"Breathe," said Frank Tacan.
"What do we do when we get hurt? We hold it in. Breathe it out. Drink lots of water. Water is medicine. The air is medicine. Never forget to do those things. It’s just common sense."
Tacan, a Dakota knowledge keeper, is one of five people I consulted for this story about how to live in our times – how to live with a screaming, surround-sound health threat and how to take care of ourselves as multitudes of media streams endlessly spew out COVID-19 numbers.
I also asked questions of licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Michelle Darichuk, Dr. Mindy Campbell, a naturopathic doctor, Reverend Craig Miller of Knox United Church, and Prairie Mountain Health healthy living facilitator Vanessa Hamilton.
To breathe consciously is the simplest thing we can do. It changes your physiology. It feels good. But, we forget. Our breath can easily become rapid or constricted. Setting aside dedicated moments to regulate the breath provides the body’s systems with the necessary oxygen for it to function as it should.
All the more necessary to remember as we wear masks in public places. Different people have different comfort levels with a piece of cloth held over their nose and mouth. For some, it could mean panic. For others, nothing at all. Never before has a basic and heart-felt acceptance of our differences mattered so much.
Even Dr. Brent Roussin, the province’s chief health officer, has preached kindness from his pulpit, where he simultaneously lists the daily numbers, including deaths. That’s also where he near-daily reminds us of the fundamentals. There’s no doubt those fundamentals do control the spread of this virus. Check out Prairie Mountain Health’s current numbers – we’re doing pretty well.
But, even if Brandon is no longer under a level orange, Roussin has been warning Manitobans for months that we should brace ourselves for the worst as flu season sets in. The news from Winnipeg and the rest of Canada is all about rising numbers and that the second wave is on our doorsteps.
But fear is not the answer. Fear, in fact, inhibits the immune system, as do some go-to coping strategies we may think reduce stress, such as drinking, smoking and using substances.
"Many people don’t realize that their immune system is very closely linked to their stress levels. Our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and attitudes can positively or negatively affect our biological functioning," Darichuk said.
"For example, when we are happy and optimistic our immune system functions better. When we are negative and low in mood our immune function tends to be lower. Mental and emotional issues can affect physiological reactions, and that goes both ways."
We’re all feeling it
One question I asked the experts is, "What are you seeing?"
"I don’t think anyone would be surprised to hear that anxiety, worry, and stress-related to all things COVID have increased for many people," Darichuk said.
"These are all normal responses to perceived or real threats and at times when we are faced with uncertainty or the unknown. Also, as the pandemic has evolved, people have had to confront a series of losses: the loss of a sense of safety, of predictability, of social connections, jobs and financial security to name a few.
"Not only are we grieving what’s missing, but also the ways in which those losses affect our senses of self. Many of those losses we’re experiencing now are ambiguous and undefinable, which sometimes makes them harder to understand and put into words."
For those who have children, double the dose of anxiety. Miller, who I chatted with before the return of school, spoke of the effect of these times on children. They can’t hug their grandparents. Everyone is watching them with bated breath – who will bring COVID-19 home because we all know children are germ carriers.
"There’s anxiety because we just don’t know what things are going to look like. How long will we be under a code orange? How long until we have a vaccine? Is this illness going to come to my family? Is my business going to last?"
Miller heard these questions.
Prayer can help. In his congregation, Miller said prayer can look differently for different people, just as the pandemic affects people differently. For some meditation is key. As Darichuk said, there are plenty of guided meditations on the internet.
For others, a centering prayer is a way to deal with the day-to-day.
"It can be a very simple time of being quiet, choosing a word or a phrase to guide you and focusing on that. Just clearing your mind and listening for the heartbeat for God, for the pulse of love in our lives," Miller said.
For others, a walk can accomplish a similar calm. Miller also referenced research into music.
"We know singing, studies show, boosts the immune system," he said, adding that in the spring the church hosted hootenannies.
"We had an hour and a half of singing together."
Whatever your choice, as Tacan puts it, we can learn from the pandemic.
"We can learn from it how to take care of ourselves. This is telling you, if your body’s weak and your immune system is down, start eating right," Tacan said.
Campbell echoes these thoughts. In her practice, she is seeing people who want to address lifestyle choices and optimize their health.
"When we hear that underlying health conditions, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and lung disease can negatively impact the outcomes of a COVID infection, this can be motivating to seek help and improve health," she said.
"I have always worked a lot with patients who have experienced the negative health effects of high stress and anxiety – often with symptoms of insomnia, low mood or irritability, low energy and motivation, weight gain, increased pain, digestive dysfunction, recurrent infections.
"And I suppose I could go on and on with the possible symptoms, as stress is often a main underlying contributor to poor health. So, as we all have lived through a longer and longer time dealing with the many stresses from this situation, I think we will see more health issues start to arise."
Hamilton noted people are staying indoors at home more, sometimes out of fear of becoming ill. They may not be getting as much daily activity outside as they once did, she said. At the same time, they may be increasing their recreation screen time such as social media and video games. Society in general is also using technology more to navigate the pandemic to stay connected with family, friends and work — which equates to more sitting in front of a computer screen.
Increasing physical activity under these conditions matters because being inactive can contribute to the symptoms listed by Campbell, and, as Hamilton said, stress, a lack of physical activity and not enough sleep contributes to a weakened immune system.
"A big part of my job is teaching patients the lifestyle medicine that provides the foundation for being in good health. When we see that there is an inter-relationship between every system in the body, and between physical health, mental health, and emotional health, we see that our choices can be very powerful," Campbell said.
"So, we’ve got the basics like make sure to get enough sleep — generally eight hours — stay well hydrated with water; probably more than you think, eat a whole-food, unprocessed diet that includes lots of vegetables, especially leafy greens."
Any of these small actions contribute to overall health and the strength of your immune system.
"If you feel like you need to work on every single one of these areas, just pick one to start," Campbell said.
"The goal isn’t to increase stress. Every bit counts, and when we are building a foundation, we don’t and can’t expect instant results. We’ve got to start somewhere."
Campbell shared one of her favourite practices during cold and flu season: "Simmering thin slices of fresh ginger, with a cinnamon stick or two, about 10-to-15 garlic cloves, maybe a couple of cardamom and star anise pods, in a pot of water for at least 20 minutes. I tend to just add water as needed and leave the pot simmering on low for hours. Drinking liberally as a tea, with honey added, can be supportive. These ingredients have a lot of anti-microbial and anti-viral activity."
Tacan also talks about patience and good old sweat.
"If spirituality is not your game, go for a sauna," he said.
Michèle LeTourneau, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun