To borrow from Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” To many of you watching the mainstream media, today might feel like the worst of times multiplied by the worst of times.
COVID-19 has created a new challenge for us as a society. As we try to fend off the health impact of this virus, industry has been crippled (retail and the hospitality industry for starters) and there has been a surge of secondary losses that may leave you feeling anxious, lonely, and without hope. Some of the losses you may be experiencing include:
- Social Disconnect: We are told to practice social distancing (and in some countries, confinement or isolation), which is in direct contrast to our human need for social connection.
- Restricted entertainment: We are told to stay home which conflicts with our desire (and essential need) for distraction.
- Curtailed plans: We are faced with the cancellation of travel, events, and get-togethers. Graduations, weddings, and even funerals are being delayed to accommodate social distancing.
- Loss of disposable income: Many of us may already be living paycheque to paycheque. With many people losing shifts, they may struggle to pay their bills. There is no foreseeable end in sight, which can lead to increased levels of anxiety.
- Economic uncertainty and lack of control: As our stores and services shutter their doors, we are faced with an economic impact that is unparalleled. People are facing job losses and losses of benefits at a time when we just want to resume a sense of “normalcy.”
This is an unprecedented time – no one alive today was part of the 1918-19 pandemic and few of us have experienced this level of crisis. When one day you are working and the next you awake facing turmoil and uncertainty, you may find yourself feeling a sense of hopelessness.
Whoever you are, and whatever your situation is, know that YOUR anxiety and feelings are valid. Also, remember that you are not alone! Rest assured, there is hope. We will get through this because humanity is resilient and we have the capability to find balance, support each other, and to restore our communities. Although we cannot control the virus, there are things we can control to help us and our families in the present moment.
- 1. Take care of your physical health.
Everyone is being told to take care of themselves to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and this becomes especially important when faced with anxiety and loss. Loss causes grief. Grief is already challenging to our bodies by disturbing our sleep, decreasing (or increasing) our appetite, and creating pain. Grief may interfere with our motivation to exercise and cause us to neglect personal hygiene. You can start feeling better by taking little steps to improve and maintain your physical wellness. (Feel free to add other ideas that work for you!)
- Have a warm bath with Epsom salts to relieve body aches (Epsom salts are readily available at your local grocer or pharmacy)
- Eat small amounts of healthy foods more frequently (especially fresh fruits and vegetables)
- Brush your teeth
- Have a warm cup of tea or another favourite beverage (staying hydrated is very important)
- Go for a walk outdoors (even a walk once around the block is beneficial)
- Rest when tired (and don’t feel guilty about it!)
- Maintain a regular bedtime, but don’t fret if you don’t fall asleep
- 2. Take care of your emotional and spiritual health.
The more losses we suffer, the more anxious we become. The more anxious we become, the more out of control you may feel. Anxiety is our evolutionary reaction to threat. Anxiety causes a “fight or flight” reaction in your body. We can help regain equilibrium by bringing our body back to a relaxed state. Here are several strategies that may help you to restore your balance.
- Spiritual Care: This isn’t necessarily about your religion (although it can be). Maintaining spiritual wellness is about attending to the needs of your soul. A crisis such as the one caused by COVID-19 often initiates queries about the meaning of life and other existential questions. We may struggle with our faith or lose hope for a joyful future. Again, it is important to remain gentle and compassionate with yourself. Mindfulness may be beneficial. Jon Kabot Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention, on purpose, to the present moment, without judgement.” Mindfulness can be used to befriend one’s anxiety. Anxiety means well, it is trying to keep you from threat, but when it turns into panic, it is operating on overload. Practicing meditation or engaging in prayer can help to settle one’s mind.
- Discover hope in little moments of pleasure. Listen for the sound of birds, buy some flowers, take a virtual tour of a museum, play some music, eat some chocolate, have a bubble bath. Life holds many simple joys just waiting to be discovered.
- Get dressed, make your bed, do your hair and makeup, embrace the day as if you have no worries (your mind will thank you for it!).
