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Mental Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Mental Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic

A GUEST ENTRY FROM OUR FRIENDS AT THE HEALING COLLECTIVE (and meet guest authors and featured therapists Tobi Baker and Caitlin Beukema here!) –

So we’re all at home, distancing ourselves from others, hopefully working from home if possible but basically hibernating. To some, the idea of self-isolation or quarantine sounds luxurious.  An introverts’ dream! Maybe it feels like an opportunity to do all those things you just haven’t had time to get done. For others, the idea of indefinite isolation brings up worry and fear of varying intensities. 

Balancing work (in or out of the home), relationships, childcare (and you know being nurturing and stuff), and our own mental health can be like a precarious game of Jenga. And suddenly, rather than being broken up into (at times barely manageable) segments, these parts of our lives are being thrown into the figurative Jenga soup pot. What fun. 

There are plenty of memes out there poking fun at the complete-not-fun that social distancing will be. But, on a more serious and real note, what if the idea of social distancing is making you feel panicky? If your mental health Jenga block is already bearing too much weight or is causing other blocks to topple, this is more than just (really really) stressful. 

You probably know the things you are supposed to do to maintain good mental health; go for walks, spend time with friends, talk to your therapist, engage in self-care activities like yoga or massage. Suddenly these needed strategies are out of reach. 

Where does that leave you?

For social worker and psychotherapist Tobi Baker, reading the initial headlines about social distancing last week started to bring up panic and flashbacks of her maternity leave over five years ago. Thinking about being at home, alone, with her child, was reminding her of the detrimental effects of isolation in that period of her life. 

Tobi says, “The more stressed we become the more our brain moves into panic and survival mode. This sets off our sympathetic nervous system and can trigger fight, flight, freeze mode while simultaneously shutting down the thinking and logical parts of our brains.”

Many others, parents or not, may be feeling some of these things and Tobi notes how important it is, in addition to structure and routine, to have coping strategies to support and maintain our mental health during undeniably stressful times. So what can we do when regular go-to’s are out of reach? 

Both Tobi and social worker and psychotherapist Caitlin Beukema recommend self-compassion, alternatives to existing supports, and distress tolerance strategies.

Caitlin says, “We’re at the very beginning of these three (maybe more) weeks, where we have to manage everything all at once. This is definitely going to put pressure on us. It’s going to take time to start to figure out how to navigate it all. Give yourself some self-compassion in this time. Often, we can feel compassion for others more easily than for ourselves. Self-compassion at this point in time can be as simple as recognizing we are struggling, acknowledging the distress and asking ourselves- how can I comfort myself in this time? When we activate compassion, for ourselves and for others, we are recognizing that difficulties and stressors are all part of the shared human experience. This helps us to feel less alone.” 

And what about those emotional supports in your life who must now keep at a (minimum) 6 feet distance? Work phone calls, Skype parties, long-distance board games, and video-counseling into your routines. Even if it feels weird or inconvenient, staying connected is very important for our well-being, in this point and time and into the future. 

As the stress and pressure grow, both Tobi and Caitlin also recommend tapping into well-known distress tolerance strategies, particularly those that target the systems activated by stress and panic. One of simplest strategies is to control our breathing. This helps signal to our brain that we are safe and will help activate our parasympathetic nervous system, slow our heart rate, and bring our thinking back online. Even doing a quick breathing exercise (into your belly for four, exhale through your nose for six counts) can help bring down some chaotic energy as a whole.  It may even be helpful to work breathing exercises in your daily routine. 

Exercise is another evidence-based tool for physical and emotional regulation. Get outside whenever possible. Of course, take safety precautions, but do get out. Find sparsely populated spaces in your neighbourhood. Breathe in some fresh air, remind yourself that, in this very moment you are here, you are safe, this is temporary. Have a mindful pandemic. 

Finally, Tobi and Caitlin both recommend trying to re-frame the situation whenever the stress of isolation arises. It can be helpful to remind yourself of why you are doing what you are doing. You are protecting your neighbour, your community, those you know and those you don’t. You are making the brave choice to sacrifice for the greater good. Put that on your t-shirt.  

Having a phrase that grounds you can be helpful as well. Call it a coping thought or a mantra. But whatever it is, call on it when you need it.  Some ideas: “This is temporary”, “You are not alone”, “I’m doing the best I can”, “Take it one day at a time.” Find something to hold onto to focus on to keep thoughts from spiraling. Along the same lines, tapping into gratitude is another useful technique. Gratitude for what IS reminds us of all that we have, of the good that exists, and that we are not alone in this.

- photo credit: @straightuphealth.ca