COVID-19 has upended our daily routines, our future plans, and our lifestyles. Here are some of the best ways to manage stress, sleep, physical activity, eating well, and more to take care of you right now.
The COVID-19 pandemic has radically changed the way we live, from our work to our learning to our social lives. Our new reality poses a unique set of challenges for all of us.
Now more than ever, practicing self-care is essential when it comes to taking care of our emotional health and well-being, says Christine Carter, Ph.D., a sociologist and senior fellow at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California in Berkeley.
“Self-care is not selfish,” says Dr. Carter. “This is a time of incredible anxiety and stress. Focusing on what makes us feel nourished, on what gives us meaning, is part of easing those feelings and giving us a more solid foundation.”
From the editors of Everyday Health
Written by Jessica Migala
Medically reviewed by Kelly Kennedy, RD
Self-care can include myriad practices that you find both enjoyable and that in some way promote your physical, emotional, spiritual, or mental health. According to the definition from the World Health Organization, self-care is the behaviors you do to take care of your own health and can include hygiene, nutrition, leisure activities, sports, exercise, seeking professional healthcare services when needed, and much more.
And in the midst of a global pandemic, the need to care for our own health — all aspects of it — is of the utmost importance because let’s face it: Navigating this new normal is not easy. Whether it’s struggling to get your kids to partake in online learning, productively working from home all day long, sharing tight quarters with housemates for much longer hours than you’re used to, or being cut off (physically, at least) from loved ones, we feel you.
So how can you balance your day and also empower the ones you love or share a common space with to do the same? We’ve rounded up this list of self-care tips meant to inspire your health and wellness anytime — while enabling you to feel less stressed and more resilient on anxiety-ridden days like these.
10 Expert Tips for Working From Home
Working remotely does not mean working all the time. These top tips will help you stay energized, take efficient breaks, and make time for yourself!
1. Prioritize Sleep — Your Mood and Immune System Are Counting On It
When it comes to taking care of your health and well-being, sleep is pretty much always part of the answer. Getting enough good-quality sleep keeps your immune system running at its best to fight off infections, like the one caused by the new coronavirus. Indeed: There are parts of the body’s immune response that happen only during sleep. Scientists know sleep is also one of the top ways we can help keep stress in check, as sleep deprivation can make us more sensitive to the effects of stress, ramping up our reactions (or overreactions). Finally, the brain needs sleep to function; without it you’ll be less patient and focused, make poor decisions, and be more moody, irritable, and emotional.
2. Know Your Personal Signs of Stress
Sometimes self-care is about knowing when you’re getting overloaded or overwhelmed, and responding with micro habits that prevent all-out burnout, says Cynthia Ackrill, MD, a wellness and leadership coach based in Asheville, North Carolina.
For example, she says, are you starting to withdraw from friends? Are you sitting in traffic swearing? Getting more headaches or stomachaches lately? She calls this learning from what you consider to be your overwhelmed “emoji” key. (We all have a unique one that resonates with us, right?) When you feel the need to text that emoji to everyone on your contact list, take it as a cue to ask yourself what you need. Maybe you need to roll your shoulders a few times and then go take a short walk. “It’s about building up and awareness and having the self-knowledge to check in and adjust,” she says.
3. Work. It. Out.
Spending a lot more time at home does not mean you get to be a couch potato. Staying active not only keeps your body healthy physically (keeping your risk of chronic health issues down and lowering your chances of acute illness, like COVID-19), it also helps up your mood and well-being. Exercise releases endorphins (hormones that make you feel good!), sharpens focus, and aids sleep. Staying physically active also lessens the risk of mood disorders, boosts energy, and improves mood overall. Talk about a one-two punch against the mid-afternoon slump!
4. Test Ride a Workout You’ve Never Done Before
When it comes to fitness, people have a tendency to stick to what they know, says Kourtney Thomas, CSCS, a St. Louis, Missouri–based strength and conditioning trainer. But this might be the perfect time to hop out of your comfort zone — while you’re actually still in the comfort of your home. That way, you may feel less awkward or like a newbie, while getting the benefits of joining a new online class. Check out options like Zumba, boxing, or dance workouts; or download apps that have a range of options, like Openfit or Sworkit.
