Coping with Negative Thought Cycles During COVID-19

2020 has been far from the easiest year so far. The global pandemic imposed quarantine and social distancing, loneliness, loss of job and financial security, complexified family-work balance, increased levels of stress and mood fluctuations, winter weather in late April…

Meanwhile, our regular life stressors continue to persist. We may be dealing with illness, grief, conflicts, separation, or difficult life transitions. It can be quite challenging to hold all of this at the same time or to maintain our usual upbeat attitude and optimism.

These kinds of considerations often contribute to our negative thought cycles, where everything seems unmanageable, our cynical world views are confirmed, and we experience feelings of despair and frustration. Below are a few ways to soothe those negative loops and help regulate the underlying vulnerable emotions:

  • Turn up the volume of our self-compassionate voice: Judging ourselves for not feeling well or not being our usual self is only aggravating our negative thought cycles. Instead, let’s be more validating regarding our feelings, needs, and limits, and remember that what we are feeling is normal and is a shared human experience.
  • Limit exposure to news and social media: Being informed of the evolution of the pandemic, its impacts, and social measures recommended by our governments is important. However, a continual barrage of negative news and information has its toll on our mental state. I recommend allocating a specific amount of time during the day to read on the pandemic, and then moving on to more enjoyable content. 
  • Reframing our thoughts: Being aware of our negative thoughts that contribute to lower mood and heightened anxiety helps to reframe them and identify authentic needs more effectively. “I am cut off from everyone” could be reframed as “I am feeling lonely today, which contributes to my sadness – I may call my friends today to feel more connected.” “This nightmare will never end” could be reframed as, “I am afraid of what is to come, which contributes to my anxiety – I will practice breathing exercises and talk about this with my partner.” 
  • Practice self-care: We tend to forget to do what makes us feel good when we need it the most. Let’s put a pause on our daily autopilot routine and perform activities or small gestures to take care of ourselves. 
  • Connect with the current positives around us: Even though the present times are very challenging, we continue to be surrounded by positive moments and kind actions. Try to glean hope from the various ways people are working together to mitigate the pandemic. Witness the support given to front-line health workers, and observe how the environment is benefiting from humans slowing down. Notice how strangers are saying hello to each other on the streets, or experience how being at home and connecting with loved ones is reminding us of what’s truly important to us.

We are going through this together, and we are required to take it one day at a time, but sometimes things can feel overwhelming. If the negative thought cycles are too challenging to cope with or are causing significant emotional distress, it is ok to ask for help from our social support system or mental health professionals. CFIR is here to help, and continues to offer teletherapy and reduced-cost services. 

Dr.Karine Côté, D.Psy., C.Psych. is a psychologist at the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships (CFIR). Dr. Côté provides psychological services to individual adults and couples experiencing a wide range of psychological and relationship difficulties related to mood and anxiety disorders, trauma, eating disorders, sleep disruptions, and interpersonal betrayal. She works from a humanistic approach and integrates therapeutic techniques from gestalt and object relations psychotherapies, emotion-focused therapy (EFT), and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).

Dealing with Loneliness During COVID-19

Were you already feeling lonely before physical distancing became mandated? Now in response to the novel Coronavirus Pandemic, The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends “physical distancing” as it is vital to slowing the spread of COVID-19. It is difficult to fully grasp the idea of limiting physical human connection as it is essential for promoting wellness in our lives. But we are being told this vital connection could potentially harm us. 

But I Was Already Lonely…

Unfortunately, COVID-19 is not the only public health concern we should be worrying about as we start to see the countering effects of social isolation and loneliness. According to new research by Statistics Canada, the number of people living alone in Canada more than doubled over the last 35 years. Also, there is some evidence that individuals who live alone are more likely to report social isolation or loneliness than those who live with others. For many of us, especially those who live alone, being deprived of social connection for an uncertain amount of time could exacerbate current feelings of loneliness and other mental or physical illnesses.

We were already living through an epidemic of loneliness, even before the Coronavirus pandemic started. Those who are lonely do not choose to be isolated. Loneliness can be defined as the subjective feeling of being alone and not connected to others, which can still occur when in the company of other people. Those who experience loneliness tend to have higher levels of cortisol, which is an indicator of stress. An accumulation of this stress hormone can suppress your immune system when exposed to pathogens.

Stay Physically Apart But Stick Together

Being told to stay away from one another physically is the opposite of our innate response as humans to seek out and support one another during stress to maximize survival. Humans have lived in groups for thousands of years for this reason.

The new term “social distancing” was intended to stop or slow the spread of the Coronavirus by limiting the number of people you come in contact with while keeping a physical distance from one another. But more recently, The WHO says efforts taken to slow the spread of the Coronavirus should instead encourage strengthening social ties while maintaining that physical distancing. The new term “physical distancing” emphasizes the need to be physically apart, but socially we still need to work together. 

Why is Social Connectedness so Important?

