Try to have five portions of FUN a day: It’s natural to be fearful in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak — but being afraid actually lowers your immune system. Here, doctor and comedian PHIL HAMMOND gives his prescription
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Are you panic-buying anything you can get your hands on? If so, it’s likely that you are either afraid or trying to stop yourself being afraid.
But if you get yourself into a sweaty scrum in the dry goods aisle, it’s the perfect way to spread the virus, which is counter-productive. Fear is contagious, so we need a strategy to counter it.
A wise older woman in a hospice taught me a huge lesson when I was a medical student. She said ‘the fear of cancer can be worse than cancer’.
This wasn’t to trivialise the seriousness of her predicament, and all the information she needed was given to her honestly and openly, but she wasn’t fearful.
Doctor and comedian Phil Hammond (pictured) gives his prescription amid the coronavirus outbreak
Her hospice had a daily drinks trolley, served ice-cream, allowed her pets to visit and did singalongs. Her pain was well-controlled. ‘I just try to have five portions of fun a day,’ she said, before asking me politely to leave before the hairdresser arrived.
Patients never cease to amaze me in their resilience. I work as part of an NHS team specialising in post-viral fatigue — and I expect to see a spike in patients when all this has gone away.
My patients are often young people with severe fatigue. Previously they were leading fit, active, happy lives, absolutely bursting with energy.
As one of them said to me: ‘It’s like I used to have a Duracell battery and now I’ve got a Poundland battery.’
Some are able to attend school or college part-time but some are housebound, self-isolating and missing out on what should be a really exciting time in their lives.
The most common trigger we see for this fatigue is a viral infection, such as the Epstein-Barr virus that causes glandular fever.
We don’t fully understand why some people make a complete recovery from their infection, others suffer post-viral fatigue for up to three months and some suffer for much longer, giving them a diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome.
As well as eating five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, I tell my patients to be like the wise lady in the hospice and try to have five portions of fun a day, writes Dr Hammond. (Stock image)
Genes will play a part, but so does environment. We can’t separate our seed from our soil. Some research has found that if people are anxious and fearful when they contract a virus, it can make the symptoms worse and increases their risk of post-viral fatigue.
We think stress, anxiety and fear can damage the immune system and make it more likely you will crash your battery.
Most of us carry antibodies to various herpes viruses, but only some of us get shingles or cold sores. Again, fear and stress seem to play a role. People often say they get outbreaks when they are stressed, overworked or sleeping badly.
There is clearly a delicate balance between appropriate concern and fear — and we need to get that right, because we know that the inextricable link between mind and body and environment means we could end up doing a lot of psychological harm in addition to the physical consequences.
There are no treatments yet for Covid-19, so fear levels are high. Constructive communication from our politicians is paramount.
Our wisest of health secretaries, Nye Bevan, understood the need for a National Health Service because he came from a mining community where people lived not just in fear of illness or the trauma of pit accidents and war, but the fear of not being able to afford medical treatment and pain relief.
Anxiety and fear tend to be worse when the brain has the space to be scared, writes Dr Hammond. (Stock image)
He called his autobiography In Place Of Fear, perfectly capturing the public mood.
Churchill, too, was a master of communication. ‘We shall fight on the beaches’ sounds far more reassuring than ‘we will lose thousands on the beaches’.
Fear itself damages your immune system, but it is possible to stop that happening. The best advice I know comes from Graham Medley, a professor of infectious disease modelling.
His advice is that to counter the fear of catching coronavirus, we should all behave as if we have it already. It isn’t troubling us too much but we could spread it to others more vulnerable and must behave accordingly. Handwashing and social distancing remain absolutely vital.
Beyond that, we need to get on with enjoying our wild and precious life.
Expert tips to stay calm by Louise Atkinson
Harley Street psychologist Dr Meg Arroll offers advice…
- Anxiety will be driven by constant information checking, so limit the number of times you search for virus-related news.
- Consider a complete break from social media.
- Try to be objective. Although this is a serious illness, at present the death rates are below those of seasonal flu.
- TAKE deep breaths. Close your eyes, inhale deeply, then let the air drift slowly out of your nose. Repeat at intervals through the day to slow your heart and reduce blood pressure.
- Exercise helps to counteract the chemical impact of a ‘fight or flight’ response, so go for a brisk walk round the block or, if you are in self-isolation, try to jog on the spot.
Anxiety and fear tend to be worse when the brain has the space to be scared. Negative emotions are often triggered by negative thoughts (and vice versa), and talking therapies can teach you to challenge them.
As Churchill observed: ‘I’m an old man, I’ve had many worries, most of them never happened.’
Your brain can only hold so much information at one time, and if you fill it with scary news it’s very hard not to be anxious and fearful, as your body feels under constant threat and your mind runs riot. So we need to fill it with something healthier.
As well as eating five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, I tell my patients to be like the wise lady in the hospice and try to have five portions of fun a day.
That big holiday you had planned may well be cancelled and your sports teams have been told to stop playing. But now is the time to learn to relish the little things.
The damp snout of a dog against your thigh (they don’t get coronavirus).
A dewy cobweb. The spring flowers. Learning to strum a guitar, paint, knit, cook or finish the crossword. Pottering around the garden. Laughing with friends and family. Love and laughter are the greatest cure for fear.
If you can’t manage five portions of fun, start with one.
I also recommend what I call the daily pillars of health. These are your CLANGERS. Connect, Learn, be Active, Notice, Give back, Eat well, Relax, Sleep.
Your CLANGERS may be very different from mine, and the CLANGERS we do when we’re well and free to roam are different from the ones we do when we’re sick or self-isolating. But they are nonetheless vital.
And think of your friends and family as soft-toy CLANGERS, a kind, close-knit group who live a gentle existence on our Blue Planet, on a diet of home-made soup and blue string pudding. They dropped the occasional clanger too, as we will doubtless do in the fight against coronavirus, but they owned up and learned from it.
Coronavirus may be nature’s way of telling us to slow down, support each other in local communities and live in the moment, day by day, with enough energy put by for those five small portions of fun; the little things that give us joy, purpose and meaning in our lives.
If we do this every day, and have gratitude for it, we may yet emerge stronger from our temporary battery confinement into a gentler free-range existence.
Dr Phil Hammond is an NHS doctor, journalist and comedian. He is author of Staying Alive: How To Improve Your Health And Your Healthcare, and Sex, Sleep Or Scrabble?
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