While the ability to fend off illness and disease depends on some factors outside our control, we can manage other things that are well within our reach – namely, stress.
The immune system exists in a delicate balance of genetics, exposure to germs, sleep, diet and exercise, according to the American Psychological Association. But bring in any kind of emotional or physical stress and balance is lost, putting people at risk of infection.
Today, the coronavirus pandemic is threatening that stability. As uncertainty over the pandemic grows, health concerns have bled into almost every aspect of life, putting undue pressure on families, financials and freedoms.
Combating COVID-19 will therefore take more than a medical approach. This means looking down every avenue for a path to protection, and infectious disease specialist Col. Michael Lewis, MD believes reducing stress is the way to go.
“Staying informed about the spread of COVID-19 and the actions you can take to protect your health and the health of your loved ones is critical,” he said in a news release.
“However, trying to gather useful information while being bombarded with fevered announcements of rising death totals, new outbreaks, and emergency lock-downs can stir up a lot of anxiety and trigger heightened levels of stress. These amped-up stress levels actually can make one more susceptible to catching a cold or being infected by (the virus).”
Stress triggers an immune system reaction and creates inflammation throughout the body, Dr. Lewis explained. Heightened inflammation can lead to issues with mental health, depression, and adversely affect overall physical health.
To reduce risk and stay healthy, Mr. Lewis advises people to practice stress management techniques, some of which he’s already worked to develop. Luckily, COIVD-19 is not Dr. Lewis’ first or even fifth experience with outbreak.
Serving as an infectious disease hunter for the U.S. Army, Mr. Lewis routinely looked for new and interesting illnesses so the world was aware of anything weird or unusual that could happen down the road, he said. This brought him in close contact with diseases like Typhoid Fever, the SARS outbreak of 2003, and the H5N1 bird flu epidemic of 2004.
Also having provided medical care for the highest levels of leadership at the Department of Defense, U.S. Congress, and U.S. Supreme Court, Dr. Lewis knows his way around protecting health in a stressful situation.
Lending this experience to the latest outbreak, Mr. Lewis hopes to bring new insight on the idea of “flattening the curve.” If everyone follows the six following strategies to manage stress, he believes the world will be prepared to face the pandemic on all fronts.
1. Healthy diet
“There’s nothing more important than learning good eating habits,” Dr. Lewis told the News-Press. To him, this means consuming natural foods whenever possible, avoiding anything fried or processed and avoiding simple sugars.
“Our bodies don’t handle artificial flavoring well,” he added. “A good friend of mine says junk food equals a junk brain. Those things cause bodies to react with inflammation, which puts more stress on the immune system, putting you further at risk.”
Instead, Dr. Lewis advises the public to eat fruit, vegetables and whatever else nature provides. He also boasts about the benefits of dietary supplements like fish oil, vitamin D, and selenium – even including CBD in his list of recommendations.
Touted for a wide range of health benefits including reduction of anxiety and helping with sleep, CBD has also been found to hold anti-inflammatory properties, according to a 2015 review published in Bioorganic and Medicinal Chemistry.
“Keep calm and CDB on,” he said. “It helps boost your immune system and quiet your anxiety down beyond what patients are dealing with on a regular basis.”
2. Avoid information overload
What makes COVID-19 different from previous outbreaks Mr. Lewis has seen isn’t necessarily the disease itself, but how much more people know with today’s ever-accelerating modes of communication.
“Generations ago, when I was young, there was just a morning newspaper and the evening news,” he said. “That fact that we have supercomputers in the palms of our hands is too much.”
Since the 24-hour news cycle became the norm of broadcast television, people have become reliant on hunting down every piece of available information – a habit Mr. Lewis doesn’t think is doing anyone any good. Rather than looking for minute by minute updates, he recommends unplugging from the news and limiting access. Checking in one or two times a day is enough.
“By taking a deep breath and acknowledging that no one has all the answers, you can avoid unwanted stress and anxiety,” he said.
