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How COVID-19 Will Make You a Better Person

Article at-a-glance:

  • The COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic has upended all of our lives and routines.
  • People under high stress make worse decisions, which we all want to protect against, especially now.
  • Here are my top suggestions for reorienting your focus, adjusting your activities and altering your expectations so you can come out of this feeling more resilient and better than when it all began.

by Dr. John Neustadt

The COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic has upended all of our lives and routines. People are working from home. Stores, malls, restaurants and theatres are closed. Kids are home schooling and everyone is going a bit stir crazy. People who weren’t concerned about keeping their jobs and their retirement savings are now stressed about both. Life is very different than what it looked like only one month ago. 

Rest assured, this national and global emergency will end. Collectively, we will get through this. Kids will eventually go back to school. It may not be until the fall, but they’ll go. Malls, stores and restaurants will reopen. And people will start heading off to work again each morning. 

We don’t know when that will all happen again but shelter in place orders will likely last until mid-May in many places, or even well into summer. On March 30, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam ordered residents shelter in place until June 10. 

It’s time to settle in, take a deep breath (really, take a deep breath now) and adjust to this new reality in ways that bring you joy, reduce your stress and allow you to come out the other side in the best possible way. 

Below are my top suggestions for reorienting your focus, adjusting your activities and altering your expectations so you can come out of this feeling more resilient and better than when it all began. But first I want to explain to you why it’s so important to tackle this head on and do as many of my suggestions as possible.  

Improve Decision Making

The economy, the dangers from becoming infected by COVID-19 and having our routines and lives turned upside down is stressful. Stress changes blood flow in the brain and makes the brain more reactive and less self-reflective. Under stressful conditions it’s harder to evaluate risks and benefits. Decisions are poorer and have worse outcomes than people who are in a more relaxed state of mind. 

Research demonstrates that when people are stressed they make riskier decisions that are more likely to hurt than help them.1,2 Basically, in day-to-day decision making, stress makes people act against their own self-interest. 

Emotional pressure hurts performance because people start focusing on things that are irrelevant. We have limited attention, and these distractions compete for, and take away, the mental energy required to perform the task at our best.3

Poor decisions during the pandemic can have enormous consequences. People can panic and sell all their stocks when every piece of investment advice I’ve heard or read counsels folks to stay calm, think long term and hold on for a bumpy ride. It can lead to lash out at loved ones and regret it later. 

Stress can increase risk taking. People can decide to hang out with friends instead of listening to the medical advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to stay at home. This can put themselves and others at risk for spreading or catching the disease.

Keep Your Big Brain Big

The human brain weighs about three pounds and contains approximately 86 billion neurons. All those nerves help us interpret and react to the world, plan and execute ideas to reach goals and allow us to love, laugh and enjoy our lives. 

But chronically elevated cortisol, which is released during times of stress, can take that big brain or yours and stark to shrink it. The areas of the brain that shrank over four years in people with elevated cortisol were in the cerebral cortex, including the prefrontal, parietal, lateral and medial temporal regions of the brain. Additionally, the hippocampus was also smaller.4 These are exactly the areas we rely on to help make better decisions.

The hippocampus stores short-term memory, so this could result in worse memory recall and increased confusion. The prefrontal cortex is involved in planning and executing plans. The temporal cortex area is involved with integrating and processing sounds. When you want to stay as alert and involved in your life as possible, and enjoy yourself as much as possible, you definitely don’t want parts of your brain to shrink, especially these areas. 

Focus on Becoming Better to Shining Brighter

With the outside world largely in lock down, we have an opportunity to reorient our intentions to our inside world and focus on improving our mental, emotional and physical health. When you do that, you’ll feel better, think clearer and be a better partner and friend. 

You’ll also calm down those stress hormones that make you more reactive so you can think clearer, plan better and become a more proactive and positive force for good in the world. The benefits will help you during the stay-at-home orders and after it’s all over too.

Here are my top eight tried-and-true recommendations. The more you do, the better you’ll feel. However, even focusing on just one, two or three will make a world of difference and get you moving in the right direction. 

  • Catch some ZZZZs. Sleep deprivation puts a tremendous stress on your body, decreases your ability to think clearly and complete daily tasks and increases cortisol. It also increases your risk for infections. One study found that sleeping less than five hours per night increased the risk of developing a viral infection and the common cold by 350% compared to people who slept seven hour per night.5

    If you have difficulty sleeping, take NBI’s clinically validated Sleep Relief. For more tips on improving your sleep, read my blog, Your Checklist to Beat Insomnia.
  • Calm your nerves. Practicing regular stress reduction techniques is important, not only for making better decisions, but also to protect your immune system. Psychological stress disrupts your immune system and can make it easier to get sick.6

    Yoga, meditation, walks, prayer and reading for enjoyment can all help reduce stress. It really doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you are consistent. And don’t think you have to limit yourself to just one. I wake up 45 minutes before everyone else in my family. This is my quiet time before the rest of the house gets up and the days gets crazy. During “me time” I get my cup of coffee, my journal and my book. I set a timer and read (for pleasure) for 30 minutes, and then take some time to write in my journal or quietly think and set my intentions for the day. Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgeport Capital, the world’s largest private equity fund, practices transcendental meditation. These practices can help you become less reactive, think clearer and make better decisions.
  • Improve your outlook. No matter where you are, everyday find three things to be grateful for. Surely there’s a lot to be grateful for now that we often wouldn’t think twice about. Our first responders on the front lines, countless volunteers who are sewing life-saving masks and companies that have transformed their operations to produce personal protective equipment. Or it could be something as small as the smell of coffee in the morning or seeing a bird. The object of your gratitude is irrelevant. It’s the state of feeling grateful for something—anything—that creates important shifts in outlook.