5. Downward Dog Like You Mean It
Are you a yogi or have you considered starting a yoga practice? Now is the time. Yoga offers a laundry list of health benefits, from busting stress to stretching out inactive muscles to building strength to providing a burst of physical activity (depending on the type you do). Why might yoga be an especially useful tool to add to your coping arsenal right now? It links movement with breath. Because both these factors can affect our body’s stress reactions, yoga can be a silver bullet in tough times.
6. Skip, Jump, Hop, and Get Silly
Basically, if it makes you feel like a kid and a little silly, it can be a mood booster. Play in any form can cause a cascade of positive neurochemicals like serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine, according to Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D., author of Habits of a Happy Brain, who is based in Oakland, California. Even just a minute of child-like activity can cause a good-chemicals surge, especially if you’re feeling stressed.
7. Show Your Animals Some TLC
Feeling tense? Playing with your pet or just spending some extra time taking care of him or her shows you care and may help ease your anxieties, too. There’s evidence that taking time playing with dogs may help reduce stress, increase energy and happiness, and even boost how socially supported people feel — a winning combination for days when you need to be productive and focused while hunkering down at home. The bottom line: Make time for your animal friends; it’s time well-spent.
8. Play a Game
Monopoly as an anti-stress strategy? A survey by game developer RealNetworks found that 64 percent of respondents cited game playing as a way to relax, while 53 percent play for stress relief. While part of the appeal is playing with friends and family in person, there are tons of virtual options, like Words With Friends, or get your friends together and choose a game from Houseparty you can play in real-time.
9. Avoid Mindless Snacking; Eat Intuitively Instead
Are you now spending your days within eyeshot or arm’s reach of your snack drawer? Rather than self-imposed strict rules on what foods are off-limits, try intuitive eating. It’s not a diet so much as a way of eating that’s all about giving your body what it needs when it needs it. Intuitive eating doesn’t restrict any specific foods or have you counting calories. It’s a practice in which you listen to your body and pay attention to what you need at the moment. Is it time for a meal or a snack? You eat when you feel hungry, and you stop eating when you feel full. For inspiration, look no further than Instagram.
10. Swap Out One Coffee for Decaf
Caffeine is one of the most researched substances with more than 10,000 studies to date, according to a November 2017 study published in Food and Chemical Toxicology. Not surprisingly, that’s led to a wide range of conclusions, but one that’s fairly consistent is that having too much can lead to less-than-ideal effects, the researchers conclude. They note that getting more than 400 milligrams of caffeine daily — check your consumption with this chart from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (and remember that not every cup of coffee is equivalent when it comes to caffeine content; it depends on the roast of coffee and how strong it’s brewed) — can affect your central nervous system, gastrointestinal system, and sleep quality. It can even increase anxiety and stress. So enjoy your buzz, but try limiting your daily amount.
11. Treat Yourself by Buying a New Outfit Online
When you’re working from home, exercising from home, eating at home, socializing at home (sense a theme?), it’s easy to get into a PJs-all-day kind of rut, Carter notes. “It seems superficial, but how we dress does impact our self-esteem,” she says. Just because you’re not heading out doesn’t mean you can’t spiff up a bit. Try buying a new outfit that’s comfy enough for the couch but makes you feel good, too.
12. Reach for High-Protein Snacks When You Need an Energy Boost
What should you be noshing on when you feel hungry? Keep high-protein bites on hand to help you get to the end of your to-do list for the day. You’ve heard it before: Protein helps you feel full longer and avoid the energy crash you might experience after the high of a carb-heavy snack subsides. Think hard-boiled eggs, nuts, Greek yogurt, and nut butter and veggies. (Bonus: You’re literally feet from your fridge, so there’s no need to pack snacks ahead of time or tote them around for the day.)
13. Keep Stress-Busting Foods on Hand
Yes, you read that correctly. Certain foods can actually have a stress-lowering effect. Warm foods like soup or tea are soothing, and the omega-3s in fatty fish may improve mood. Avocados are packed with vitamins C and B6, which are known to help reduce stress. Dark chocolate is antioxidant-rich, which is great for thwarting stress (do savor in moderation, however, as it’s a calorie-dense food). Other foods that can help include whole-grain carbohydrates, bananas, oranges, water, and leafy greens.
