MAINTAINING MENTAL HEALTH DURING THE PANDEMIC
"This is a difficult time. It’s ok to have problems adjusting, to feel afraid or worried or upset or resentful. Forgive yourself if you make mistakes."
by Maureen Pollard,
Emotional Health Editor
Maureen Pollard, MSW, RSW is a registered social worker with a private practice in Cobourg, Ontario.
Slowing the spread of Covid-19 has been a critical focus since the virus emerged and there’s little doubt it will continue to affect decision-making for quite a while. Restrictions have really changed the way we live and work, with more change likely to come. People are facing dynamic challenges, and while each situation is unique there are universal themes. Read on for some tips on how you can navigate the pandemic and take care of your mental well-being.
CHANGE OF ROUTINE
Early this year, schools were closed and activities such as sports competitions, theatre performances and music concerts were postponed or cancelled. Suddenly everyone's calendars were empty and the weeks stretched out ahead of us looking long, lonely and boring. Many parents began working at home, having to adjust to using new technology and balancing work and home life moment to moment like never before. Students found themselves suddenly without the regular routines of school and extracurricular activities.
Coping with family or roommates isn’t always easy, even in the best of times. While maintaining self-isolation to slow the spread of the virus, tensions can really run high. If someone in the family isn’t doing well, it can really impact everyone in the home. This is true whether it is parents, youth or a roommate who is struggling.
Human beings are wired to connect with one another. This is true whether you are an extrovert, who happily gathers with others to feel energized, or an introvert, who steals away for some alone time to recharge. People who are extroverts were probably feeling out of sorts right away as things were cancelled, but even introverts are likely feeling the pinch of loneliness after so many days of physical distancing.
Anxiety is on the rise. As we take in social media images and see conflicting views in news reports, it is quite natural to feel anxious. Anxiety is a natural part of our internal warning system that helps us notice danger. It can be hard to feel safe when there is a risk of catching a virus that is easily spread and can cause significant illness. It wouldn’t be unusual to worry about whether you’ve developed Covid-19 any time you sniffle or cough.
Restrictions related to the pandemic mean many common ceremonies and events can’t take place right now because it just isn’t safe for crowds to gather. Students are missing prom and graduation. Performances have been cancelled for musicians and actors. Athletes are missing tournaments and important seasons. Families who experience a death may be unable to hold their usual rituals to mourn the passing of a loved one and celebrate a life. Family gatherings for holidays and celebrations have been moved on-line.
Many people will mourn the loss of these opportunities as we move through these days, weeks and months. These challenges are compounded by the uncertainty of when we might get back to “normal” life, and even the question of whether we will get back to what we knew as normal before. While its true that we can’t predict just how the future will unfold and what it will be like, there are a few things we can do to strengthen our mental health and help ensure we are ready for whatever comes next.
MAINTAIN PHYSICAL HEALTH
Take good care of your body with good nutrition and hydration. Make sure you exercise and get fresh air daily. Avoid substances such as caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and other drugs that may have a negative impact on your immune system as well as your overall health and general mood. Aim to get 7-9 hours of sleep daily.
IDENTIFY, FEEL, AND EXPRESS YOUR FEELINGS
It is normal to feel fear, sadness, confusion, anxiety, frustration, loneliness, anger, regret, resentment and many other difficult feelings when you are isolated from friends and thrown out of your regular habits into a world of uncertainty.
It is also normal to feel comfort, pleasure, relief, satisfaction, happiness and many other positive feelings when such a swift and dramatic change allows you to retreat from situations that were causing problems.
All feelings are normal, and they flow through us like water flows over a riverbed. If you try to push feelings down or block them, they will keep bubbling up until they find a way to be expressed. It’s ok to let yourself feel and express the full range of your feelings.
BUILD A NEW ROUTINE
With the sudden ending of your usual activities, it can be difficult to get into a routine. It’s easy to stay up late reading, playing video games and watching movies or chatting on-line with other night owls, making it tough to wake up early and be productive during daylight hours.
While it’s true that your schedule may shift, it is worthwhile to develop a routine that includes some tasks you enjoy and some you do because they’re an important part of your health and well-being. It may be that you spend some time doing chores to help around the house. Perhaps you take up a new hobby, or dive into something you have always enjoyed but didn’t have time to really explore.
TAKE TECHNOLOGY BREAKS
Video games can be fun. Social media is interesting and helps us feel connected to others. Videos entertain us. If that’s all we’re doing, though, we can develop a very narrow focus and this can contribute to anxiety. Plan breaks: charge your phone in the kitchen overnight, take a 24-hour break from any social media or give yourself time away from screens. This will help you clear your head and keep a broader focus in your life.
PRACTICE CLEAR, CALM COMMUNICATION
When things are changing as swiftly as they have, and then as things feel drawn out as long as physical distancing and isolation have been, it can be easy to lose your cool and say things in a harsh way. Try to keep calm and take a few deep breaths before you speak when you feel upset. Think about what’s really bugging you before you shout at your housemates about something small. If it’s something big you need to talk about, wait until you have thought it out and can talk about it without getting so upset you might say something you regret. Try starting difficult conversations focused on your feelings, rather than trying to pinpoint the problem or lay blame.
PRACTICE SELF-COMPASSION AND FORGIVENESS
This is a difficult time. It’s ok to have problems adjusting, to feel afraid or worried or upset or resentful. Forgive yourself if you make mistakes. You are doing the best you can, and that is all each of us can do as we work through the challenges that come with living in a pandemic. Extend this compassion and forgiveness to others in your life. They are doing their best, too.
Seek out ways you can offer kindness to others. Perhaps you can do a favour to help someone in your home. Maybe there is a chore or task you can do for a neighbour to lighten their load on a day when you have time and energy. Perhaps there is something your community needs, that you can help provide; many people are sewing face masks or building face shields, and there is always litter that can be picked up while you’re out for a walk.
PRACTICE RESILIENT THINKING
Be flexible in your approach to problem-solving. When you can adapt to the situation you find yourself in, you are better able to see your needs and work to meet them rather than let your fear and other emotions hold you in a rigid pattern of behaviour.
CONTROL WHAT YOU CAN
There are many things in life we cannot control. As humans, it’s quite natural to want to control our surroundings, our experiences and our future. In order to maintain our best mental health, it’s important to recognize what is in our control, and to set our sights on that target zone. You may not be able to decide when and how schools will be open again, but you can choose to engage in active learning through books and internet resources. You may not be able to see others in person right now, to dance with them or hug them, but you can connect through text and videos and even old-fashioned snail mail. Write a short, fun letter telling your friend what you miss about them and how you look forward to the future when you can hang out again. Add a sketch if you feel like it. Drop it in the mail and them to return the favour.
No matter what is happening in the world, including the challenging circumstances during a pandemic, there are many ways you can take charge of your own well-being and maintain your mental health. At Inspire, we believe you can!
BE INFORMED AND KNOW THE FACTS
Make sure you get your information from a trusted source such as the government of Canada’s public health website.
We also have a section specific to COVID-19 on our Resources page, here.