    A clinical trial in which participants kept a daily gratitude journal and wrote down things for which they were grateful and why, those who practiced gratitude experienced a significant improvement in psychological well-being, including feeling more hopeful and optimistic.7 You likely already have a notebook or even loose sheets of paper around the house and a pencil or pen, so grab them and start this today.
  • Nourish your body. Poor diet creates chronic inflammation and increases cortisol. And when you’re not giving your body the raw materials it needs it can’t give you what you need to feel your best. Eat a stress-reducing diet and take the burden off you and your body.

    This is essentially a whole foods diet rich in fruits, vegetables and lean proteins. Fruits and vegetables provide the vitamins, minerals and other plant nutrients our immune system needs and that are often low in people’s diets. For tips on how eat this way, read my blog, 3-Steps to Eating Healthy for Life.
  • Don’t tolerate problems. One of the biggest reasons people feel stressed is because they don’t deal with issues that are bothering them. Avoiding problems don’t make them go away. In fact, letting problems fester often makes them worse. Facing issues head on, recognizing them, being honest with yourself and others about them, and coming up with a plan to deal with them are one of the best ways to feel more in control of your life and for reducing your stress.

    After all, we get what we tolerate. If you tolerate feeling less than fantastic, that’s what you’ll have. If you tolerate people treating you in ways you don’t like, that’s what you’ll get. This is especially important now that you may be stuck in the house with your family. And since there’s nowhere to go, you better deal with the issues or it could make together unbearable.
  • Give yourself a boost. Exercise boosts your mood and immune system. So move your body every day. Go for a walk. Do some jumping jacks. Ride your bike. Run. Garden. There’s an endless number of things you can do to get your heartrate up, move your body and feel better. To help you, we’re providing Dr. Neustadt’s free online exercise sessions that I filmed with my trainer. You can do these at home with minimal or no equipment. 

    And if you want additional exercises you can work into your day, see my blog, 5 Simple Ways to Work Exercise into Your Life.
  • Control technology. It can be tempting to waste away the hours while stuck at home with scrolling on social media and binge watching your favorite shows. While that may be entertaining for a little while, and, I admit, I enjoy doing that every once and a while, when it becomes a way to numb yourself to your boredom, it’s not serving you. It becomes destructive.

    Put limits on your technology. I spend the first working hour each morning clearing out my inbox. Then I don’t check email for most of the rest of the day. I limit my social media to chunks that are scheduled so I’m not aimlessly scrolling and wasting my time. And since staring at a screen before bed wreaks havoc on sleep, I put my screen down an hour before I go to sleep. For more on this topic, ready my blog, Three Way Smartphones are Ruining Your Sleep and Relationships.
  • Connect to your community. Many people are alone or unable to leave their homes to shop for basic necessities like food and medicine. They may not have a car. They may be old and not driving anymore. They might be at high risk for dying if they caught COVID-19 and so are fearful of going out. Regardless of the reason, you can be a hero to them and help make this situation better.

    If you’re still able to go out, reach out to your neighbors and see if they need some help. Contact local food banks, religious organizations and other nonprofits and see how you can pitch in. When you do, you’ll feel more connected to others. And when you’re giving to others, you get back too. You’ll feel better. Guaranteed.
  • You know that thingYou know that thing you’ve been putting off all these years, now’s the time. If you’ve been meaning to clean out the garage, take up an instrument, put together the puzzle that’s been in your closet for years or reach out to old friends, now’s the time. Doing any of these—and I’m sure you’ll have many more—will give you a sense of control and forward motion. Also, when we’re working toward goals, our brains release dopamine, a feel-good hormone that boosts your mood and outlook.

Pick as many of these as you can consistently do. If all are too much to start with, pick a few that catch your attention. It doesn’t matter which one you start with. The point is to begin and be consistent. You can always add more later, or switch what you’re doing if you want to change things up. 

When you commit to doing these now, by the time our COVID quarantine is over, you will have developed healthy habits. You’ll come out mentally, emotionally and physically stronger than when this all started. Wouldn’t it be amazing to look back on this time and think how it made you a better person? 

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1Wemm SE, Wulfert E. Effects of Acute Stress on Decision Making. Appl Psychophysiol Biofeedback. 2017;42(1):1-12. [Article]

2Pabst S, Schoofs D, Pawlikowski M, Brand M, Wolf OT. Paradoxical effects of stress and an executive task on decisions under risk. Behav Neurosci. 2013;127(3):369-379. [Article]

3Yu R. Choking under pressure: the neuropsychological mechanisms of incentive-induced performance decrements. Front Behav Neurosci. 2015;9:19.[Article]

4Lebedeva A, Sundstrom A, Lindgren L, et al. Longitudinal relationships among depressive symptoms, cortisol, and brain atrophy in the neocortex and the hippocampus. Acta Psychiatr Scand. 2018;137(6):491-502. [Article]

5Prather AA, Janicki-Deverts D, Hall MH, Cohen S. Behaviorally Assessed Sleep and Susceptibility to the Common Cold. Sleep. 2015;38(9):1353-1359. [Article]

6Godbout JP, Glaser R. Stress-induced immune dysregulation: implications for wound healing, infectious disease and cancer. J Neuroimmune Pharmacol. 2006;1(4):421-427. [Article]

7Ducasse D, Dassa D, Courtet P, et al. Gratitude diary for the management of suicidal inpatients: A randomized controlled trial. Depress Anxiety. 2019;36(5):400-411. [Article]

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