone your GP or check the HSE and WHO websites, which have detailed and updated information on all aspects of Covid19. The world has been through such crises before and will get through this one too. In the meantime, following expert advice, looking after yourself, and keeping in touch with those around you will help limit the spread of disease, reduce the impact on the health service and foster a renewed sense of common humanity in unpredictable times.