It's hard to see this now, but staying at home because of the coronavirus may benefit your brain (and body).

By AnnaMarie Houlis
April 23, 2020
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Let's face it: Times are tough. COVID-19 is wreaking havoc around the world, costing humanity hundreds of thousands of lives (so far), quarantining entire populations of people, and transforming otherwise humming communities into ghost towns. But even in times of crisis, there usually is some semblance of a silver lining—even with the COVID-19 pandemic.

While it may be difficult to see the light in this dark time, it's possible that the COVID-19 pandemic can impact your mental health for the better. Of course, it's natural that you might not feel very positive right now nor have the capacity to be optimistic as you confront these complicated circumstances and ensuing anxieties. That's okay—whatever you're feeling, your emotions are valid.

Just know that when and if you're ready for a change in perspective, the potential positive outcomes of all of this chaos will be there to support you during this new normal and beyond—whatever that might look like for you.

1. You may discover more facets of yourself.

Many people self-identify by their job titles. I'm a journalist—and, though there's a lot more to me (and you!) than how I make my money, I'm quick to label myself as just that. While you may be proud of the career you've cultivated for yourself, it's important to remember that, first and foremost, you're a dynamic, multi-faceted human.

"The COVID-19 pandemic helps you focus on the fact that you are a human being and not a human doing," says Michael Alcee, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Tarrytown, New York. "Since you're forced to work and socialize less, you're left with getting back to your roots."

If you've had to close your business, you've lost your job, or your hours have been cut as a result of COVID-19, you may discover that work, after all, doesn't wholly define you. Without work to dictate your day, you may discover the unique passions, interests, hobbies, and skills that make you you—all of the bits of your character that have taken a backseat while you've prioritized work. (Related: What It's Really Like to Be an Essential Worker In the U.S. During the Coronavirus Pandemic)

Even if you're still working or working overtime in response to the novel coronavirus, you may find that other aspects of your life have become especially important to you.

2. You may spend more time with loved ones.

Not everyone is lucky enough to be surrounded by family right now or even have a safe space to retreat—you might even be working on the frontlines of this war against COVID-19. But those who do have the opportunity to slow down can use this time to focus on what really matters: human connections.

"Too often, we get caught up in maintaining fast-paced lifestyles and tend to neglect relationships, but the current pandemic is a great way to dedicate more time to family bonding and nourishing relationships, which ultimately benefits mental health," says Stephen Loyd, M.D., chief medical officer at JourneyPure, a nation-wide healthcare company. "People who take the time to work on their relationships and better them tend to be happier, less anxious, and more supportive during challenging times."

And research agrees: A study published in the journal PLOS ONE suggests that your social circle is a better predictor of stress, happiness, and well-being than a fitness tracker's data on physical activity, heart rate, and sleep. What's more, when family and friends spend quality time together, they actually influence each other's lifestyle behaviors, according to research from the University of Texas at Austin. "For instance, the emotional support provided by social ties enhances psychological well-being, which, in turn, may reduce the risk of unhealthy behaviors and poor physical health," explain the researchers.

Even if you're not isolating with loved ones, you may feel the push to connect with friends more than ever. "People are realizing how much value their interpersonal (and in-person) interactions have," says Ryan Engelstad, L.C.S.W., therapist and coach. "I've experienced this, too: the awareness that, even though I might see them often, I really miss hanging out with my family and friends when I'm not able to do it." (Related: How to Deal with Loneliness If You're Self-Isolated During the Coronavirus Outbreak)

With online video chatting platforms such as FaceTime, Skype, and Zoom, it's easy to keep in touch when you miss your friends—and connecting with others virtually in this way can come with similar mental and physical benefits as interacting in-person, according to research.

3. You may focus more on self-care.

Finding time for self-care during the coronavirus crisis can be massively beneficial to your mental health, says Melissa Mueller-Douglas, L.M.S.W. "The pace of life is slowing down," she says. "I am hearing stories of how people are re-connecting with nature, hobbies, family, and neighbors (from a healthy distance)."

