• Larissa Gilroy

Why finding your own patch of green is good for your health

Happy New Year! Are you feeling like your stress tolerance might have peaked in 2021?

I wanted to share a little of what’s been happening at my place over this week. Despite doing all the right things with wearing masks and washing hands, we have had a case of Covid in our home. It was my husband and he’s been pretty unwell for most of the week and only now starting to feel better. I want to state from the outset that this is not a conversation about vaccination, although I will say that both of us are vaccinated.

This blog is about health anxiety or anxiety about your health, whichever way you look at it. You see, when we got the positive result for my husband, as well as feeling worried about him and how sick he would get, I felt an overwhelming dread for what might happen to me - by the way, it’s been five days since he tested positive and I’m still feeling well. I’ve been hypervigilant about cleaning, isolating from him and constantly monitoring myself for symptoms. Around day three I found that I couldn’t concentrate on anything, I was constantly checking to see if I was developing any symptoms and I was feeling really emotional. I know that this was my nervous system on high alert - in ‘fight/flight’ mode. My body was pumping out cortisol and this was interfering with my brain function, digestion and, really importantly, it could reduce my immune response - at this crucial time.

Look, the good news is that he is on the mend and should be back on his feet soon. But it’s not the end of Covid for us, or anyone living on this planet right now and that has the ability to make all of us feel anxious.

If you experience anxiety, being hypervigilant about your health is common. It can be as mild as being hyper-aware of your digestive function (think IBS) or your heart rate when you’re in crowds. The current situation that we are all experiencing with the increased numbers of Covid cases in the community can really dial up this hypervigilance to the point where it’s interfering with your quality of life. For many of us, our nervous system has already taken a battering from the last couple of years and we may not feel like we have the resources to cope with yet another round. My recent experience has reminded me that I need to put some strategies in place to manage my health anxiety, and to find some peace and joy among all the chaos.

What works for me is not necessarily the right fit for you, but the point is to find what is - what helps your body and mind to relax and importantly triggers the ‘rest and digest’ arm of your nervous system. You don’t need to wait until you’ve got a confirmed case of Covid in your house to use these strategies, make them part of your day now to manage whatever is happening in your life.

Below are a few things that I found helpful in managing my anxiety this week:

  • Put in place a routine and try to stick with it. This might be going for a walk with your dog in the morning, or having a morning tea break at 10am. The point is to have some anchor points in your day that can be predictable. This is especially important when other things around you are unpredictable such as with illness.

  • Eat three nutritious meals each day. This is really important as it does the above as well as providing you with essential nutrients to support your body and mind.

  • Do some physical activity each day. Those who know me will know that I am not a big fan of exercise, but this week I have discovered that I enjoy mowing the lawn - luckily we have plenty at our place! Exercise has been shown in many studies to reduce anxiety and improve mood.

  • Limit engagement with news, especially statistics about Covid. This point obviously relates to my current situation, but sometimes reading or watching news that you find distressing only increases your anxiety about situations that are out of your control. Find something else to watch or read.

  • Stay in contact with your support network. Anxiety can sometimes make you feel like retreating from the world but this often worsens or prolongs it. The daily texts from friends and the Facetime calls from my family have been so important this week.

It’s obvious that the pandemic has not finished yet and many of us will continue to be impacted in some way this year, whether it’s needing to take time off work, not being able to find toilet paper in the supermarket again or having a case of Covid in the house. It’s stressful and for some people, it triggers additional anxiety that can be debilitating. The above strategies might sound simple, but they can help you to cope.