‘Food helps’: The coping strategies getting people through quarantine in Italy

'Food helps': The coping strategies getting people through quarantine in Italy
Culinary coping: not just eating but preparing food can help you stay calm. Photo: Photo: Unsplash/Max Delsid
For those struggling with lockdown in Italy right now - or the prospect of it elsewhere - reader Jeff Wilson describes how he and fellow teachers in Milan are coping with the situation.

Our minds and bodies are wired to resist change. So it should come as no surprise that we are all struggling to deal with the drastic adjustments to our lifestyles these days

I awoke on Wednesday morning to the news that outdoor exercise is now forbidden in Milan. Until that point, I felt like I had been adapting sufficiently to the quarantine restrictions, but my body stiffened upon reading this new edict in the Lombardy region

Even residents with dogs can go no further than 200 meters from their homes? Felony charges and 5,000 euro fines? It seemed the walls of the room began closing in on me. 

READ ALSO: Why the coronavirus quarantine rules aren't always the same around Italy

For me and my wife, daily runs, walks and/or bicycle rides have been the release valves on the quarantine pressure cooker. Where will the steam go? I thought.  Will my contents end up dripping from the walls? My wife’s hand was on my arm, “We’ll figure this out. We can turn our living room into a gym.” 

I was especially thankful for her at that moment and I realized how much we are all going to rely on each other to weather this storm.

Change and stress are inevitable parts of life, but the isolation, invisible threat and daily onslaught of grim numbers make this situation exceptional. And all the average person can do is try to cope. As an average person and teacher at an international school in Milan, I usually have the benefit of a strong community to rely on. That rug has been pulled out from beneath me with our forced isolation. 

So, I reached out to my colleagues (digitally, of course) to prop up a virtual replacement rug. I asked for strategies for coping and silver linings. Some included their biggest struggles as well. Being teachers and/or parents, most of them revolved around helping children deal with the unknown, when it is unknown for us. 

As for coping and silver linings, here are some of the things I gathered:   

Food helps. Not just eating it; more so, preparing it.

An overwhelming majority of people mentioned cooking or baking as either a coping strategy and/or a silver lining. Several studies suggest mindfulness-based practices can play a role in the treatment of anxiety.

Because cooking engages multiple senses, it can be a form of mindfulness. The focus and rhythm of chopping or stirring can help soothe anxiety and the mental energy required to follow a recipe can help keep our minds off the bad news on social media. And then there is the smell of vegetables sautèeing along with the snap of hot oil jumping from the pan. It all combines into a wonderful distraction. 

To help encourage culinary coping, one of my colleagues started a Facebook group called Quarantine Cuisine where members post pictures of meals they have created, often including the recipe. It keeps us inspired, connected… and hungry.

Employees pose at a bakery in Rome on March 23. Photo: AFP

On the heels of food preparation as a go-to coping strategy are home improvement and cleaning.

I suspect most of our apartments are cleaner than they have ever been (don’t feel bad if yours is dirtier). Some are lucky enough to have a small garden or a space to do some woodwork. Others have been painting walls, rearranging furniture or simply scrubbing their bathtub rigorously enough to comfortably take a bubble bath.

And this bubble bath may be the last entry on a to-do list. In response to the relative lack of structure, many find writing out a daily schedule with times blocked out for particular tasks and activities helps. Indeed, lack of control is something we are all facing at this time, so any chance we can get to regain command over our days is beneficial. 

Sometimes it’s as easy as writing out a list. For most of us, part of this list includes teaching classes as part of the distance learning program implemented by our school. By and large, we are thankful for the structure this creates for our days and for the opportunity it provides for us all to help each other become more technology-literate, whether we wanted to or not.  

Yoga and meditation are also high on the list of strategies to help our minds, bodies and souls stay in the game.

Personally, this is an example of a silver lining created from one of my biggest struggles. Normally, my wife and I would start the day with a run, but we were forced to adapt. Thus, yoga found its way into our lives, where I now realize it has been sorely needed.

Photo:Jonathan Borba/Unsplash

Along the same lines, many have discovered creative ways to work out indoors

Youtube channels like “Redefining Strength” and apps like Peloton are some favorites for finding effective home workouts. 

READ ALSO: 'Dance to a bit of music': Italy's official advice for keeping fit under quarantine

You could put all of these coping strategies under the heading, “Ways to Avoid the News” since this was another key tip from my colleagues. 

There seems no better way to feel a lack of control than to read and/or watch the news extensively. So, check a reliable source for necessary information and then get back to chopping, scrubbing, painting or facetiming.

Connecting with family and friends is perhaps the number one combined coping strategy and silver lining.  With more time at home, we are finding more time to connect with loved ones, which is comforting and uplifting. Perhaps the most significant unexpected silver lining is reconnecting with friends we may not have heard from since high school or university. 

Because we are currently in the epicenter of this crisis, many friends have been coming out of the woodwork to see how we are doing. I’d like to quote one colleague who said, “I have reconnected with a bunch of people who think that Italy is like the Titanic sinking right before it snaps in half.”

Some commented on how this pandemic has generally brought people together, obviously with the help of technology.

Many of the people we are connecting with live in the US or in Great Britain, so this also carries the weight of one of the biggest struggles: Worrying about these people who are worrying about us, especially parents who are in the vulnerable age-range for this virus, living in countries where the leadership seems slow to act with conviction. 

So, back to avoiding the news. I don’t mean to be flippant or encourage head-in-the-sand behavior but worrying does not help, and the best thing we can do is to stay as healthy as we can, mentally, physically and emotionally. 

We can help each other do this. As alarming as it may seem to our loved ones reading the news in another country, we are not the Titanic. We will sail out of this stronger and more appreciative of each other than ever. 

Speaking of helping, here are few sites to check if you are interested and able to donate in whatever way you can:


READ ALSO: Italians set up fundraisers for hospitals and rally amid the coronavirus crisis


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