Preserving your mental wellness during a pandemic

Many of us are feeling the effects of hunkering down at home as we abide with physical distancing measures in order to minimize exposure to the COVID-19 virus. While some restrictions have been eased, many remain so that we can be safe.

If you’re telecommuting because of physical distancing measures, you’re probably missing the camaraderie of your co-workers. If you’re working from home and also trying to juggle parenting and homeschooling kids because schools and most childcare centres have shut down, your mental wellness may be more at risk, as may the mental wellness of those who have lost their jobs because of the pandemic. 

“We are all experiencing a massive change in our lives and our usual routines. For some of us, this change is merely a change in our usual activities and adapting to working from home, but for others, the change has come with lost jobs and lost income. The level of worry and fear for these individuals can be overwhelming. This is compounded by the fact that the change in our lives is caused by an infectious illness that can be fatal,” says Dr. Kay Wilson, a psychologist with the Misericordia Community Hospital

A recent poll conducted by human resources consultant group Morneau Shepell found that 81 per cent of the Canadians they surveyed felt their mental health had been impacted by COVID-19. The Canadian Mental Health Association is also warning of the risk of an “echo pandemic” of mental illness and mental health issues.

The mental health impacts, Kay adds, are greater for our vulnerable populations, including older adults, adolescents and those with pre-existing mental health conditions, and it’s these individuals who are also at risk for suicidal ideation.  

An effective way to overcome the stresses amplified by the pandemic is to build our resilience by adapting in a positive way to cope with adversity. And the good news is that the majority of us are already inherently resilient — whether we know it or not — albeit in varying degrees.

“Happily, most people are quite resilient, and since resilience is not an all-or-nothing proposition, we can build resilience by focusing on a few key elements, such as connection and physical and mental wellness, as well as by finding meaning during this challenging time,” says Kay.

Keep a routine

Routine provides structure and purpose. Try to set a schedule and stick to it. Rise and shine as you would on a normal day and resist the temptation to stay in bed longer than you should. Keep separate spaces for work and relaxation and maintain them accordingly. If you’re working, set up a structure to frame your day, interspersed with occasional breaks. If your schedule is flexible, make it interesting and creative. Carve out some time for chores, play and activities with children. By planning out your day or week according to your current circumstances, you’ll feel more efficient and experience a personal sense of well-being knowing that you haven’t squandered your time away. 

Eat healthy and be active

It’s OK to indulge in some junk food during this difficult time, but we know eating too much is not sustainable. In times of stress, your body needs essential nutrients and vitamins, which should be complemented with some physical activity to get your heart pumping and positive endorphins flowing to counter the effects of being more sedentary while at home. What the physical activity looks like is entirely up to you: it could be a walk in the park or a family dance party in your living room.

Stay connected

It’s easy to feel lonely and isolated when we are expected to stay home most of the time, so it’s important to reconnect with people — virtually. Try to reach out to someone at least once a day through FaceTime, Skype, Messenger, Zoom, phone calls or text messages. Don’t forget to make virtual connections available for your kids as well, since they are probably missing their friends too. And remind them that this situation is only temporary. 

Guard your mindset

It’s easy to get caught up in the barrage of information about the pandemic coming from news reports and social media. While it’s good to be in the know, it’s not productive to be checking your phone every hour, which can keep you in a heightened state of alert. Find a few trusted sources that you can check consistently but also limit your intake there. Be mindful that children observe and absorb your behaviour and actions and that this is already a very confusing time for them.  

Be kind 

A lot of time spent being cooped up inside in close quarters may not bring out the best in people — think of a caged animal. Be mindful of how you are feeling, especially when you feel your emotions rising. Remember, people handle stress differently, and some may be struggling harder to cope with what’s happening. “Being kind to others can create the opportunity for others to witness kindness, which cultivates the spreading of positive emotion,” says Kay.  

Manage, even lower, your expectations

We are doing too many things at this time under fear, uncertainty and stress, so cut yourself some slack and tell yourself that things do not have to be perfect. Practice what psychologists call “radical self-acceptance,” which is accepting everything about yourself, your current situation and your life without question, blame or pushback. You cannot fail at this. There is no road map, no precedent, and we are all truly doing the best we can.

Access treatment and support

We understand this is hard. If you are having difficulty coping, reach out for help. Whether you are feeling displaced through the effects of isolation, overwhelmed by homeschooling your children, depressed about your financial situation or all of the above, there are mental health people ready to help and support you through this crisis.

Where to get help

Mental Health Helpline: 1.877.303.2642

Kids Help Phone: 1.800.668.6868

Income Supports: 1.866.644.5135

Canada Emergency Response Benefit: 1.800.959.2019 or 1.800.959.2041

Health Link: 811

Addiction Helpline: 1.866.332.2322

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