Wellness for 2022

“We have nothing to fear except fear itself” – President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

To look at the morning newspaper is stress-inducing. From today’s New York Times: “Hidden Pentagon Records Reveal Patterns of Failure in Deadly Airstrikes.” Spend some time reading about drones, ‘precision’ bombings, and civilian casualties – your breathing is sure to speed up, even if you don’t realize it.

Then navigate over to the Boston Globe. “Could Donald Trump Really be the Next House Speaker?” That doesn’t sound too good. And another article: “Biden to issue stark warning on vaccination amid COVID surge; experts say booster effort is behind.”

Drone wars, Trump, an Omicron surge, a lack of boosters. Those anxiety-provoking headlines would make most people want to take an Ativan. It’s hopeless, right? President Joe Biden is a lot better than Trump, but he’s feckless and surrounded by bad advisors. The system is rigged. Omicron is going to infect all of us, and fatalism is so common. We should just give up, right?

Wrong.

The other day I was having a phone conversation with an old friend of mine, a geographer who has worked in many countries. He was telling me about an idea I’d never heard of, “heterotopia,” a concept elaborated by philosopher Michel Foucault to describe cultural spaces that are somehow ‘other’: disturbing, intense, incompatible, contradictory or transforming. Another scholar, the late Edward Soja from UCLA, wrote about “heterotopologies,” places that simulate the geographical experience of postmodernity.

Anyway, my friend and I bemoaned the state of education in America and around the world, the tribalism and hatred, the trauma we’ve suffered, and the lack of knowledge and empathy regarding other cultures. Why doesn’t every classroom have a globe on the teacher’s desk, so the children can learn about other societies? When you look at a globe, you quickly see that Africa is much bigger than North America, for example.

I have a globe, and when I slowly spin it, I think about the visionaries I know – people like Ira Helfand, who is fighting for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Neil Vora, who is working to stop the emergence and spread of novel viruses at the human-animal interface. Gregg Gonsalves, a vocal advocate for an end to inequity and discrimination regarding infectious diseases. Duncan Maru, fighting for health care workers. Liz Theoharis and William Barber II – on a mission to end poverty and homelessness. Those are six outspoken, unique leaders, but each of us can become a visionary in our sphere of life. Each of us is an expert in something.

We can’t close our eyes to the newspapers, to the inequities. We have to know what’s going on in our neighborhood, our city, state, country, the world, so we can protect ourselves and our children. Omicron demonstrates that we are all interconnected; that the events anywhere in the world can have an impact on us no matter where we live. Even if you jet off to the South Pacific, Omicron 1.0 or 2.0 will probably find you, sooner or later.

So what should we do? We have to engage. Listen to other people. Learn. Communicate. Be curious. Human beings have survived for a million years because we are intelligent and resilient. We know how to form groups, to band up for our survival. We did it when we were hunter gatherers, and we can do it now. Here are a few tips for wellness in 2022:

Let kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity find you

These are stressful times. We want to be happy, relaxed, calm, but we are overwhelmed by the problems in our lives, in our neighborhoods, and in the world. We withdraw into our computer screens and turn our backs on our loved ones, which just compounds the pain. But there is an answer. Be patient, and focus on your breathing. We can build mindfulness through meditation, Ayurvedic-based programs, and other Eastern therapies. For example, alternate nostril breathing helps some people. Deep breathing helps others (deep in for a count of 4, hold for 7, out for 8 with an open mouth), and repeat the entire cycle 4 times. Personally I like my Nepalese singing bowl.

Get organized

My wife Kristen is great at this – me, not so much. The more chaotic your home, your financial files, your papers, your bookshelf, your refrigerator, the harder life will be. Marie Kondo and others have written about getting organized, and all I have to say is the time is now. Hint – the less “stuff” you own, the easier it is to stay organized. I use an At-a-Glance notebook calendar alongside my digital calendar – it’s good to look at the days and weeks in different ways.

Get physically active

This is very important. If you can walk, walk. If you can walk fast, walk fast. If you can run, run. If you can run fast, run fast! If you can’t walk or run, do some other sort of exercise every day. Exercise is the greatest mood stabilizer. If you are anxious about the news, and you walk or run five miles, your anxiety will go down, I guarantee it. Think about the 1:59 marathoner Eliud Kipchoge and 2:14 marathoner Brigid Kosgei. They are so confident, so strong, so fast. We can’t all be as speedy as Kipchoge and Kosgei, but we can be much healthier than we currently are. We don’t need to be like Forrest Gump, running across the North American continent, but trust me on this. Run. If you live in Boston, you can join me at the Jamaica Pond Park Run – I am there practically every Saturday at 9 AM. And if you don’t live in Boston, there are Park Runs all over the world.

Eliud Kipchoge
Brigid Kosgei

Plant a garden; eat a healthy diet

It’s not just about cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure, and weight, although those are important. The act of planting, harvesting, and eating healthy food, mostly vegetables and fruits, is a political one in this era of corporate fast food. Wendell Berry has written about local agriculture and farming for years. Indigenous people eat food grown near them and they respect the earth. Gardening and cooking with family members can be a joyful experience. You can fill out a food diary for a week or two to get a sense of the foods you are eating today, as a baseline, and then make some gradual changes. You will lose weight if you also exercise.

Dance, make music, and create art, with other people

Even if you aren’t Itzhak Perlman, you can probably sing, whistle, or dance. Making music and art with others is joyful. It’s a profoundly human experience, and can boost our mood. Don’t be embarrassed. You can do it. Dance, music, and art helps us connect with friends and family, which can heal us from our fears. Study music from other cultures. It will change you. In 2021, I studied guitar with Albino Mbie, from Mozambique, and violin with Rob Flax. I also enjoy learning about jazz pedagogy from Steffen Zeichner. I’ve been playing in a jazz combo with Zoltan Gluck (guitar), Adam Omar Hosein (guitar), and Rusty Chandler (acoustic bass).

