Dr. Diana Contreras, MD, Medical Director of OBGYN and Women’s Health at Atlantic Health System, talks about the importance of self-care after a stressful year-and-a-half that’s hit women especially hard.

New Jersey Family: How has the pandemic disproportionately impacted women’s health? Has there been a decrease in women getting their health screenings and caring for themselves?
Dr. Contreras: I think what’s happened is women have traditionally put their families first and put themselves at the end of the line. Women already had a lot on their plates and then all these other things happened with the pandemic. Women had to step away from the workforce more than men, women had to leave a lot of their previous roles and take on different roles. The stress from that has been tremendous. Now as the crisis is starting to dissipate, women will be left saying, ‘what happens to me?’

Self-care is so essential. We focus on the medical part of women’s health but there’s a lot of emotional self-care that needs to happen, too. People need to be kind to themselves.

As far as health screenings go, we have seen a drop off. From mammograms to even going to the dentist, it’s time to start taking care of you again.

New Jersey Family: Why is it important to get regular checkups with your gynecologist?
Dr. Contreras: When it comes to the GYN, everyone just thinks of the pap smear. But for a lot of women their GYN is their primary care physician.  The conversation should go beyond that of sexual health and reproduction. We need to empower women to talk about osteoporosis, breast health, anxiety and depression. It should encompass the whole woman, her emotional and medical needs.

New Jersey Family: The pandemic has taken an enormous toll on women’s sleep and other health issues. Are these things your GYN can assist with?
Dr. Contreras: Absolutely. For example, sleep is tied to stress and anxiety. If you’re depressed and/or anxious it can affect your sleep. Just feeling overwhelmed can affect your sleep. Perimenopause or menopause can also have an effect on sleep. This as well as other symptoms that can arise during this time, can be addressed by your GYN.

New Jersey Family: What would you advise women who are hesitant about getting the vaccine?
Dr. Contreras: We do know that millions of women have been fully vaccinated in the US and that it’s safe and effective. More and more data is available to help everyone make decisions about the vaccine. I think it’s really important that women get science-based information. There’s no science behind the whole idea of infertility and the vaccine. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine came out with a strong statement that the vaccine does not cause infertility.

Although women have reported irregular periods after the vaccine and it’s not exactly clear if there’s a correlation. They’re beginning to look at that and we need more information.

New Jersey Family: What is your number one piece of advice for women who are caregivers in terms of taking care of their own health after this past year-and-a-half?
Dr. Contreras: It’s been a very stressful year so women need to be patient with themselves. You don’t have to do everything today. Give yourself time. There are healthy things you can do that helps us all stay even keeled.

Make a list of which appointments and screenings you missed over the last year. If you need to get a mammogram or a colonoscopy don’t schedule them all the same week. It’s ok to spread them out.

Start with small goals. Make an inventory about your health, then start working on that list slowly. Small goals like beginning to walk for exercise can have a huge impact. Let’s not add more stress to our lives. We all need to be kind to each other and to ourselves.

Dr. Diana Contreras is an innovative, solutions-driven leader with a focus on implementing system-wide clinical programs and quality initiatives in women’s health. Striving to achieve cultural change and transformational goals, Dr. Contreras is improving women’s health care in her dual role as chairman of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women’s Health at both Morristown Medical Center and Atlantic Health System