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Personal Health Stories Of Emory Students Living And Learning Through The COVID-19 Pandemic

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

Editor’s Note: Over the past month, Destination HealthEU has featured student pieces from the 4th level track of Emory’s Health 1, 2, 3 Program within the Center for the Study of Human Health. You can access the 4th level series introduction article here. Starting this week, we will highlight personal stories of the Health 1,2,3 program’s Health 200 students as they grapple with the transition to online learning and prioritize their health amidst COVID-19. These stories were submitted as videos, and are described here. To access the article which introduces these personal stories, please click here. Read (and listen) on to hear what our students have to say about their health-related experiences during quarantine.

Featuring Emory student May Zhou

In her story, May shared how her life has been altered with the transition from in-person learning on Emory’s campus to moving back home for online learning as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the changes she faced, she was able to find solace in the health concepts provided to her in the Health 100 and 200 course content. Of the health topics presented to her in these two courses, there were two modules she identified as most beneficial for her personal health: nutrition and stress management.

Upon returning home to her old eating habits, May expressed concern about having a lack of structure regarding her food choices and how her diet impacts her health. After reviewing the nutrition content from Health 100 and 200, however, she was reminded of ways in which she can prioritize healthy food choices in an effort to boost her short- and long-term health. 

“Just knowing that eating things like fruits and vegetables and whole grains can really help me with my overall health, I started to practice that more in my everyday life and really make an active effort to eat healthily and eat foods that would nourish me.”

May Zhou

As she indicated in her recording, the reason why she decided to prioritize foods such as fruits and vegetables is for the natural chemicals they contain and their effects on one’s health. One such group of chemicals is known as phytochemicals, or phytonutrients. As students learn in Health 100 and 200, these small, but mighty compounds have been shown to reduce chronic inflammation and lower the risk of developing chronic diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease.[1]

Close up image of carrots and cauliflower on a white place against a white background.

Antioxidants are another type of chemical present in fruits and vegetables. Similar to phytochemicals, antioxidants provide our bodies with an enhanced defense system to neutralize damaging free radicals, which result from harmful stimuli such as pollution, smoking, saturated fats, and more.[2] By reducing the damage in which free radicals can inflict, antioxidants have also been found to reduce risk of chronic diseases, including diabetes and various neurodegenerative disease.[3]

Besides nutrition, May found the stress management module to be particularly helpful while adjusting to her new learning environment at home. In this module, students learn different ways in which the body responds to stress as well as techniques to cope with such stress. One technique that May has used to reduce her stress is mindfulness, which preventive health experts describe as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”[4]

“Being able to practice mindfulness and just having that moment-by-moment awareness… really helped me become more in tune with my feelings during this pandemic.”

May Zhou

Although May described the effects of mindfulness on her emotional wellbeing, the benefits of this technique are even more far-reaching. When mindfulness is incorporated in one’s daily life through intentional and sustained practice, it becomes mindfulness meditation.[4] Research on this systematic approach suggests that mindfulness meditation may provide health benefits such as increased immunity, decreased inflammation, and enhanced biological aging. Additional research from Emory University shows that symptoms of depression, social anxiety, and academic distress among college students were significantly reduced when mindfulness meditation is practiced in tandem with biofeedback, a technique that monitors your body’s physiologic functions, such as heart rate and temperature.[5] By engaging in this coping mechanism, May receives a multitude of benefits for both her health and her academic performance.

On the right of the image is the outline of a person sitting cross legged with their hands on their knews with fingers toughing. Behind the person is a body of water and mountains and the setting sun.

After learning the health benefits associated with healthful nutrition and stress management, it’s no wonder that Health 200 students continue to find these practices important to them after taking the course. As a future Peer Health Partner, May will serve as a peer-mentor in Health 100 as she facilitates discussion surrounding core health concepts and health promotion. This unique position will allow her the opportunity to instill the knowledge she has gained in Health 100 and 200 in her future freshmen class at Emory and share her experiences to positively influence their health as well.

References

1. Liu RH. Health benefits of fruit and vegetables are from additive and synergistic combinations of phytochemicals. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003;78(3 Suppl):517S-520S.

2. Huntington’s Outreach Project for Education, at Stanford. About Free Radical Damage. HOPES. https://hopes.stanford.edu/about-free-radical-damage/. Published June 2011. Accessed May 15, 2020.

3. Zhang YJ, Gan RY, Li S, et al. Antioxidant Phytochemicals for the Prevention and Treatment of Chronic Diseases. Molecules. 2015;20(12):21138-21156.

4. Black DS, Slavic GM. Mindfulness meditation and the immune system: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Annuals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 2016;1373(1):13–24.

5. Wyner DR. Pilot study of a university counseling center stress management program employing mindfulness and compassion-based relaxation training with biofeedback. Biofeedback. 2015;43:121-128.