In fact, information overload is where Mr. Lewis sees SARS, or the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome that hit Asia in 2003, and COVID-19 diverge. Leaving today’s constant access out of the equation, he doesn’t think the two diseases are all that different.
“I’m not sure this is more severe than SARS was,” he said. “The biggest difference was the 24-hour news cycle. We had cell phones but not smart phones. If we had this information in 2003, we probably would have been making similar decisions about closing schools and social distancing. Those are generally effective approaches, but at the same time how much damage are we causing by our reaction?”
Recognition of SARS’ severity was slow to reach the public. For this reason, far fewer precautionary measures were taken to halt the disease’s transmission. While SARS eventually ran its course, dying down over the summer months, Mr. Lewis thinks there’s a balance between allowing an illness to run its course and alerting the public to its every move.
“Unfortunately, this is a no-win situation. If these measures are effective and we don’t see an outbreak like the dire predictions have warned, the government and people will get blamed for overreacting. If we don’t react and the disease gets out of control, the government and people will still get blamed for not doing enough.”
So the answer lies somewhere in between. For Mr. Lewis, that means looking at experiences of countries around the world to gauge what response is appropriate. Areas like Italy, Singapore and South Korea that are a couple weeks ahead of the U.S. in dealing with COVID-19 can reveal what reaction is to too much or too little, and what information the public really needs to know.
With gyms, yoga classes, and dance studios shutting down around the country, sitting around may seem like the only option. But Mr. Lewis argues now’s the time for just the opposite.
“Self-quarantine doesn’t mean lock yourself inside your house; it means not being around other people,” he said. “You can go outside alone. I can’t emphasize enough how important getting exercise is.”
Go to the beach, the woods, or the park. In addition to being a distraction from anxiety, exercise also changes brain function and can increase expression of feel-good neurotransmitters in the brain, like serotonin, Mr. Lewis explained.
To him, more free time means more opportunities.
“I personally think it’s a bit of an overreaction to say, ‘I’ve been exposed, I need to stay in my bedroom,’” said Mr. Lewis. “That’s absolutely the wrong thing. Take a walk by yourself. Fresh air is good mentally and physically.
“Consistency is really hard when you’re tired at the end of a long day at work and you don’t feel like doing anything. But there are reasons why you should overcome the negative thoughts in your head. That’s a challenge that I struggle with still.”
4. Practice gratitude
“Just realizing that you’re able to move around and exercise can have a meditative, positive impact on mental health which will subsequently affect your medical health.”
When uncertainty sets in, often negativity is what quickly follows. But just taking a moment to appreciate what’s good may produce a ripple of positivity – something we could all use a little more of these days.
“Taking five or ten minutes to be thankful for the blessings we have. Even people in the worst of circumstances can find gratitude in the littlest of things
5. Try meditating
“For some people, daily mindfulness meditation has an enormous positive impact,” said Mr. Lewis.
Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present, aware of what’s going on and not overly reactive. Practicing mindfulness doesn’t require formal meditation, though it can, but it could simply involve being a little more intentional with every action each day.
Mr. Lewis believes meditation is one of the easiest ways to regain a sense of control.
“Meditate on all the good things happening in your life even when it feels like it’s crashing around us.”
6. Be with the people you love
With everything shutting down and social distancing becoming the norm, connection with one another can be a difficult and discouraged choice. Mr. Lewis pleads the world to not let the quarantine turn into isolation.
“You can walk in the woods with your loved ones because they’re already exposed,” he said. “That’s when it’s most important to be with friends and family.”
Above all else, Mr. Lewis urges everyone to know there’s life after a pandemic. Until then, these strategies can help manage the limbo, however long it lasts.
“Infectious diseases naturally reach a peak and fall off. They happen and we’ve seen them through the history of mankind. We’ll come through this fine. The biggest thing we can do to fight besides social distancing and closing down events is keeping our immune systems strong.”