At a time when supermarket shelves are looking bare and authorities are shutting down schools and borders, Canadians may find it challenging to remain calm.
What can you do to manage your anxiety and maintain your mental health during a pandemic? We asked experts for their advice:
It’s okay to be worried
Anxiety is a normal response to the current situation, says Tina Montreuil, assistant professor in the department of educational and counselling psychology at McGill University. And some of us may have a harder time coping than others, she says, since our usual freedoms and a lot of the control we typically have are restricted as schools, gyms, bars and workplaces close.
The first step is to tell yourself you need to accept there are things beyond your control, Dr. Montreuil says.
“You just have to let go,” she says. This may be easier said than done, but without taking this cognitive step, it’s harder to adopt behaviours and self-care measures that can help you cope, she says.
Public-health authorities are encouraging people to minimize their physical interactions with others, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t text, make phone calls and maintain contact with friends and family online.
Pick up the phone and call them, suggests Margaret Eaton, national chief executive officer of the Canadian Mental Health Association. Just talking to them and knowing they’re okay can help you feel better, she says. "Even if we can’t be close physically, we need to try to stay close emotionally.”
And if you’re looking to gain some control in an uncontrollable situation, helping others can be a good way to redirect your desire to take action, says Steven Taylor, professor and clinical psychologist in the department of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia. Offer to deliver groceries or provide social support to older individuals, he suggests.
Keep a routine
If you plan to sit on the couch, eating snacks and watching Netflix until this pandemic blows over, you’re going to get bored and irritable pretty quickly, Dr. Taylor warns.
“Most people underestimate how boring and stressful it can be to be in self-isolation,” he says, noting that if you’re confined in a small space with others, it’s important to plan with them what you’ll do when you start getting on each others’ nerves. (“When I’m cranky, I’m going into the other room, for example,” he suggests.)
Set a routine for yourself to give your days some structure, he says.
This includes self-care measures, such as making sure you eat healthfully, get enough sleep, exercise and get outdoors, Ms. Eaton says. Going outside and getting fresh air is important for your mental health, she says, and it can be done while still keeping a safe distance from others.
Keep things in perspective
Remind yourself that most people experience mild illness from the new coronavirus, Dr. Taylor says. “People will pull through, and this will end.”
Dr. Montreuil suggests attributing your thoughts to two imaginary coaches, one who catastrophizes and the other who provides a voice of reason. For example, the first coach may tell you we’re all going to catch the infection and it will be a disaster. That’s when you should think of what your second, more level-headed coach would say in response.
“Mindfully engage or activate Coach B. It’s not that Coach B says, ‘Coach A is wrong,’” she says. Rather: “Coach B is the one who’s saying, ‘Yeah, maybe that’s a possibility ... but it could also be that that’s not the case.’”
Avoid going down an internet rabbit hole
While you might intend to go online to get a quick update to stay informed, it can be easy to get lost in all the coverage about the pandemic, Dr. Taylor says. Before you know it, you’ve spent hours jumping from one story to the next and becoming more anxious than ever.
If you find that happening to you, limit your exposure to news and social media, he says.
Dr. Montreuil suggests setting aside specific times of the day to check the news, and stick to reputable sources of information. Otherwise, she says, take this time as a forced opportunity to connect with the things you enjoy, such as cooking, reading and spending time with your children.
When to seek help
If you find yourself feeling very irritable, snapping at others and having a hard time sleeping, these might be signs you can’t cope with your stress and anxiety on your own, Dr. Taylor says.
People may also need professional help if they’re the opposite of overly reactive – such as expressing cynicism, hopelessness and helplessness, Dr. Montreuil adds. The same goes for anyone who has trouble with daily functioning.
Where to find help:
The Canadian Mental Health Association has 75 branches across the country. Ms. Eaton suggests checking out the association’s website for online resources and contact information for your local branch. cmha.ca
The Canadian Psychological Association also has an online fact sheet with tips for coping with the new coronavirus and a list of who to contact to find a psychologist in your area.
If you are thinking about suicide or are worried about someone who is, call the Crisis Services Canada national line: 1-833-456-4566 or text 45645 (in Quebec, call: 1-866-277-3553). If the risk is immediate, call 9-1-1.
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