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Conquering cabin fever: Tips include self-reflection, talking and avoiding overeating

UPDATED: Fri., March 27, 2020

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As we stay home to prevent the spread of COVID-19, those four walls can start to feel confining. Cabin fever sneaks up.

What about stress eating or turning more to sweets for comfort as the pandemic seems worse by the day? Our normal routines are disrupted for a while.

Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is providing guidance to manage health amid anxiety over the coronavirus. A Spokane mental health expert this week also offered tips for residents if they feel stressed, stuck and at odds.

“I’d say it’s important to be mindful of your emotions, maybe spend time doing meditation or centering yourself,” said Suzie Johnson, a Frontier Behavioral Health clinical director of outpatient services.

A licensed mental health counselor, she encourages writing in a journal, notebook or somehow recording to express emotions. Now, it’s especially important to keep a regular schedule for sleeping, relaxing, eating and exercising, she said.

Avoid stress eating

“Be purposeful in meal choices and with your exercise each day,” Johnson said. “Make sure you’re doing mindful eating, like make your meal and sit at the table. Really taste your food, chew each bite slowly and savor the food.

“Know what your trigger foods are. Some people might go to salty foods; others to sugary, high-calorie foods. Be mindful when you’re shopping not to buy those foods and when you’re home to have those healthier choices.”

It helps to keep or create mealtime rituals. Johnson encourages being creative in these unusual times, perhaps to set a tablet on the table and connect via video chat to other family or friends who also are sitting for a meal. That way, you can eat socially with others.

“For some people when they’re stressed, it triggers overeating, so it’s important to be talking to friends, staying connected, relaxing, exercising,” Johnson said. “All those things will reduce your stress. That will reduce that desire to overeat.”

Other tips include:

Keep a food journal if that’s helpful to track healthy food choices.

Minimize alcohol and sugary foods.

Revisit your wellness and fitness goals. “Keep those even if you’re in a different environment.”

Cabin fever

To battle feeling stuck, follow your regular schedule as much as possible for sleep, work, learning and interacting with others, Johnson said.

Get up at the same time, prep for the day and stick to familiar activities. Go outside for at least five minutes each hour if you can, Johnson said. Walk or take a run around the neighborhood while following social distancing.

While the world seems chaotic, you can create spaces at home that are peaceful to relax or enjoy hobbies and learning, Johnson added.

Ways to create havens include:

Make your home more pleasing and calm with soft music, flowers or a candle.

Build in fun with laughing, playing games and finding humor. “Have fun – we don’t have to be stuck in our house miserable,” she said. “We can can make conscious decisions to have fun and say, ‘Let’s laugh, let’s watch a funny movie, let’s play games, let’s not get caught up in the news.’ ”

Seek gratitude. Kids and adults can keep a journal.

“Gratitude really does help us be more resilient,” Johnson said.

“During this time, it’s important to reflect on what we’re grateful for, the people in our lives who matter and just all our resources. Right now, we’re in the middle of history, and our thoughts and what we’re going through matters.

“Write about your fears and concerns. It’s a great way to express gratitude, and it helps you reflect on what’s going on in the moment.”

Families having meals also can talk about why they’re grateful, reflect on goals or ways to help neighbors.

Building resiliency

In a Monday online talk, Johnson offered tips to promote family resiliency. She topped it with researcher Barbara Fredrickson’s “Broaden and Build” theory of positivity for ways to respond to the COVID-19 crisis.

The research identified key positivity factors such as joy, gratitude, serenity, hope, amusement, inspiration and love.

“Studies show those who have more positivity tend to be more accurate and careful in decision-making and more effective interpersonally,” Johnson said.

“Right now, we are in a position to make important decisions every day. For example, how are you responding to the shelter in place? How are you handling being stuck with your parents and siblings and maybe you’re driving each other crazy?

“Positivity would be an important thing to have when dealing with confined situations. Are you able to be mindful when you go to the grocery store? Are we being conscientious of others and their needs?”

To build resiliency:

Think of ways to be kind and patient. “Research shows even us acting in kindness or in watching kindness, it elevates your mood,” Johnson said. That patience extends to others and yourself. “We all make mistakes. You’re anxious and might yell at your kids. Forgive yourself. We’re in a tough time. There is no manual on how to deal with this, so be gracious with yourself. Ask for forgiveness.”

Be flexible. Try to roll with sometimes hourly updates in our community. She encourages families to think about staying strong and how to help each other get through this.

Be a light to others. Maybe order restaurant delivery for a neighbor. “That can be even at the grocery store,” Johnson said. “Don’t take the last item if you have some at home.”

Remind everyone to stay fit – mentally, physically and nutritionally. If you need to talk, call a friend or family member. For serious mental health concerns, call a counselor, Johnson added.

Self-reflection and talking

Make time for some self-reflection, she said. You can use this time to focus on how you can use your strengths.

“When in a crisis, it’s important for all of us to be reflecting on our character strengths and virtues. Ask what do we bring to the table?”

She suggests an online test at authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu to identify top strengths.

If it’s a love of learning, you can focus on gaining a new skill, reading books on that topic and doing research. That can be true for adults and kids.

Other tips for talking and reflecting:

Talk to kids at their level.

“It’s important to stop what you’re doing and sit with them,” she said. “Let them share what their fears are. Sometimes parents can jump in and try to help take away the fear without really knowing what the fear is.

“Sit eye to eye and ask, ‘Do you know what’s going on? What do you understand?’ ” Then parents can describe the situation in reassuring ways, she said, and say, “We’re going to get through this.”

Schedule calls, video chats and online meetings to reach out.

“Plan a consistent meeting time every day,” Johnson said. “Be purposeful about reaching out.”

Choose how you respond.

“We can make it bitter or better. My hope for me, our family and for all of us is that we choose to make it better.”

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