• Maher Tharakan

Wellness in Worrying Times


As a fellow international school student based out of Thailand, the reimposition of online school has hit me just as hard as the rest of you out there. As maturing adolescents, it is unfortunate that we must face these tribulations during such a crucial period of our lives. This is the time we would otherwise be physically and mentally maturing– preparing ourselves to take on the world ahead of us. It is a crucial period for athletes, as unprecedented, exponential hormonal changes render this period the fastest period of strength development and physical maturation. It is a crucial period for scholars and thinkers, as unprecedented developments in cognitive processing capabilities occur that enable us to really start to grapple with the larger questions of life that otherwise appear daunting and complex. It is a crucial period for the creative minds among us, who experience significant shifts in their modes of thinking which inspire new artistic endeavours. Future inventors and entrepreneurs are deprived of the real life experiences that galvanize innovation. By taking away all of these vital components to our development, it’s no wonder that the pandemic has facilitated the onset of the worst of the negative emotions we experience as we travel through adolescence. I see it happening, and I’m sure you can too. Sadness. Fear. Regret. Anger. Despondency. Sound familiar?


As an Indian, the suffering and sorrow that my country has been increasingly subject to is, needless to say, extremely hard to take in. Every evening, my grandmother calls and talks to us about a new group of people we know that have contracted COVID, and many more that have passed away from it. This is just a personal example– the psychological effects of the pandemic do not discriminate on the basis of ethnicity. If you have a heart, you have felt the impacts. It’s hard.


What’s worse is that the psychological unrest that we vicariously experience by observing our fellow human beings suffer through the virus carries real implications for our own personal lives. I would wager that as maturing adolescents, we are especially vulnerable to these impacts. Stress-eating, higher levels of anxiety, reducing the amount of physical exercise we engage in, and gaming or binge-watching our favorite TV shows late into the night weakens our immunity and worsens our ability to cope. We have lost our opportunities to socially interact, engage in sporting activities, hang out with our friends, and just about every other fun thing that requires social convergence. It is undeniably a difficult situation for us all, but can we find ways to circumvent these obstacles?


My answer is Yes, and let me tell you how you can too.


There is an inspirational book I have read recently called Tiny Habits by Stanford University professor and behavioural scientist Dr. BJ Fogg. Allow me to explain how ideas from this book can help us all improve our physical and mental health. In his book, Fogg delves into his research on human psychology and the prized culmination of said research: the Tiny Habits method. The empirically-supported Tiny Habits method, as may be inferred from the name, is a strategy that involves tackling the acquisition of desirable behaviour by working on them on a “tiny” scale. The idea is that if you want to achieve some sort of behaviour (e.g. taking more breaks from the computer screen, reading more often, exercising more often, eating healthier foods regularly, losing weight, etc), you have to take tiny steps in that direction. Now, though this undoubtedly sounds cliche, it is the particular method that makes this technique so useful. Tiny habits aren’t things you plan for. They should be things that you can institute right now. If you need to plan –even in the slightest– for a tiny habit, it is not a tiny habit. For instance, if an individual wants to improve their diet, their tiny habit might be something like eating half a carrot with every meal. Small, but significant. If improving the health of your skin was your goal, you might keep a water jug next to your desk (although not near the computer!) and hydrate before each of your online classes. Over time, the accumulation of tiny habits enables the individual to acquire the desired behaviour, which also promotes a sense of personal achievement. Take it one tiny step at a time!


Now, instituting tiny habits for all the deteriorating elements of our health as caused by the pandemic may seem intimidating. Let me provide some examples of tiny habits that I have been implementing in my life to give you a sense of what this might look like. Make no mistake, tiny habits add up!


