Here at the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, I am looking out my window on the 27th floor of my apartment building in New York City, and catching glimpses of my nervous neighbors going about their lives. They’re as isolated as I am, and I wish I could reach out and connect. I cannot, of course, but I am reminded that even during this unprecedented chaos, there is an opportunity for us to actually strengthen healthy connections with our existing communities – and to build new ones.

I’m a medical advisor for TakeFive, a program of The TakeCare Campaign, which is a national initiative that offers tools to help people improve their own health and well-being through messages embedded in inspirational short films. The everyday Americans in our films have found creative ways in all kinds of challenging situations to practice self-care and connect with the community around them. There is a lot we can learn from their messages during this challenging time. Here are three ways we can build stronger communities while being physically isolated:

First, Take Care of Yourself

Practicing self-care is truly collective care. We can’t begin to form strong, healthy relationships with others if our mental, emotional, and spiritual health is hurting. It’s important that we make time for ourselves to de-stress and partake in the things that bring us joy. In the film, Just Breathe, we see the devastating impact that disasters have on families who have lost everything that made them feel secure – and we are feeling that now. But allowing yourself time to slow down and focus on your breath can be a powerful way to feel centered and secure.

In another film short, Nature No App Required, we learn a lesson from Jocelyn, a stressed-out 17-year-old in Washington, D.C. who ended up in the emergency room with chest pain. Her physician creatively prescribed that she spend an hour in a hammock in her backyard – without her smartphone.  This “prescription” not only has helped decrease her stress-related pain, but it also brought her peace and tranquility. In another film, Stress Reset, we meet men, women, and children of various ages who tackle isolation and stress through exercise, meditation, Tai Chi breathing, and practicing gratitude. Whatever you know that helps heal you emotionally and mentally, embrace it over the next few weeks.

Prioritize Sleep

I also encourage everyone to realize how important sleep is to staying healthy. Getting an adequate amount of sleep every night is critical and lack of sleep can affect your immune response. Of course, sleep can sometimes be elusive, especially during stressful times like these. Jane, whose story is told in Night After Night , is very familiar with the effects of sleeplessness. But she learned how to use easy techniques like mindfulness to help tackle her insomnia head on; now she can finally sleep well through the night. If you’re finding difficulty sleeping, look for activities that help you manage stress throughout the day, not just at bedtime. Be like Jane! You’ll be surprised with the difference it will make.  

Find Out What You Can Offer Others

We all have skills we can bring to the table, and we need to use these talents to help each other, now more than ever. I’m doing this by volunteering my services as a physician to help address the heavy burden placed on our healthcare system during the pandemic in hard-hit New York City. When I became a doctor, I took an oath and even though I have a full-time job as president of the New York Academy of Medicine, I want to uphold that oath to “help the sick according to my ability and judgment.” It’s what brings me meaning at this moment in time. If you aren’t sure how you can help, ask yourself, as we do in The TakeCare Campaign: ‘What is meaningful to me?’ Are you in a position to gift it to others? Finding out what matters to you and sharing it for the well-being of your community is a powerful way to connect and make a difference in many people’s lives, including your own.

Instead of Happy Hours, Try Healthy Hours

We all are missing our get-togethers with friends and families, but the amazing thing about our digital world is that we can still connect. Instead of happy hour at the local bar, host a “healthy hour” with your friends for a virtual exercise class, group meditation, or even just to discuss your day. I’m also seeing people sharing recipes online and re-discovering their love for cooking, as highlighted by our film short, Cooking for Life.  Even in chaotic times, you can sustain community online and bring joy through sharing. Find what you care about and what brings you enjoyment. Then use social media – or even the telephone –  to connect with others to share your experiences.

A New Normal

When we come out of this, I am confident we will be better for having endured and even thrived with these challenges. I hope the emphasis we are placing on self-care, the skills we are sharing with one another, and the new connections we are making will continue to be a part of our lives after the pandemic. This is a fearful time for all of us, with shared emotional, mental, and financial pain. But we are all in this together and we don’t have to be alone.

Judith A. Salerno, MD, MS is president of the New York Academy of Medicine and a medical advisor for The TakeCare Campaign, a project of The Healthy US Collaborative.