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Mental health in the time of COVID-19

Strategies to mitigate the effects of long-term stress caused by the pandemic


April 30, 2021
By Treena Hein

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Zimmytws / iStock/Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

Many aspects are still unknown about the COVID-19 pandemic, but one thing is certain – it’s had a mostly negative effect on our mental health. Isolation, financial stress, worries about our health, the health and financial situations of loved ones, feelings of helplessness and lack of control, worry about the future – the list of stressors from this pandemic is long. There is good news, however, in that there are many effective strategies available for protecting and nurturing our mental health. But first, let’s look at a few measurements.

In its Mental Health Index for Canada published in December 2020, HR company Morneau Shepell notes that for the last nine consecutive months, the mental health of Canadians has been “significantly lower” than prior to the pandemic. “The level of mental health in December continues to be a concern as it indicates that the working population is currently as distressed as the most distressed one per cent of working Canadians, prior to 2020,” state the report authors. Respondents surveyed are 95 per cent employed, although some have experienced drops in pay due to the pandemic, and they also represent different racial groups and locations across Canada (see sidebar for more).

Another pandemic-era study by Mental Health Research Canada shows similar results. “Levels of anxiety and depression are still, respectively, four times and two times pre-pandemic levels,” and, “the proportion of Canadians reporting high depression doubled following the COVID outbreak and remains at this level.” Among other results Statistics Canada reported in October, the agency noted that “those reporting poor mental health are up to four times more likely to report increased substance use since the pandemic began.”

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The big picture
The first thing to understand about mental health and this pandemic is that the effects are serious. Manitoba-based Marriage and Family Therapist Elan Jury explains that, “COVID-19 is an uncertainty. We don’t know when it will end and what the outcome will be. This is a collective, prolonged trauma, and with that sort of situation, the naturally-wired human stress response of ‘fight, flight or freeze’ gets stuck in overdrive, because there’s no way to escape the stressor. At the same time, we need to realize we are grieving. We are grieving the loss of normal life, loss of connection, in some cases, loss of jobs and other aspects of our lives.”

Under chronic, traumatic stress, there are a few important strategies to consider. One is to use our innate ability for stress management to flexibly regulate our stress response throughout the day.
“We need to learn to tune into ourselves and how to listen to our nervous systems and bodies to determine what they need,” Jury explains. “Everyone is different, and your body will tell you. For instance, if you feel unsettled and jittery, perhaps you need to do an activity like walking or yoga to discharge the flight response. If you’re feeling lethargic and having trouble concentrating, perhaps you need to unwind through deep breathing or having a nap.”

Of course, looking after the body that houses our nervous system is also critical. Watch your diet and explore the benefits of taking Omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins and other supplements related to brain function, stress and mood. Get regular exercise and watch your sleep. Avoid drugs and alcohol. Explore deep breathing and other ways of calming your parasympathetic nervous system.

Reach out to a therapist as needed or desired. Understand that signs of stress are much broader than are generally realized, and can include changes to sleep patterns, inability to concentrate, worsening of existing health problems and much more. Use a crisis line if you need to.

Going online
The internet provides a wealth of mental health resources – countless articles, anonymous discussion boards, groups, and resources related to meditation, exercise, hobbies and activities, from virtual choirs to learning a new language.

However, at the same time, the internet also provides a steady stream of information on pandemic case numbers, economic indicators and so on. Jury notes that receiving a constant stream of updates isn’t the wisest course.

“It’s likely ok to receive updates less often,” she says. “Wean yourself to longer intervals without them. Get used to unplugging for periods of time, especially before bed. Also, take a close look at what information you currently receive that is actually useful or beneficial to you.”

Connections critical
We can also regulate our stress response to this pandemic through nurturing our connections with others. Jury advises us to start noticing how much we are actually connecting with the people who are important to us, to offer and receive support, laugh at life, celebrate achievements and brainstorm ideas to deal with challenges. Then, work to increase our level of actual connection.

“Even quick check-ins make a big difference,” she says. “You’ll begin to see that strengthened connections really do help reduce feelings of overwhelm and isolation.”

However, tailor your connection as much as you can. “You may be being asked to participate in many Zoom calls with family and friends and that can be difficult for some people if it’s too often,” Jury notes. “Perhaps individual phone calls are what work for you or getting together for a physically-distant walk where possible. Your needs might not be the same as others, so you need to respect that but also respectfully communicate your own needs. It’s also important to recognize that your body will tell you when connection with others is too much. Sometimes you need to say ‘no’ if you do not have the capacity to be with others.”

For the long haul
As this pandemic continues, Jury’s parting advice is to be gentle with ourselves. “If you’re having a hard time coping or getting motivated, don’t beat yourself up,” she says. “Give yourself permission to take things day by day and be kind to yourself. Nourish yourself. It’s hard to think about the future, so try and pay more attention to the things that are in your present moment that bring you joy. Zero-in on the meaningful things and moments we don’t normally pay much attention to. This will help us feel anchored and not be as focussed on what may happen in the future.”

Treena Hein is an award-winning Canadian science, technology and industry business trends writer.

This article was originally published in the January/February 2021 issue of PrintAction.