May is the National Month for many worthy causes, including Brain Cancer, Celiac, and ALS awareness, but I would like to focus on the National Mental Health and National Mediterranean Diet pieces today. Like many professionals, I am concerned about how the pandemic is affecting the mental health of a generation of adults and their families now and in the years to come. Essential workers in any of the frontline fields who are keeping our economy and society moving forward at this time are experiencing unprecedented levels of sustained stress, but so is everyone else in the world to varying degrees since we're all experiencing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. During times of extreme stress, sustained hormonal cascades of cortisol, adrenaline, norepinephrine, etc., have the capability of changing our DNA through epigenetics. This means that chronic stress can turn on switches for predispositions to disease that we may not have ever experienced before this moment. It's a perfect storm for inflammation. Research shows that inflammation is the hallmark of chronic disease: instead of repairing, our cells are being primed for deterioration and decline and in the process changing our mood and thinking. That is, if we don't intervene in some positive ways.
There has been some media coverage recently about four positive ways to support our psychological well-being through use of the "4 Ms of Mental Health." I first heard about this mnemonic device from Dr. Sue Varma on CBS This Morning, my go-to morning news program. The 4 Ms according to this psychiatrist are: Movement, Mindfulness, Mastery, and Meaningful Engagement. The idea is that if we engage in each of these every day or frequently enough, we will be on our way to resilience in our mental health. If we move our body; if we do things that we love, creating chunks of time where we experience "flow" and develop higher-level skills; if we pay attention to the present moment instead of worrying about the past or future; and if we reach out to our family, friends, and wider community with kindness and generosity; we will be happier, calmer, and more resilient, even during times of high stress. These four Ms provide an excellent framework to remind us where our efforts and attention should be for the development and support of our mental health. I think it's important, however, to include a 5th M, one that is often forgotten, especially in the American culture: the Mediterranean diet.
Eating nutritious, whole foods is data for our brain and gut, at the cellular level, for the promotion of overall health. Given my multidisciplinary training and holistic perspective, I view mental health as one part of the whole. Mental health is connected to physical health and vice-versa, with our gut health mediating and modulating how we think, feel, and behave. There's a slew of recent research connecting the microbiome to our mental health and affecting our risk for developing anxiety, depression, neurodevelopmental disorders such as ADHD and autism, and even neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease. There is a comparable amount of research that is showing that the Mediterranean Diet can promote mental health and decrease risk for chronic disease through the reduction of inflammation in the body and the feeding of good bacteria in our gut. The Mediterranean Diet focuses on fresh, often organic and seasonal, fruits & vegetables high in prebiotic fiber, extra-virgin olive oil, fish & seafood, some meat, nuts & seeds, and a social and slow enjoyment of mealtime. Every family can start eating this way as a lifestyle change, as long as it becomes an expectation and there is an open invitation to all family members to contribute to meal-planning and cooking together. Organizing, preparing, and eating as a social experience is always going to be a meaningful, mindful, skill-building experience that requires movement; and perhaps that is the magic of the Mediterranean Diet: it combines all of the other 4 Ms of Mental Health while keeping our microbiome diverse, healthy, and thriving.
I was privileged to present webinars on the topic of the 5 Ms of Mental Health to both the parent community of the Massachusetts Association for the Education of Young Children, and to that of the Montclare Children's School in NYC this month. If you'd like to access either of these, you can find them on my Facebook business page. I hope today will be the day you consider trying to cook a Mediterranean dish with your family and in the process slow down, laugh, and enjoy your time together.
To your health!
As a follow-up to yesterday's post on reasonable expectations and modeling healthy self-care habits for our children, I'm sharing a post by Sara Gilliam, Editor-in-Chief of Exchange magazine, about supporting younger children. You can read it below or find it here: https://www.childcareexchange.com/eed/issue/5152/
To your health!
March 26, 2020
I wanted, this morning, to reach out to the parents and grandparents and guardians among us; we are early childhood professionals, but we are also individuals struggling to manage our own in-house messaging and response to global news. I’d like to share some practical ideas that are helping me support my own children, ages six and ten, as I work from home.