14. Leave Stress-Inducing Foods in Not-So-Convenient Places
Though you may be inclined to indulge in treats or your favorite cocktail, know that this may be counterproductive. Foods that exacerbate or mess with stress in a less-than-savory way include caffeine, alcohol, and refined sugars. You don’t have to cut them out completely, but do limit your intake and enjoy them in moderation.
15. Whip Up a Mocktail With Health-Boosting Ingredients
Give your liver a break and try mixing a healthy mocktail. Steer clear of the sugary juices and syrups and opt for healthier choices like hibiscus tea, kombucha, sparkling water, and fresh fruits. You can also combine fun flavors like grapefruit and mint, or green tea and oranges.
16. Skip the Scale Today
If you’re someone whose morning routine includes a hop on the scale — and the results don’t affect how you feel, then you can be confident that the habit works for you. However, for a subset of people, self-weighing is a source of stress and something that drives down their self-esteem noted a meta-analysis published in April 2016 in Health Psychology Review. If stepping on the scale puts you in a negative frame of mind, consider skipping the weigh-in today. You might just feel really free.
17. Go Punk Like Lady Gaga: Practice Kindness and Gratitude
Lady Gaga says she practices being kind to others and being grateful for what’s going right in her life. Clinical studies have found that people who regularly practice gratitude journaling (writing down what you’re grateful for) report better well-being, physical health, and increased optimism about the future. Practicing kindness is sometimes easier said than done (particularly when we’re in tight quarters and tension is high), but remember that everyone is going through a tough time right now.
18. Develop a ‘Don’t Do’ List
Self-care doesn’t have to be an action item. It can be about freeing up space for the things that matter in your life and removing those that steal your energy. After an especially draining day, take a few minutes to reflect: What dragged you down? How can you do less of that? Go ahead and physically write down a “don’t do” list, something that can serve as a reminder that holds you accountable.
“This list helps you get unstuck. You may not get this perfect the first time, but you can keep making adjustments until you’re doing more of the things that perk you up,” says Dr. Ackrill.
19. Practice Positive Self-Talk
A major aspect of self-care is the “self” part, and that includes how you view yourself and, importantly, the language you use when talking to yourself, says Jen Sincero, a Santa Fe, New Mexico–based life coach and the author of You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life. Appreciate the small tasks you do during the day and remember to tell yourself “good job”. It can be as simple as, everytime you catch a glimpse of yourself in a mirror, tell yourself “I love you” — It might feel weird at first, but your brain will soak up that self-care goodness, and research suggests it can help begin to turn your thoughts and feelings in a happier direction.
20. Take a Few Minutes to Practice Diaphragm Breathing
Calm and measured breathing can have immediate effects on your mental and physical state, whether the tension comes from the relentless news cycle or your ever-present housemates. Do your breathing practice regularly to start or end your day in a positive way, or try it in a moment when you need a little more zen. Need guidance? Certain meditation apps, such as Calm, have free web-based resources that will help you along.
21. Try Alternate-Nostril Breathing
Deep breathing is very useful for slowing down the nervous system, says Henry Emmons, MD, a psychiatrist in Minneapolis and the author of The Chemistry of Calm. If anxious thoughts keep pinging around, try this alternative strategy, he suggests. First, exhale completely, then inhale deeply. On your next exhale, gently place an index finger against your right nostril to close it off. Inhale using just your left nostril. Then move your index finger to the left nostril to close that one off and exhale through only the open right nostril. Continue alternating sides and repeat for 15 rounds.
22. Give Yourself a Meditation Break
You don’t need any special equipment or space for this one; you can do it anytime, anywhere. Simply put, meditation is thinking deeply or focusing your mind for a set period of time. The benefit: Meditation can help reduce stress, ease symptoms of depression and anxiety, and regulate negative thinking. If you’re looking for another tool to add to your arsenal to combat stress, consider it. Just as with deep breathing, you’ll be happy to know there’s no shortage of meditation apps available.
