Dr. Nicole Saphier: Coronavirus anxiety – here are ways to relieve stress and stay healthier

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Living during COVID-19 is not normal. For most Americans, life has been significantly disrupted by the measures being taken to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus wreaking havoc across the globe. It is not surprising, then, that so many people are reporting a change in their mental health during this time, and not for the good.

A national survey from the American Psychiatric Association (APA) reported COVID-19 is seriously affecting Americans' mental health, with half of U.S. adults reporting high levels of anxiety. Although nearly half of survey respondents (48 percent) reported feeling anxious about the possibility of contracting COVID-19, far more respondents (62 percent) said they feel anxious about the possibility of family and loved ones falling ill and potentially the future of our nation.

In academia and health care, we are often encouraged to “suck it up” and press on when difficulties arise. But we all need time to process the anguish that comes with the loss (albeit temporary) of our former professional and social lives. Especially, it is important to recognize that there is a lot happening right now that we can’t control so we should not dwell on the guilt that we may not be functioning at maximum productivity levels – none of us are.

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Even though it is incredibly hard, try to make every attempt to shift attention to things you can control. For example, you cannot control the number of people dying from COVID-19 nor can you save people from the economic fallout that is happening around us.

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However, you can continue doing your part to lower the spread of illness and lessen the severity of a future viral wave by increasing handwashing frequency, staying home when sick and limiting interaction with large crowds until a proven treatment or preventable vaccine is available.

But containing the virus alone is myopic when considering how to quell the effects of the pandemic. There are additional, tangible ways to not only decrease your chance of catching the virus but also to strengthen your body (and mind) to ward off direct and indirect consequences of future illness, COVID-19 or other.

Rather than continue our past behaviors of spending money on fitness quick-fixes and scouring social media for the latest "Top 10 Tips of Wellness," put the cell phone down for a minute because the news feed itself is causing further angst.

Did you know in addition to physical movement, there are also certain foods that have been shown to improve your immune system and reduce anxiety — and we all want to feel as good as we can right now. So, what are they?

  • Salmon contains nutrients that promote brain health, including vitamin D and the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Consuming adequate amounts of EPA and DHA may also promote your brain’s ability to adapt to changes, allowing you to better handle stressors that trigger anxiety symptoms. Even a few servings of salmon a week may be enough to promote anxiety relief, not to mention lowering your risk of heart disease and stroke.
  • Turmeric is a spice that contains curcumin, a compound studied for its role in promoting brain health and preventing anxiety disorder by acting as a powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant agent. Turmeric can be added to food as a spice and is also found in many herbal teas.
  • Many studies have shown that probiotic foods such as yogurt may promote mental health and even brain function. In one particular study, people who self-identified as anxious who consumed probiotic yogurt daily were better able to cope with stress than those who consumed yogurt without probiotics.
  • Green tea contains an amino acid that has been studied for the positive effects it may have on brain health, lowering inflammation and anxiety reduction.

People are feeling a lot of stress right now, and the unfortunate reality is that stress worsens feelings of low mood or angst, and it also suppresses our immune systems.

Although not as widely studied, there are many other healthier foods that are linked to immunity-boosting and lowering anxiety:

  • Turkey, bananas and oats are good sources of tryptophan, which is converted to serotonin in the body and may promote relaxation and anxiety relief.
  • Blueberries, citrus fruits and bell peppers are rich in vitamin C and other antioxidants, which have antioxidant properties that may help reduce overall inflammation and repair damaged cells.
  • Almonds provide a significant amount of vitamin E, which has been studied for its role in anxiety prevention.

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It’s hard to cope with being quarantined and not reach for your favorite comfort snack because of boredom or feeling edgy. A few pretzels or an occasional cookie during this time is OK (believe me, I am also having my fair share), but many people cannot limit themselves to not eating the entire bag once it has been opened.

Even more, the thought of cooking a healthy meal may not be appealing to you while you are feeling sub-par, but I encourage you to try because it might make you feel better, physically and mentally.

People are feeling a lot of stress right now, and the unfortunate reality is that stress worsens feelings of low mood or angst, and it also suppresses our immune systems. Processed foods and shelf-stable items contain a lot of simple carbohydrates that can cause a sharp rise then fall of our blood sugar, which can actually worsen feelings of anxiety. Therefore, targeting immune-boosting foods will have a dual effect — you may feel less anxious and boost your immunity.

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Keep in mind, no matter how often you exercise, or how hard you work out, you will never be able to “out exercise” a bad diet, so while we are in the current state of disarray, try to get rid of some of those bad eating habits.

I can’t give you the motivation to eat a healthier diet or increase your physical activity during this time of calamity; I can only provide you with the tools to use once you find your own motivation.  However, we are all in this COVID-19 crisis together and if we all focus on making ourselves a little bit healthier, we will not only feel better in the short-term, but we will be on our way to a healthier country for the long-term.

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