Even though we're all cooped up inside during the era of COVID-19, we can still delight in the sunshine of a beautiful day and the nearing of spring. I hope you got to go outside today because I foolishly didn't take that opportunity. Though I've been trying to find a new rhythm for my household, I can decidedly tell you I haven't quite found it yet. There are too many of us in our home, kids of all ages and stages of life with competing schedules and different stresses, and though I normally find a full house joyful beyond compare, I must admit it's been challenging and stressful for me to parent, teach, run the household, and deal with the emotional labor that is motherhood. The problem has been that I have not focused on myself and what I need to make my days go more smoothly. That's exactly what I was discussing with my Art and Science of Parenting group tonight - my mistake of not taking care of myself first, a mistake parents make often. What I tell parents all the time is that when they make sure they are well, everyone around them feels well. So, tomorrow, I will follow the routine I crafted days ago and haven't stuck to and will let everyone else follow their own. I will meditate in the morning, I will walk outside even though it will be raining, and I will read. I will do everything else later, and only as much as I can. I hope you will give yourself that gift as well.
To your health!
Want to make a gut-healthy recipe with your kids while you're social distancing? This Greek staple, Chicken Avgolemono Soup, is just what you need for a cold or rainy day or just any day at all. Not only is it comforting and warm, it also helps to heal your gut. Below is a video walk-through of the recipe that I presented to my local community via Zoom. Video editing, courtesy of my 6th-grader.
To your health!
In these uncertain times, where fear and anxiety are as dangerous as, if not more than, the actual pandemic our globe is experiencing, I want to begin a practice of sharing and reflection with you in the hopes of making a difference to families and to those who work with them. I am not a fan of social media or anything online but I do feel the need to share research, ideas, articles, events, or reflections that inspire me to become a better professional, a better parent, a better citizen of the world. I never thought I would start a blog but here it is: the inaugural post of the GetNewPerspective blog. Yesterday, I read the Well section of The New York Times and I want to share Tara Parker-Pope's new gratitude practice. Her thoughts moved and inspired me to expand my own. I hope you will take some time during your day to reflect on all your blessings in the midst of the chaos and heed her advice to stay informed, practice self-care and be kind.
To your health!
March 18, 2020
Every day brings a new question, a new worry, a new fear about the coronavirus pandemic. Its essential to pay attention to public health advice to practice social distancing and to stay home to limit contact and reduce the spread of infection. And it’s also essential to take care of yourself, particularly when it comes to stress.
For me, my regular meditation and mindfulness practices do not seem sufficient for these times, so I have added something new to my routine — a hand-washing and gratitude exercise.
Every time I wash my hands, I focus on my feelings of gratitude. I start with the doctors, nurses, ambulance and hospital workers on the front lines of the pandemic. I think about the countless numbers of hourly workers who are restocking grocery store shelves, working at pharmacies and staffing checkout counters. These people are coming face-to-face with hundreds of people each day, putting themselves at risk so the rest of us have food and necessities. I think about sanitation workers collecting our trash. I think about the young man who provides maintenance and cleaning to my building, while grandparents care for his 9-year-old and 1-year-old children.
A gratitude practice does not sound like much, but we know from research that a daily gratitude practice is good for us, helping us reduce stress, get better sleep and stay healthier. Thinking about the sacrifice of these people gives me a boost (and I also share my thanks in person when I check out at the grocery store).
We all need to mentally prepare for the fact that the pandemic — and the disruption that comes with it — is going to be with us for a long time. But my advice to you hasn’t changed: Stay informed, practice self-care and be kind.
The Well team will be here for you, continuing to provide accurate virus information, tips for staying well and advice for you and your family about living well every day. Watch our video about how to wash your hands (turns out we were all doing it wrong!). Dr. Judson Brewer offers a brain hack to quell pandemic anxiety. And since most of us are stuck at home, how about some guidance on losing weight and keeping it off, from Jane Brody?
Stay home if you can, and stay well.
— Tara Parker-Pope
Anastasia Galanopoulos, Ph.D. Parent, Educator, Health Activist. A note about my signature. When I first started teaching at Wheelock College, one of my first students with whom I still keep contact, started referring to me as Dr. G. In the affectionate spirit of its tone, I adopt that nickname here.