- Exercise: The hormones involved in fight or flight cause your heart to race and your breathing to change. Your large muscles become ready to work, while your digestive system shuts down (which is why your bowel habits may change). Exercises can help burn off those stress hormones and bring the body back to a resting state. When feeling stressed, a walk or run may be helpful. Even stretching at home can restore a sense of equilibrium.
- Journal: If you love to write, put your thoughts down on paper. Anxiety (and other unpleasant emotions) like to be acknowledged. Putting things in writing may serve to get the thoughts and feelings out of you and free your mind up for more pleasant thoughts.
- Let yourself cry (it’s okay to do this, and it’s also okay if you don’t feel like crying).
- Engage in uplifting or silly forms of entertainment such as movies, books, or old home videos.
- Do something creative – try something new like painting or knitting or start practicing a new language or take up the guitar. Innovation and using your imagination are healthy.
- Do something kind for someone else. Altruism may help you to feel less like a victim of the COVID-19 situation and provide you with a sense of empowerment. If you are still able to go to the grocery store, how about picking something up for a neighbour? Shovel someone’s driveway, take a homebound person’s dog for a walk. If you are in quarantine yourself, you could phone someone who is lonely.
- Talk to others: Support from safe and understanding people is essential. Even if you can’t be with your friends or family members during quarantine, you can connect through online platforms, phone calls, or emails. Reach out, but limit your time talking about COVID-19. Give yourself a time limit to share your worries and concerns, then turn your conversation to other topics, such as your plans for the future when social distancing recommendations have been lifted. Talk about “normal” things.
- Make an anxiety “appointment”: As mentioned previously, your anxiety, sadness, anger, and other unpleasant emotions want to be heard. If we try to ignore them, they may become persistent. Instead, set aside a time each day (10-15 minutes) that you will allow yourself to think about your worries and distress. You may write down your concerns ahead of time in a journal or on your phone. When the time is up, you close the list and postpone your worries until the next appointment.
- Limit your exposure to media: The media reports about COVID-19 often focus on “worst case scenarios” because catastrophizing gets people’s attention. Allow yourself one or two updates per day and only from a reliable source such as the Government of Canada’s Health Resource or the World Health Organization. Your anxiety doesn’t always know how to distinguish between a new event or the repeat of an old event, and anxiety certainly doesn’t know how to assess if a source is credible.
3. Take care of your cognitive health.
Loss and anxiety can make us feel like our brains are muddled. People often complain of memory problems and the inability to stay focused. This is a natural and normal way for the brain to insulate us from becoming overwhelmed. Be gentle with yourself at this time. Use lists to remind yourself of commitments and responsibilities. Say no to things that are overwhelming to you right now and allow yourself to spend time in respite from the usual demands of life. Remember that healing takes time, be patient with yourself and with the journey.
4. Take care of your social wellness.
People are social beings, but we are currently being told to practice social distancing. One psychologist lovingly reframed it as physical distancing. Even though it may not be possible to be physically present to each other, we still need ways to find support. Facetime, Skype or some other online video platform, phone calls, emails, texts, and even old-fashioned letters are all methods to reach out and fill our need for social connection.
If you live with others, take this opportunity to spend some playful quality time together. As Stuart Brown once said, “The opposite of play is not work, it is depression.” Focus on the present moment and make each moment count. This is especially important if you have children in your home. Children need to feel safe and they will take their cues from you. Play games, do a puzzle, colour, pet the dog, go for a walk, sing, dance, or have a picnic on the floor. Rediscover your own inner child and let your imagination soar!
And don’t be afraid to reach out to friends and acquaintances just to say hello. You may be pleasantly surprised to hear the joy in the voice of friends who you haven’t spoken to in awhile. If you can muster a smile, you may find that it comes through to the recipient. If this is too difficult, write an email. If an email is too difficult, you might want to just write yourself a friendly note that you can place on your mirror with something as simple as “Good morning, how are you doing? I love your smile.”
Your wellness is vital. Take care of yourself and your family. Remember to pace yourself, be patient with yourself, and if possible, try to mix in some fun along the way. Let’s not let the panic of COVID-19 define us. Hold on to the hope and promise that together we will persevere, and we will heal.