There are decades of research that support the importance of social connection and love and belonging. According to Abraham Maslow, humans possess an innate desire for a sense of belonging and acceptance. These needs are met through pleasing and fulfilling relationships with others.

From the beginning of our lives, we are wired to connect. This fact is evident from our early days as a newborn. When an infant cries, oxytocin is released. The cry serves as a signal for the mother to bond with their child. Also, there is evidence that this bonding hormone is released when we engage in positive social interactions.

Here are some ways to engage in positive social interactions while halting the spread of COVID-19 and turn social distancing into distant socializing:

Be in Nature – Cultivates interconnectedness of others and reminds us that we are just a small part of the greater whole. 

  • Go for a walk at least once a day – each person you pass say hello and smile at them
  • Go for a hike or bike ride

Use Technology in Socially Healthy Ways Set reminders to connect with others 

  • Social Technology Connections 
    • Use Facetime, Zoom, House Party or Marco Polo 
  • Watch Netflix in Party Mode stream together with a chat function at Netflixparty.com
  • Virtual Exercise Classes

Media and News Exposure

  • Limit exposure to media related to COVID-19 ten minutes in the morning and ten at night 
  • Use consistent and credible news sources for your information 

Slow Down and Reflect

  • Create a new normal at home with structure and consistency 
  • Reflect on a past positive event 
  • Look at old pictures or videos- by seeing, hearing, or thinking of loved ones can recreate old attachment bonds. 
  • Embrace little connections; they can be meaningful
  • Comfort food – reminds us of being safe and cared for 

Be Present and Mindful

  • Engage in interactions requiring eye contact with both people and pets 
  • Pet and play with your furry companion

Help Yourself and Others

  • Talk about your feelings of loneliness with others. It may not rid you of your loneliness entirely but lets you know you are not alone in that feeling.
  • Give support to others – helping others will help them, but it makes us feel connected as well, which can help us see our shared humanness. We are all in this together.

The correlation between social connection and overall health is clear. Social interaction and connectedness can be used as treatment and prevention for feelings of loneliness and isolation.

At this point, it is safe to say that connecting with others during this period of isolation and using technology in socially healthy ways can increase pleasure and continue to release the oxytocin we need to thrive and survive. This can, in turn, reduce stress and increase happiness. Physical distancing may protect us from the Coronavirus, but it may deprive us of our innate need for social connectedness and belonging.

When we are isolated from others with limited social connection and deprived of oxytocin, life can feel cold and empty. For many, loneliness and even depression follow. Right now, our clinicians at CFIR are offering secure video and teletherapy sessions to new and existing clients. Please feel free to reach out if you would like to connect for a confidential therapy session from the comfort of your own home.

Laura Moore, B.Sc. (Honours) is a therapist at the Centre For Interpersonal Relationships (CFIR) in Toronto. She is completing her Masters degree in Clinical Psychology at the Adler Graduate Professional School in Toronto. Laura works with adults and couples in therapy, to support them to overcome challenges related to depression, stress, grief and loss, trauma, and relationship conflicts. Her current research focuses on cultivating spousal attunement following traumatic experiences.

The Importance of Healthy Narcissism: The Relationship Between Self-Esteem and Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression

Blog 3 in a 3 Part Series on the Developmental Roots of Anxiety and Depression: Linking Narcissism to Depression and Anxiety

Healthy narcissism is important for us to achieve our goals and cope with the inevitable disappointments and failures we all face in our lives. The word “narcissism” usually conjures up negative images of a very entitled, attention-seeking, arrogant individual. Narcissism, however, can come in both healthy and unhealthy forms. It can even be considered synonymous with self-esteem and we know that healthy self-esteem is critical to your wellbeing and optimal functioning.

We are all born with an innate sense of the potency and vigour we possess to develop our own self through self-expression, the pursuit and fulfillment of our authentic needs, and setting and achieving our goals to thrive. We all need a healthy investment in our own self – to feel that we are significant, valuable, worthwhile, and deserving enough to take and receive what we need for our self. We must love our self enough to pursue our own self-interests and entitlements while maintaining our relationships with others. Without healthy narcissism, we may not feel potent or strong enough, or we may not have enough vigour and vitality to meet our needs and pursue our goals. We are not able to feel excited, proud, and joyful in our achievements, nor fulfilled and satisfied in the pursuit of our self and relational needs. We may not feel sufficiently entitled to assert our self with others. We may not feel worthy enough to pursue our fair share of the rewards of our work, or to request that our needs be met in our relationships.

