Self Care in a Pandemic: Advice from Lesley Rennis, Chair of the BMCC Health Education Department

April 14, 2020

When it comes to “self care” — especially in the context of a staggering health crisis and while colleges navigate the switch to distance learning — Lesley Rennis, chair of the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY) Health Education Department, is a valuable resource for the BMCC community.

Before joining BMCC, Rennis worked as a research scientist with the Community Research Group at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. In that role, she researched health behaviors and designed public health programs to address social determinants of health. At BMCC, she continues to promote strategies for staying healthy — and she says we need “self care” now, more than ever.

“Self-care is simply taking care of yourself as much as possible as consistently as possible,” Rennis explains. “I like to think of it as practicing things that are good for me and bring me joy. For me, one of those things is cleaning. I love to clean, and to organize things. That might not be self care for someone else, but for me, it’s part of my arsenal of things to fight off stress.”

In the midst of a pandemic that has necessitated all BMCC courses to move to a distance learning format — and disrupted the lives of everyone in the college community — it is particularly important for faculty and others to consciously address their self care, Rennis says. 

“We’re suddenly working from home and trying to manage a whole new way of living,” she says. “We are traumatized and fearful. There are new demands on our time and shifting deadlines, and as we manage all that, we have to take care of our students, some of whom are struggling to hold it together, and all of whom need us more than ever.”

Bottom line, she says, “If you’re not taking care of yourself, you can’t step in and take care of the student whose parent is sick or who has lost her job or is struggling with the transition to distance learning. They’re relying on us to help them and we have to take care of ourselves so we can do that.”

Self care is holistic, and builds on habits

“You have to look at self care holistically,” Rennis says. “You have to take care of yourself in terms of exercise and movement, sleep, nutrition, and your spiritual, mental and emotional well being. Self care has a social component, too.”

She emphasizes that it’s important not to ignore any of those areas of self care.

“It’s tempting to just latch onto one that is the most comfortable or easiest for you, but in this time especially, when we’re facing real threats to our health and to the economy, and when we’re worried about our own families, it’s important to identify things you enjoy and look forward to doing each day,” she says. “Self-care should become a habit, not just something you do in times of crisis.”

Nutrition is a critical area to manage in a crisis as well as in ordinary times, and everyone approaches nutrition differently, Rennis says.

“For me, it’s not so much stress as being tired that gets me off track with nutrition,” she says. “Also, in this time of families being quarantined together, my mom is home all the time, so I’ve lost touch with some of my old eating habits and was just eating at night when she cooked.”

The solution, Rennis says, is to set a schedule for meals, and stick to it.

“Making sure I eat lunch every day as well as dinner, has been very important,” she says. “In fact, I like having a schedule for everything. For some people this might not work, they like more of a loose structure — but I need a schedule and a plan.”

The schedule she uses is not just for meals. “I have to have a regular sleep and wake pattern so I get the number of hours I need,” she says. “Plus I have a schedule for exercise which ironically has been harder to keep, now that I don’t have to be at an exercise class in the morning. I have to schedule my exercise time around Zoom meetings and class planning and interacting with students and colleagues.”

Rennis also notes that with increased time in front of a computer — a given, for distance teaching and learning, “I need more than just one exercise session a day. I need to have a walk, and I’ve been combining my walk with reaching out to family and friends from my phone while I’m walking.”

Another helpful habit of self care is to set goals and add challenges to the daily routine.

“Maybe your challenge is bringing your 20-minute daily walk up to 40 minutes,” she says. “For me, it’s yoga challenges I’m giving myself, like being able to do a headstand for one full minute.”

Meditation is another self care habit she finds essential to manage stress.

“I’ve picked back up on that since we’ve been working from home,” Rennis says. “The great thing is that a lot of tech companies have apps for meditation, as well as for deep breathing, which is great for anxiety. Head Space has partnered with New York State to provide free access to their app, and there are other free apps you can find just by checking your app store or podcasts.”

Finally, Rennis acknowledges that while the term “self-care” has become trendy recently, “It really should be a top priority for us all, especially during these times, and it should be simple. Move your body, get good sleep and eat good food. Make sure you get your medical and dental checkups every year. As a society these things shouldn’t be luxuries, we have to make wellness a priority for everyone, we have to make it easier to take care of ourselves and to take care of others.”

For more information, Rennis recommends these websites: Workwell NYC and for meditating, New York State of Mind. COVID-19 updates are also available on the BMCC website.


  • Health Education Chair Lesley Rennis says self-care is particularly important for educators now, as they meet the demands of a new schedule and way of teaching
  • Self care includes building habits for exercise and movement, sleep, nutrition, and spiritual, mental and emotional well being
  • By practicing self-care, faculty and staff are better able to work with students faced with pressing personal emergencies related to the virus

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