It was April 2020 and along with three other healthcare providers, I was headed to a men’s homeless shelter to administer COVID-19 tests to the residents. We were wearing our full bunny suits (a nickname we have for the disposable white head-to-toe layer worn to protect against contact with infectious particles).
The moment felt heavy as congregate living spaces, like homeless shelters, were considered high-risk for infection spread, and we didn’t know how many people might test positive.
Nearly a year later, the pandemic continues to dominate my daily life—professionally and personally. As a community health nurse, I’m required to manage COVID-19 at work, but I’m weary of discussing it at home.
Certainly I am lucky to be healthy, but I’m experiencing a waning energy around conversations dominated by COVID.
Despite new variants of the virus circulating, vaccines along with other preventative measures are showing reason for optimism. Cases in nursing homes fell sharply by 80% from their peak in late December, 2020, and hospitalizations, overall cases, and COVID deaths have also been declining.
President Joe Biden recently declared that both help and hope “are here.”
Obviously, this is not the time to abandon precautions, but it may be appropriate and safe to let the grip COVID has on conversations loosen as the dominance COVID has on conversations may have a negative impact.
This feels similar to the negative impact I have felt from constant conversations about food and body image from female friends, coworkers, and family. Talks of food often had less to do with taste and more to do with a perceived unwanted consequence. Food fell on a ledger of good and bad behavior; it was something to be avoided and feared instead of enjoyed and celebrated.
Women in different cultures are often molded to worry about the way they look and the food they eat. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 40-60% of girls between the ages of 6-12 are concerned about being fat. These concerns don’t necessarily improve with time.
A 2020 Swedish study found that adult women reported higher levels of anxiety around their health and diet than men. While their diets may have been objectively healthier than men’s, with less reported intake of added sugars, alcohol, or red meat, their nutrition did not correlate with a positive mental state.
Recently I sat with fellow nurses as we shared a bag of pretzels; most of the women talked about how they shouldn’t be eating so many pretzels, how they needed to stop eating them, how they needed to exercise more after eating this much, or how fat they felt. You would have thought those pretzels were poisonous.
Attitudes and behaviors related to diet and thinness are infectious, evidenced by the reality that children of mothers with eating disorders are at an increased risk of developing eating disorders themselves.
Several years ago, I made a conscious effort to no longer participate in these conversations. I watched too many loved ones struggle with body image issues and eating disorders. The least I could do was change the way I talked about food and challenge my own tendency to look in the mirror and find something wrong with me.
As words spoken often reflect inner worries, for millions around the world, COVID is always at the forefront of conversation. Just as how someone talks about food affects how they feel about their bodies, the talk about COVID likely affects mental health.
A study on children and adolescent mental health in China found increased levels of anxiety and depression linked to the pandemic. Interestingly, researchers posited that an increased awareness of infection control paralleled increased anxiety levels.
There needs to be a way to be smart about infection control, but keep the conversations balanced. It’s important to remember that we have made remarkable scientific progress with COVID-19 vaccines and containment–even with new variants.
Being cautious about infection control doesn’t automatically mean being anxious. Perhaps finding small places to remove fear and anxiety about COVID from conversation can help. It would be best to contain the COVID talk in a healthy way and find respite by sharing with each other the positive side of pandemic recovery.
Liz Brockland, RN, BSN, is a Rush University College of Nursing community health nurse at North Side Housing and Supportive Services and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.