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June 01, 2020

The importance of self-care during a pandemic

Published on May 13, 2020

Self-care has never been more important or, arguably, more challenging to prioritize as millions have lost their jobs, are forced to stay home, or suddenly are caring for children whose schools have been closed.

Plans, routines, entire lives have been put on hold indefinitely as the world focuses on countering the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus. People are right to be concerned about their health and the health of family and friends, experts say, including their financial well-being. Yet care must be taken not to let those concerns become overwhelming.

Stressed medical professional


Signs of stress manifest in several ways, both obvious and subtle, and shouldn’t be ignored, according to Jen Brandt, PhD, director of well-being, inclusion, and diversity initiatives for the AVMA.

“A good starting point is to recognize if you are experiencing a change in your mood states, such as feeling more agitated, numb, or less productive than usual. If so, you are not alone,” Dr. Brandt said. “Those are common responses to the sense of trauma and grief we experience when undergoing rapid and unexpected change.”

As the Mayo Clinic explains on its website, stress negatively affects the body, thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Unresolved stress can contribute to high blood pressure, obesity, and heart disease, among other illnesses. Stress may manifest physically as fatigue, muscle pain, or upset stomach. A person experiencing stress may feel restlessness or irritability or lack focus and motivation.

Unhealthy coping mechanisms for stress include drug and alcohol abuse, overeating, and withdrawing from friends and family, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Sleep is another casualty of stress. Donn Posner, PhD, an adjunct clinical associate professor at Stanford University School of Medicine, recently described the present situation as “a perfect storm of sleep problems.” Dr. Posner was speaking this April as part of a weekly online forum hosted by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health on the emotional and psychological effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Approximately 30% to 35% of the population suffers from short-term insomnia, explained Dr. Posner, a member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. While in most cases short-term insomnia resolves itself, Dr. Posner said recovery is not always complete. A small number of cases may become chronic, lasting up to three months or more.

A good starting point is to recognize if you are experiencing a change in your mood states, such as feeling more agitated, numb, or less productive than usual. If so, you are not alone. Those are common responses to the sense of trauma and grief we experience when undergoing rapid and unexpected change.

Jen Brandt, AVMA director of well-being, inclusion, and diversity initiatives

To remedy insomnia, Dr. Posner suggested avoiding napping after a lost night’s sleep. If you must nap, limit it to 20 minutes. He advised against sleeping late on the weekends to make up for lost sleep as it only disrupts one’s regular sleep patterns.

“Keep a rhythm,” Dr. Posner said, “even if it’s a different time of day than it used to be.”

Well-being is a choice that requires intentional and deliberate prioritization. “Committing to self-care and recognizing what we must do to protect and improve our well-being are key steps in taking ownership of our health,” Dr. Brandt explained.

Talking to a friend or family member about feeling anxious or overwhelmed is an important step in the right direction. Of course, do so while observing social distancing. Take advantage of one of the several online video platforms such as Skype, Zoom, or FaceTime.

Keeping active is another strategy for weathering the COVID-19 storm. Take a walk, go for a run, or ride a bike. “Physical activity stimulates various brain chemicals that may leave you feeling happier, more relaxed and less anxious,” the Mayo Clinic states. “You may also feel better about your appearance and yourself when you exercise regularly, which can boost your confidence and improve your self-esteem.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented event that has dramatically reshaped our lives, replacing routine with uncertainty. A key to maintaining a sense of equilibrium, Dr. Brandt said, is focusing on the behaviors that are within your control, and breaking those down into small, manageable units.

“It may be increasing your water intake by dividing up the number of ounces you consume each hour or focusing on getting your heart rate up through short bursts of exercise or cleaning an area in your work or home space,” she said.

An AVMA webpage offers tips to help protect and maintain well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic.