With fall getting underway, staying resilient calls for an extra focus on self-care, an essential ingredient of emotional and physical wellbeing of our families and our community.
Stress wears us down. How can we counteract that?
Let’s take a look at some basic protective factors: nutrition, sleep, activity and meaningful connections.
Mood, energy and resistance to illness are hugely impacted by body chemistry, and we can do things to improve that chemistry.
Notice what you tend to eat and drink, and make adjustments to ensure that carbs don’t crowd out other things. Easy to make, and comforting in the short term, they can put you on a rollercoaster of short-term energy alternating with moody energy crashes.
A good online site for ideas on the various foods we put on our plates is www.hsph.harvard.edu. Click on “nutrition source,” and explore!
Be mindful of what you put in your grocery cart in the first place.
For people prone to depression, pay attention to what sweetener is in your drinks and food: Aspartame (Nutrasweet), commonly found in diet soda, low-cal yogurt and other foods, can magnify your depression. And remember that alcohol is a calorie-rich carb.
This leads to the next protective factor: sleep.
Sleep allows your brain chemistry to get refreshed. The best sleep is in large chunks that involve deep sleep, and is on a fairly regular schedule.
Alcohol-involved sleep is not as brain-refreshing. People working varying shifts should be as planful as possible to get good sleep, rotating shifts “forward” whenever possible, to allow the wake-sleep cycle to adjust. It might take several days to fully engage in the new pattern.
Another brain-chemistry factor is the decrease in daylight between October and March. Some people are more sensitive to this, and experience an increased sense of depression, or Seasonal Affective Disorder.
While some depression may result from changes in activity and degree of isolation, the brain does react to daylight differently than artificial light.
Some people can benefit from using a daylight-spectrum light fixture to start the day by replacing the seasonally “lost” daylight that affects alertness and mood. And at the end of the day, take a break from “screen time” for a while to allow your brain to switch to sleep mode.
Activity remains important year-’round. It’s more challenging to maintain in winter, since, yes, it’s cold outside. But bundle up and get out there. Twenty minutes daily of sustained activity that boosts your heart rate is not only good for muscles and general fitness, but it makes your body produce something called endorphins, which are natural painkillers and mood enhancers!
And, as a bonus, moving around outside exposes you to the benefits of natural light mentioned before! Double bonus: just noticing and being in awe of nature boosts your mood. Triple bonus: doing the above with others can diminish the sense of social isolation you might otherwise be experiencing. Which leads to the fourth protective factor.
Feeling connected with other people through shared meaningful activity and conversation is an essential human experience. Introverts may prefer less of this, while extroverts may thrive on it. Eye contact, rhythm and tone of voice, touch, words, sharing a meal, shared laughter, teamwork, sharing a religious ceremony, making or listening to music together, creating artwork, building things, athletics, and meeting a challenge together, all involve some reciprocal communication or visual engagement in some uniquely human activity.
It reminds us of our humanity, of our need for acknowledgement, of our ability to have an impact, and that we are not alone in the world. Even at a “social distance.”
Bill Hayes, a retired licensed clinical social worker at Bassett Hospital who is active in NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, lives in Toddsville.