You have a stocked pantry, you’re staying at least 6 feet away from those outside your household and you’re a pro at washing your hands. You’re practicing good community care by staying home — so what do you do next to not just stay healthy during the coronavirus pandemic and self-isolation, but also make personal progress?
Relax any food rules. You aren’t going to “ruin” anything or destroy your health if you detour from your usual food habits because life has been tipped on its head. If you have a lot of food rules that aren’t necessitated by a food allergy or intolerance, be careful of succumbing to all-or-nothingism. Eating foods you might not usually eat isn’t the same thing as adopting a diet of all ice cream and frozen pizza. Not that there’s anything wrong with ice cream and frozen pizza, but if that’s all you eat, you won’t feel very good physically. There’s a lot of ground between trying to eat “perfectly” and throwing everything to the wolves.
Be aware of mindless eating. This is especially true if life in the age of coronavirus has you at home a lot more than usual, perhaps in the presence of a lot more food than usual. It’s easy to head to the kitchen for a snack when you are bored or needing distraction from uncomfortable emotions, perhaps brought on by the news. It’s normal and natural to engage in more comfort eating right now, but try to do it mindfully and intentionally. If you find yourself browsing the fridge or pantry, and you know you’re not hungry, ask yourself, “What am I feeling, and what do I need?” You might need a little food comfort, you might need to call or FaceTime a friend, or you might need to distract yourself with Netflix or a good book.
Look for signs you need help. If you have a history of disordered eating behaviors and you find that not having ready access to your “safe” foods is leading to anxiety and food restriction, or isolation at home is triggering binge eating episodes, you may need to seek help from a therapist or registered dietitian who has experience with eating disorders. Fortunately, more and more eating disorder professionals are seeing clients via phone or video consultation to prevent coronavirus spread.
Reframe “social distancing.” The World Health Organization is recommending using the term “physical distancing” instead of “social distancing,” because while we want to keep a safe amount of space between ourselves and people outside of our household, we want to remain socially connected.
Stay the course. When I have a client who suspects they have celiac disease because avoiding gluten has resolved some symptoms, but they don’t want to temporarily resume eating gluten in order to be tested — false negative results are common if you’re already avoiding gluten — I caution them that it is very hard to be completely vigilant about avoiding gluten if they don’t know for sure they have celiac disease. Similarly, it can be hard to be as completely vigilant about physical distancing if we — and those around us — don’t appear to have symptoms of COVID-19. But we do need to be vigilant. All of us.
Control what you can, accept what you can’t. Acceptance doesn’t necessarily mean you like what’s happening or are resigned to it never changing. It means being able to say, “Yes, this is real … even though it sucks,” instead of denying what’s going on around you or struggling against it. Acceptance can prevent you from wasting energy on things you can’t control, so you have more energy for those things you can control and that will actually benefit you. You can control how well you practice hand-washing and physical distancing and whether you stick to a routine and eat regular meals. You can control whether you fit in some movement, whether that be a walk, an online yoga class or dancing to your favorite music. You can control how well you care for your mental health by setting boundaries around news and social media consumption, and finding creative ways to stay connected to friends and family.
Don’t feel guilty for experiencing joy. If you are staying safe, have enough food on hand and are relatively nonimpacted, try to look at what’s good — yes, really — about your situation. Talking to my mom the other day, she regrets that she can’t cuddle my toddler niece, but is looking forward to having more time to garden. One of my clients regrets that she can’t participate in the cooking and dance classes she loves, but she is enjoying cooking and baking more at home and having more time to spend on solitary creative pursuits.
Live in the moment, with an eye for the future. A recent study found that people who can stay in the moment rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future are more resilient to daily stressors — certainly something we have more of right now. This doesn’t mean you should avoid planning for the future — this type of “proactive coping” also helps reduce stress. In other words, keep your eye on the ball for those daily habits that help keep you safe and cared for, and have a plan in place for handling essential activities like grocery shopping, but try not to dwell on what may or may not happen more than a few weeks from now. We simply do not know.
Life during a pandemic is certainly a test of our resilience. You might be surprised at how well you are doing, or you might be struggling. Show yourself — and others — compassion. That’s something that is within our control.