Mental health tips and resources to help you cope

While much is still unknown about COVID-19, one thing is certain: it is an unparalleled situation for everyone around the world.

This pandemic is taking a toll on lives, the economy, our social lives and also on our mental health. Dr. Susan Abbey, Psychiatrist-in-Chief at UHN’s Centre for Mental Health, says it is important that we all take some time to remember that these are exceptional times.

“These are difficult times, and it is okay to feel stressed, we need to remember that,” says Dr. Abbey. “I think one important message that applies to everyone is – be kind to yourself.”

During this pandemic, there are many articles and, of course, social media posts and videos with directions on what to do to keep busy and protect our mental health. And although a lot of it is useful, a good idea is to take in only what works for us. We all have different minds, bodies and lives and what is helpful for some is either not helpful or harmful for others.

“Don’t let yourself get caught up in comparisons on social media – who reads more, who takes better care of their kids, who exercises the most,” says Dr. Abbey.

She shares with us some ideas of how to cope in these times of physical distancing, but reinforces that they are just suggestions and that it is important to recognize if you need help. Scroll to the bottom of this post for some suggested resources that are available across Canada.

Five tips for self-care during COVID-19

  1. Limit your exposure to social media and news if it has a negative effect on you. Stay away from online chatter if you feel worse after consuming media, or consciously follow it with a “chaser” of something cheerful and positive.
  2. Physically distance yourself from others by staying two metres (six feet) apart, but don’t socially distance. During this time, it is important to keep in touch with the people in your life. Connect every day with at least one person. Do a good deed and reach out to people you know who have less social connections than you do, and check in with them. Online networking platforms are great for holding virtual dinners, coffee or drinks with friends or family.
  3. Practice the “STOP” mnemonic when you are stressed: Stop, Take a breath, Observe what is happening, Proceed with a helpful action. For example, if you snap at your daughter while running out to buy groceries, stop and take a breathObserve and assess your situation (e.g. questioning if the long list of grocery items that your daughter added are really necessary; anxiety about getting in and out of the store as quickly as possible). Proceed by recognizing that your fear has the upper hand, but the grocery store staff are doing their best to keep things clean and safe; your daughter just wants some normalcy back in her life. Apologize to her and label your own irritation as secondary to fear, negotiate an agreed upon list, smile and thank the grocery clerks, and after leaving the store wash your hands with sanitizer and again at home.
  4. Prioritize getting a good night’s sleep. This is challenging for those with insomnia, but following good sleep hygiene can really help. Set regular sleep and wake times; sleep in a cool, quiet, dark bedroom; stop using a screen (phone, TV, computer, tablet) within an hour of winding down for bed; and if you are simply unable to sleep, or cannot fall back to sleep, get up and do something boring to try and encourage your body and mind to calm down.
  5. Be open to trying a variety of calming techniques. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to finding virtual resources to encourage relaxation, meditation, or mindfulness. Search on Google or YouTube to check out a variety of different practices and see what works to calm your mind and body. A good starting point might be the Mindful Awareness Research Centre, the 10 Per Cent Happier Coronavirus Sanity Guide, and meditation apps such as CALM and Headspace. Remember that meditation doesn’t equal relaxation. Often meditating is quite challenging as it allows us to become more familiar with the intimate workings of our minds and our bodies, so do not get frustrated if this approach does not work right away. It can take time, so above all else, be kind to yourself.

Below is some advice from Dr. Abbey on how to cope with isolation, and managing relationships, parenting, work and stress:

How can I cope with the feeling of imprisonment?

  • If you’re not required to be in isolation, go for a short walk outside (keeping the six-feet distance from others).
  • Go to your backyard or balcony, or even put your head out the window a little bit. If you don’t have a window that opens, perhaps just looking out the window might help.
  • Take a moment once a day to remind yourself why we are all staying inside – to protect others, our loved ones and all the hard-working healthcare professionals and essential workers.

How should I deal with loneliness, especially if I live alone?

  • Extend your world using technology, keep connected to friends and family, and even create new connections.
  • If you don’t know how to use technology to stay connected, Google directions or talk to young folks – they know all about new technologies and how to use them.
  • Create a list of two or three different people you can check on every day, so you have a social routine and also feel helpful to others.

How can I protect my close relationships, with a partner, parent, or children living with me?

  • Even healthy relationships can feel the impact of suddenly spending 24 hours of every day together.
  • A good idea is to give yourself some alone time – go for a walk, a nice bubble bath, read a book in your room.
  • Take time to check in with people living with you, talk about your feelings, fears and anxieties.
  • Try to build some small pleasure into every day that you can share.
  • Remind yourself that everyone is doing the best they can so you’re kinder to yourself and others.

How can I help my kids understand what’s going on?

  • Try to use age-appropriate language to explain what’s happening without frightening them. Provide realistic reassurance that they are safe, as are you, and that the situation will improve with time.
  • Ask them to share what they think and how they feel.
  • Art can be a very helpful avenue for them to express their feelings. Try drawing together, or painting, using clay, Play-Doh – whatever feels good.
  • Parents working from home have a particularly challenging time, especially if they are trying to support online education of their kids. One of the most important things parents can do is to focus on loving and caring for their child(ren) right now so that they came through this as emotionally healthy as possible.
  • Also remember to be kind and forgiving with yourself as a parent. We’re all trying our best and these are exceptional times, so if you feel like you need to give them some more screen time to get through the day for example, that’s okay too.

If I’m out of work, how do I keep a sense of purpose?

  • This is difficult as it adds to our stress with financial worries. Remind yourself that this is an exceptional situation and apply for government support programs. We all need that social safety net at some point in our lives.
  • Repeat to yourself that this is not going to last forever; it will get better.
  • For everyone this is important, but especially if you are out of work, try to keep a routine. Having a consistent wake up time and bedtime is a good idea.
  • Exercise is of great help: it reduces stress hormones and helps with a healthy routine. Several free videos online can help you exercise at home.

For healthcare and other essential workers – How can I cope with the risks I take daily, for myself and loved ones living with me?

  • Have your step-by-step safety routine to “decontaminate” yourself at work and upon returning home, it will help you feel in control and know you’re doing your part to mitigate the risks.
  • Try to find a balance, understanding you can’t control everything.
  • For healthcare workers, especially if you’re at the frontlines, try to keep the disease in perspective. Remember you see the worst cases of COVID-19, so you have a skewed perception of the risks. Try to remind yourself that the vast majority of cases don’t require people to come to hospital.

Where can I find help?

For some of us, the stress of the pandemic may reactivate previous mental health issues that have settled or become well-controlled. If this is the case, then reaching out to a professional to see what can be done to help re-stabilize is essential. If you develop new or pervasive feelings of sadness, anxiety or other mental health problems, most family physicians, registered psychotherapists, psychologists and psychiatrists are providing virtual care by a telehealth computer platform or phone. Below are some suggested resources for anyone facing mental health challenges in the face of this pandemic:

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