FIRST TINY HABIT: MOBILITY

Sitting down at a desk for the majority of the working day severely impacts our mobility– an essential component for holistic athleticism and physical fitness in any sport that can, if not worked on regularly, lead to injury. What can we do? Enter the Mobility Challenge. This is something I’ve been doing myself for the entirety of the online schooling period thus far, and have really been benefiting from (plus, it’s extremely easy to implement!). Basically, it consists of foam rolling for 10 minutes during the break after every period. This means you will be foam rolling for 10 minutes, five times a day. For about 15 seconds each, roll the hamstrings, the hip flexors, glutes, and adductors. Research has led me to believe that these are the muscle groups that lead to back pain and postural instabilities when not stretched frequently enough. Foam rolling will temporarily increase blood flow to said areas, loosening muscles that have become tight overnight, which improves ease of muscle contraction. I have personally felt (though this is anecdotal, please try it out for yourself!) that doing the challenge makes me feel more comfortable and less “stiff” when I sit for long periods of time through Zoom classes. Foam rollers are cheap (around 300 baht), available online, and are definitely worthwhile investments, as working on your mobility unlocks wondrous athletic benefits in both the short and long term. Another thing to try is the “1 Exercise Challenge”. In the middle of class, take 20 quick seconds to go through a round of a particular exercise that you aren’t overly proficient at doing consistently. For instance, this could be doing 20 pushups, 20 lunges, 20 pull ups, 20 crunches, or anything else. It is a perfect way to get your blood flowing to your otherwise idle muscles and to re-energize yourself for the remainder of class time. Alongside the mobility challenge, this is something I do routinely that has really helped me maintain my focus during online classes. Just taking 20 seconds to get your heart rate up will make you more alert and less likely to doze off during class!



SECOND TINY HABIT: FOCUS

Try the 7-11 breathing technique to clear your focus. To do it, set a timer for 4-5 minutes and after starting the timer, lie down flat on your back with your arms by your sides. Breath in deeply through your nose for 7 controlled seconds, and out slowly for 11 controlled seconds. Repeat this until the timer goes off. This technique has helped me when I start to feel overloaded with seemingly unbearable amounts of schoolwork– after doing it I regain my rationality and can figure out how to attack each task systematically so I can complete each task to a high standard.


THIRD TINY HABIT: POSTURE AND ERGONOMICS

It is a well known fact that sitting down for extended periods of time increases your risk of Ankylosing Spondylitis (from bad, hunched posture maintained over a long period of time) and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (from maintaining an awkward wrist position as you type). Why should we have to suffer through diseases like these when we can easily prevent them? A Tiny Habit here would be to take a few minutes to adjust your workstation (and get off your bed, if that’s where you Zoom from!) so that it adheres to proper ergonomics (a great video on how to do this).




FOURTH TINY HABIT: EYE HEALTH

Another impact of spending an increased amount of time on the computer is that we start to really dry out our eyes. Specific tasks that require a heavy amount of concentration puts strain upon our eyes, which is needless to say detrimental in the long run. My next Tiny Habit involves frequently practicing the 20-20-20 technique, which is a commonly-used exercise for the eyes that was created by optometrist Jeffrey Anshel. It states that for every 20 minutes you are on an electronic device, look at an object that is 20 feet (about 6 meters) away from you for a total of 20 seconds. The exercise is supposed to help your eyes readjust to longer distances after extended periods of only using your short sight.


FIFTH TINY HABIT: CALLING A FRIEND/FAMILY MEMBER

Lastly, here’s a Tiny Habit I thought of that caters to us being deprived of social interaction. For this habit, call a friend or family member for 5 minutes a day. I personally make sure to talk to my grandparents at least once a day. Talk about how the day has gone and discuss any interesting experiences you might want to share. You’ll quickly find that those five minutes you planned for have quickly elapsed after both of you share your aspects of the day, and this is completely fine– in fact, it’s great! Make a habit out of frequently connecting with your friends and family to maintain your social skills. I strongly believe that we human beings are nothing without our social networks. We need to stay connected, and this is one way you can do this.


I hope the tiny habits I discussed above are something useful to you. If not these ones, hopefully my writing has inspired you or given you ideas for a few of your own tiny habits that you could implement right now that better fit your goals at this point in your life. Through planning and exercising just a little bit of my willpower, I plan to emerge from this quarantine period not a disheveled, misshapen caveman, but an even better person than I was going into it.


And you can too.



Image Citations: (Om Tharakan, 2021)


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