23. Try Chilling Out With Music
Turn off the TV with the talking head in favor of some mood-boosting tunes. Music therapy employs music to help people cope with physical or emotional needs, according to a definition from the University of Minnesota. And it’s actually been found to lessen symptoms in people with mood problems, such as anxiety and depression, and lift self-esteem. And you probably don’t need a clinical study to tell you that blasting your favorite jam will put a smile on your face.
24. Relax with an Audiobook
Audiobooks can transport you somewhere else just like paper books can — and they may have additional benefits too. Dr. Carmichael suggests turning on an audiobook, then laying down and closing your eyes to listen. “If you have racing thoughts, sometimes your inner monologue needs something else to latch onto for a while,” she says. You may even find it easier to focus on the story because you don’t have to keep your eyes open.
25. Practice Mindful Listening
Mindful listening is another way to soak in the present moment and let go of lingering worry and stress, says Dr. Emmons. Take a few seconds and sit back, really listening to all the sounds around you, even if that’s just the hum of an overhead fan or the panting of the dog at your feet. Try to integrate this into your day as tiny, 10-second breaks. The more you do it, the more habitual it will become, Emmons, says.
27. Take a Vacation Day
Nowhere to go? No problem. Even if you’re staying at home and catching up on Netflix, schedule a “me” day where you take one of your allotted vacation days from work, book a babysitter if you’re the caregiver at home (if you can), or pledge as a family to take one weekend day “off” with no appointments, nowhere to be, and no agenda.
It can be even harder to take off when you’re working from home, but planned time off can help you come back more energized, positive, motivated, and less stressed, according to a report from the American Psychological Association in June 2018.
28. Stand Up and Stretch
Although embarking on a full-on workout is helpful for taking care of yourself, sometimes all you need is just to change your body position for about 15 to 30 seconds to give yourself a restart, Emmons says. When you make a conscious and physical shift, like standing up and stretching, your mind recognizes the change and responds in a beneficial way. Consider it a mini-break for mind and body alike. Try standing up and stretching your arms high overhead, bending over to touch your toes, or sitting on the floor in a cross-legged position for a hip-opening stretch.
29. Call a Friend or Family Member — Social Connection Can Do Wonders for Your Mental Well-Being
There’s ample research connecting social interactions with mental and physical well-being, and even longer life. A study published in September 2017 in APA PsycNet, the journal of the American Psychological Association, noted that high-quality, close relationships and feelings of social connection are so associated with a range of benefits that it should be considered a public health priority. Make it a priority for yourself, and perhaps even create a schedule for catching up on a regular.
30. Give a Hug
Hugs were off the table for a long time, as the pandemic made it unsafe to embrace even your closest loved ones. If you and the person you are hugging are both vaccinated (or live in the same household), bring that hug back. “It’s been a really hard year. A hug can offer some emotional relief, comfort, and connection,” says Ackrill.
31. Use Social Media Mindfully
Social media and other virtual tools allow you to connect with friends and family even when you’re apart. But they can also have unintended consequences if and when using them becomes excessive or consuming. How can you make sure you’re using them wisely? The more personal your social media interactions, the better, experts say (think direct-messaging people rather than mindless scrolling). Use it intentionally. Be selective about who you follow and what tools you’re using. And take time to disconnect. If you’re feeling isolated, make a point to call a friend or family member once in a while rather than shoot out another text or Facebook comment.
32. Avoid Nonstop News Consumption
It’s important to stay informed and alert to critical updates in your area, especially those that affect your health. But no one needs to listen to the same alerts and see the same headlines repeatedly, especially during times when the news can be upsetting. Experts recommend limiting news consumption to two or three sources a day to help cope with the anxiety it may bring, and checking in at regular times (not continuously) throughout the day for updates. Consider making one of your sources a local news source. And if you can, avoid checking the headlines just before bed.
33. Have a Weekly Planning Meeting (With Yourself)
Schedule a one-on-one with yourself at the beginning of the week (or the end of the week looking at the following one). Check your schedule and decide if there are areas where you can be proactive now that will allow you to care for yourself at the moment when you otherwise might be too crazed to do so. For instance, says Ackrill: Maybe you don’t have time to eat lunch on Tuesday. Throw healthy, nourishing snacks, like a protein bar or nuts, in your bag ahead of time.