How to take care of your health during difficult economic times

Studies show that many people faced with home loss and housing uncertainty can take a tremendous hit to their health. If you’re going through difficult times, and worried you too may lose your home, what can you do to try to buffer or reclaim your health?

Here are some tips for ways to counteract some of the toll that constant stress (and the insomnia, distraction and desperation that go with it) can take on your health.

1. Make yourself a priority. In the frenzy of doing all you can to stay afloat, it can be easy to forget to take your pills, or to miss a doctor’s appointment, or even to start grabbing the cheapest, fastest food you can find – probably after you’ve skipped a meal. When you’re juggling too much, that’s when it’s most important to keep your health a priority. If you’re forgetting pills for a condition you already have, get help – use reminders, a pill box, enlist family and friends. Even when it feels like there’s no time – maybe even particularly when it feels like there’s no time – make nurturing yourself first on your to-do list. Eat thoughtfully before you get too hungry. Stock up on healthy alternatives and keep a list of those options handy, to avoid the pressure to choose something fast and unhealthy when you’re starved. Take the time to exercise. You can leave a ton of stress behind (dump it right into your sweaty tennis shoes after your power-walk). Think of exercise as your way of dosing yourself with health – and never skip a dose.

2. Recognize self-destructive tendencies for what they probably are – depression and despair. Bad things happen to good people. When economic crises happen, many of us can struggle with a sense of shame and blame. Those feelings can mutate into self-destructive tendencies – ranging from making poor food choices, or wasting days and weeks on the Internet, all the way to even making poor sexual choices. If you’re feeling hopeless or out of control, get help. There are crisis hotlines in many cities. Tell your doctor what you’re going through. Identify those moments when you’re feeling vulnerable and make a plan for what to do when you find yourself in that situation again.

3. Reach out and strengthen positive social ties. Few things can evoke stronger secrecy and blame than issues of money. Shame can sometimes result in people subconsciously cutting off their social ties, exactly when you need them most. If you have someone with whom you can share the burden of your problems – do so! But even if you don’t, or that doesn’t feel comfortable right now, don’t let the people around you slip away as life gets extremely stressful. You don’t have to confess all your worries or problems to everyone around you, but social events and hanging out with friends and loving family is an important antidote to the isolation and stress that can accompany a threatened home loss. If your current circle of friends seems to be not an optimal fit, reach out to support groups too.

4. Push back on stress. Even if you’ve never thought of yourself as the “granola” type, now is the time to start meditating. There is a whopping amount of excellent scientific evidence to support meditation, for even just ten minutes a day, as an antidote to the tremendous stress that home insecurity can evoke. If you’re feeling embarrassed, or as thought the whole idea is cringe-worthy, keep in mind that you don’t have to make a production of it. Ten minutes alone is all you need to begin. You can say the number “one” over and over as you consciously relax each part of your body. If thoughts about losing your home, or all your worries try to intrude, don’t fight the thoughts. Just let them pass through your head and breathe, waiting for stillness to arrive. Meditation means you’re training a part of your brain to release some great signals to promote your health. It may take consistent practice over a few weeks, but by week three, you’ll probably be feeling a benefit. Keep devoting your ten minutes of peace toward your health each day for as long as the stress is hovering.

5. Practice good sleep hygiene. There are few times when it seems harder to sleep, than when you’re worrying about losing your bedroom. But that’s the time when it’s most important to take consistent, positive steps. Studies show that practicing good sleep hygiene pays off, and become more easy to perform over time. Good sleep habits are just that – habits. Here are some of the cornerstones of good sleep hygiene, and how to incorporate them into your life. They may not stop severe insomnia, or the insomnia of clinical depression. But pro-active steps to tilt the odds in favor of a good night sleep have been shown to be effective. Even if it feels rigid to always go to bed at the same time, or to not drink alcohol or caffeine after noon, or to do other sleep-improving tasks, when it comes to your health, they’re a good investment of time and effort.

6. Call in the professionals. When you’re threatened with home loss, that’s the time to get professional help. In every realm – health, money and benefits. It’s easy to get overwhelmed. Make sure you’re getting all the help you need. Tell your doctor if you’re having trouble affording medication. Let him/her know what you’re going through. See if there are things you can do to promote your health that your doctor can help make happen. If you haven’t already, make sure you get an appointment with a social worker or benefits counselor. In many communities, assumptions about class or race or professions may mean you were never referred – when you might qualify for help. And make sure you’re getting qualified, reputable financial and legal help too.

7. Watch out for the urge to self-medicate. If you’re feeling the grinding pressure of home insecurity, you probably know how tempting it is to just want it all to go away. Or to just be able to forget for a while. It can be all too easy for what was a 2-glass-of-wine -with-dinner habit to evolve into a whole bottle a day problem. Other “ways out” can also start to look unusually appealing. If this scenario sounds a little too close for comfort, it may be that you already should get help. And if you had a substance use issue in the past, and your life has now moved into crisis mode because of home insecurity, it’s important to get support for your recovery. Now is when you want to be your sharpest – so you can protect yourself and your future.

8. Know when it’s too much. If you’re feeling like you can’t possibly do any of these things – and that it’s naive of someone to suggest you could, that may be a sign that your long-term health is already starting to suffer. Certainly get professional help if you’re having thoughts about hurting yourself. Call on family and friends and other social ties to help you through this difficult period.

Keeping your home, but losing some of your health seems like an unfair trade. Now’s the time to take steps to make sure you keep both.

Jan Gurley is an internal medicine physician who blogs at Doc Gurley.

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