While you might use this stay-at-home situation to stream a new guilty pleasure such as Love Is Blind, others might find that sweating through online workouts helps them cope with COVID-19 craziness. (Related: The Best Hobbies to Pick Up During Quarantine)

Self-care will look different for everyone, but the potential benefits remain the same: lower stress levels, improved quality of life, reduced risk of chronic illnesses such as heart disease, just to name a few. (Related: The Self-Care Items Shape Editors Are Using At Home to Stay Sane During Quarantine)

4. You may have more time to cook well and exercise.

With more time on your hands, you may have more time to make healthy decisions for your diet and squeeze in that workout. Of course, using this time to lounge around and snack is easy, but you do have a choice.

"When you take good care of your physical health, you're contributing to your mental health," says Lynell Ross, certified health and wellness coach and founder of online health platform Zivadream. "For those who don't have to go out in public to work, you have more time to exercise, prepare healthier foods, drink water, rest, take breaks, and sleep." In fact, according to a Global Web Index study, around 85 percent of people polled said that they're spending their time keeping fit and 40 percent plan on keeping with this habit after quarantine. (Related: The Biggest Mental and Physical Benefits of Working Out)

And this growing appetite for healthy living and eating (15 percent of people polled said that they want to continue to spend more time cooking post-COVID-19) can have a lasting impact on your overall health. "When you feed your body healthy foods, you contribute to the healthy gut bacteria that helps your brain and your mood," says Ross.

Gut bacteria actually produce neurochemicals that your brain uses to regulate your physiological and mental health, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). And because gut bacteria produce about 95 percent of the body's supply of serotonin, according to the APA, it's important to remember that what you eat can dictate how you feel both physically and mentally.

So what you eat can not only impact your physical health, but it can also nourish your brain and boost your mental health. And that, of course, is especially important during difficult times.

5. You're exercising your creative muscles.

You're likely using your imagination more to stay sane while stuck indoors, whether that involves finding innovative ways to squeeze in your daily workout without traditional gym equipment or taking the time to (finally!) write that (best-selling) book you've always intended to start. The chances are that, whether you're out of work or taking on way more of it, you're being forced to think outside the box and maximize your resources these days. And you can better from it: Studies show that creativity reduces feelings of depression and, yes, isolation.

It's also important to note that it's okay to feel fried right now—health pandemic or otherwise, burnout is a very real thing. Coping with the stress of COVID-19 can be exhausting, and you might not have the bandwidth to take on anything more right now. But even just thinking about your aspirations can be healthy—with the right mindset, of course. Instead of just reviewing a list of things or goals you want to achieve, research suggests also considering ways to mitigate disappointment if you don't end up completing them. So, instead of being upset with yourself that you didn't end up writing, say, three chapters by the end of quarantine, you're prepared with a coping strategy—i.e. exercise when you start to think negatively—or an alternative strategy—i.e. revisiting your expectations to allow for more time to make progress.

"You may not have the energy quite yet, but you could ask yourself, 'If this lasts the next four months, what projects would I like to revisit?'" says Robyn D'Angelo, L.M.F.T., founder of The Wild Grace Collective. "Is there a photo album where you wanted to put all those old printed photos?" says D'Angelo. "Is it someone special's birthday in June and you can start on an art piece for them that was supposed to be a Christmas gift? Just starting a list of projects or ideas you want to work on could be soothing to your brain."

"Give your creative brain some space to play," she recommends. If you have more time to be creative, why not get those juices flowing?

6. You're likely looking inward a lot more.

Since you're home-bound, disconnecting from everything going on around you is one surefire way to connect with everything going on internally. "In quarantine, you are afforded an opportunity to sit with and really listen to your bodies and feelings," says Saba Harouni Lurie, L.M.F.T., founder of Take Root Therapy.

Turning inward could mean that you may choose to meditate now that you have fewer distractions. Maybe you choose to move more to feel grounded in your body. (You might even turn your basement into a hot yoga studio.) Or maybe you choose to take on an exercise in creative expression such as journaling or drawing what's going on internally. (Related: Doodling Could Be the Form of Meditation You've Been Waiting For)

"In normal circumstances, this can be really challenging for folks, and you might often try to find ways to distract yourself," says Lurie. "If you can allow yourself to really listen to your needs and to honor them as best you can, this could be an opportunity to develop a very important skill: deeper self-awareness resulting in a new level of self-care."

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