Itzhak Perlman, virtuoso violinist, about to play the national anthem

Get a Dog

If you can afford one, and your housing circumstances allow it, I suggest you get a dog (or other pet). My friend Dhruv Kazi from Beth Israel Deconess Medical Center wrote a paper arguing that dogs seem to improve our cardiovascular health. They also help with loneliness – you have to walk them every day, and you meet your neighbors and chat. In this era of isolation, dogs might be your ticket to making some new friends. I’m out in Jamaica Plain’s Arnold Arboretum and Southwest Corridor park all the the time with Margo. She is extremely social, and just a few neighbors I have met, or became closer friends with, because of my dog, despite the COVID pandemic: Brad, a classical guitar teacher. Garrett, a computer programmer at Google. Mary, a retired school nurse. Adam, a philosophy professor. And the list goes on.

Margo, our 1.5 year old dog, helps my social life

Sleep

I have bipolar disorder, and keeping a regular sleep schedule is extremely important. Our hectic, stressful, technology laden society is bad for sleep. People who work in health care are exhausted, because of long shifts, understaffing, and unrelenting electronic medical records. The for-profit structure of health care is harming us. We have to sleep well, so we can organize, change the system, and get a single payer, Medicare-for-all.

People who work in health care are truly burned out

Sexual Health

Sexual health is crucial – we are human beings, and our interpersonal relationships are so important to our emotional and physical well-being. It’s not just about sexual intercourse with our bed partners, although this obviously is important, given the evolutionary imperative to reproduce, to pass our DNA on to the next generation. It’s also about emotional safety and connection in a relationship; avoiding sexually transmitted infections like syphilis and HIV; family planning; LGBTQ+ rights, gender identity, etc.

Write a wellness recovery action plan, to help with your emotions and pain

I’m writing about Wellness Recovery Action Plans (WRAPs) thanks to my neighbor and friend, Scott Francis. WRAPs are a great way to help us deal with our stress, depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. How do you cope when the stress level goes up? Who are the members of your wellness team who will help you understand your emotions? Professors Ryan Petros from the University of Washington and Phyllis Solomon from the University of Pennsylvania published an interesting paper on WRAPs for adults with serious mental illness. I think WRAPs can benefit everyone, not just those with schizophrenia and bipolar. Write the first draft of your WRAP right now! I also recommend people try out a monthly mood diary – I find it helpful. And – try to understand the “mental chatter” in your head – take a look at the work of Ethan Kross.

Prof Ryan Petros
Prof Phyllis Solomon

You can protect yourself and your family from COVID

We need to understand the “Swiss Cheese” model of preventing COVID. This includes several components, including ventilation, testing, high quality masks (like N95), and vaccination.

It is important to get vaccinated and boosted (3 doses of mRNA vaccine for adults) to give yourself the best protection possible. Lots of people have questions or concerns about the vaccine. What I usually tell them is that I personally got 3 doses of the mRNA-1273 (NIH-Moderna) vaccine, and all the members of my immediate family have been fully vaccinated, including my 7 year old son (2 doses). Then I say that the scientific evidence demonstrates a major benefit to people who get the vaccine, including for Omicron. In addition, millions of people, mostly unvaccinated, have died of COVID globally. I tell them it’s natural to have questions and to be distrustful of doctors, pharmaceutical companies, and politicians who promote the vaccine. But we have to take a step back and look at the scientific data, the biomedical evidence. Getting vaccinated is the thing to do, and we can trust the data regarding the vaccine, as summarized by Drs. Kathryn Edwards from Vanderbilt University and Walter Orenstein from Emory University. If you have questions about the vaccine, please contact me. Or if you want a real expert, you can email Drs. Edwards and Orenstein directly; probably they will reply.

Dr Edwards
Dr. Orenstein

Other components of COVID control: upgrade your personal protection, so you use N95 respirators when indoors in congregate settings (these should be free, President Biden). Outdoors I often wear a surgical mask when near others, because Omicron is so infectious. Ensure that there is adequate ventilation wherever you are. CO2 meters can help. With South African colleagues I published a paper about this before the COVID pandemic. Try to keep the CO2 level under 800 – if it is rising, it means there’s poor ventilation. Open the windows or have some people leave the room. My uncle, Phil Toney, bought a CO2 meter and used it for his Christmas party in Ohio – the levels were around 500 initially, and rose to 1000, so they opened some windows.

From our South African paper, which looked at average CO2 levels in an occupied, poorly ventilated room

Ensure adequate air filtration (MERV-13 filters and CR boxes – Prof Kim Prather from UCSD explains these in her tweets). Make sure you and others you are around get tested for COVID regularly (rapid tests should be free, President Biden). Have a pulse-oximeter nearby just in case you or one of your family members is short of breath and can’t get to a health care facility – this will tell you the oxygen saturation level.

The thing is, stopping COVID, along with the emergence of new variants worse than Omicron requires a global effort. We can’t do it on our own. President Joe Biden needs to provide much better leadership. Everyone needs to be fully vaccinated, and the pharmaceutical companies that make the vaccines need to share their intellectual property. The World Health Organization needs more resources and support. A strong WHO is the only way we will get out of COVID and heal the globe.

Health care workers need to put on their white coats and take to the streets to demonstrate.

That’s all I have for today. If you have any comments, please feel free to leave them below. And remember, my blog is entirely free. Thanks, Phil

Thanks for reading

26 thoughts on “Wellness for 2022

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