Healthy self-esteem involves a sense of feeling competent and capable enough to achieve realistic life goals. Feelings of competency and ability come from our hard-earned efforts along with our innate sense of talents and intelligences. The more we are able to learn, achieve, and overcome life obstacles, the more confident and competent we feel as we deepen our sense that we can manage our lives effectively. Self-esteem also means developing a positive self-image that is congruent with the skills, talents, intelligences, and competencies that we possess, along with an acknowledgment of the realistic goals and achievements we have attained for ourselves. On the other hand, having an overly-inflated self-image – seeing ourselves as much greater than others see us or significantly overestimating what is possible for us – becomes problematic. Narcissism can become unhealthy when you come to believe that you deserve or are entitled to more, when in fact there is nothing real (i.e., achievements, goal-attainment, talents, skills, intelligences, contributions) to back up that entitlement.

With healthy narcissism, an increased sense of competency bolsters our capacity to face life challenges and enhance our resilience. Anxiety and depression are less likely when we have a realistic and positive self-image and we pursue realistic goals with the deep belief that “I can do it.” Healthy narcissism is important particularly in contexts in which we are facing adversity and require the stamina, resilience, and self-trust required to overcome life obstacles. We can tolerate adversity and failure much more when we have the self-esteem for it. At the same time, this healthy narcissism involves pursuing our self, but not at the expense of injuring others. Our capacity for empathy limits our narcissism within healthy ranges as our awareness of others’ feelings, needs, and rights puts a natural boundary on our ability to take excessively from others (i.e., their attention, admiration, recognition, and material items like money, property, etc.).

Some individuals go on to develop unhealthy self-esteem as a result of their early interactions with others. They will seek more than their fair share of rewards, recognition, and attention from others in their work and relationships without putting forward enough effort to justify it, or by inflating their sense of self-importance and significance. Unhealthy narcissism can develop out of different kinds of conditions. One of these conditions is when a child is overpraised and admired for something they did not initiate and something they did not put much effort into doing, such that they begin to expect or demand the same praise on an ongoing basis. Another condition is when a child is shamed, abandoned, rejected, and punished with great suffering and feelings of powerlessness that then result in fantasies and pursuit of greatness and fulfillment of self-impulses, desires, and needs at the expense of others. Individuals with unhealthy narcissism, or fragile self-esteem, are externally dependent on others to boost their self-esteem and good feelings about themselves. They can become anxious, aggressive, and depressed (i.e., hopeless, despairing) when the outside world does not validate them as competent or as great as they see themselves. Depression and anxiety ensue in those with poor self-esteem, as they lack the internal resilience and self-esteem to address their life problems.

Clinicians at CFIR can help individuals whose self-esteem is too externally dependent on others.  Psychodynamic and attachment-based treatments are provided to help you deal with the original suffering underlying unhealthy narcissism and to help you develop better internal self-esteem. We can help you develop more internal self-esteem while enhancing your connectedness with others. We can also help you build a greater sense of healthy confidence in your self by setting out and pursuing realistic life goals.

Dr. Dino Zuccarini, C.Psych. is CEO and co-founder of the CFIR. He has published book chapters and peer-reviewed journal articles on the subject of attachment, attachment injuries in couples, and attachment and sexuality. He has taught courses at the University of Ottawa in Interpersonal Relationships, Family Psychology, and Human Sexual Behaviour. He has a thriving clinical practice in which he treats individuals suffering from complex attachment-related trauma, difficult family of origin issues that have affected self and relationship development, depression and anxiety, personality disorders, sex and sexuality related issues, and couple relationships. At CFIR, he also supports the professional development of counsellors, psychotherapists, and supervised practice psychologists by providing clinical supervision.

Secure Attachment: Relying and Depending on Others May Be an Antidote Against Depression and Anxiety

This blog post is the first in a series of three posts in which I share with you some of the developmental roots of anxiety and depression. These blogs explore how anxiety and depression may be linked to how you learned to attach with others (attachment), how you developed into a distinct, separate person from your parents (separation-individuation), and how your self-esteem developed in your early years (healthy narcissism).

Blog 1 in a 3 Part Series on the Developmental Roots of Anxiety and Depression: Linking Attachment to Depression and Anxiety

We all need other people! Some of us cherish total self-sufficiency and try hard to not rely on anybody else – but we still need other people anyways. Being able to rely and depend on others can improve our mental health outcomes. In this blog, I help you understand the link between secure attachment and positive mental health.

John Bowlby, the father of attachment theory, recognized that our reliance and dependence on attachment figures exists from “the cradle to the grave.” According to attachment theory, we are hardwired to seek relationships with others to help us deal with emotional distress and stress in our lives. In the beginning, as infants, we are highly dependent on our caregivers to provide us with both physical and emotional care. When parents provide sufficient care, we go on to develop a positive sense of our self as lovable and worthwhile. We also go on to develop a sense of others as potentially trustworthy, reliable, and dependable when we are distressed and in need of physical or emotional care. As a result of their responsiveness, we become more securely attached. Secure attachment helps us develop more confidence and self-esteem because our self mattered and continues to matter to others when we are distressed. We are also more easily able to reach out for others when in need of support when facing challenging life circumstances because we remember that others can provide potential solutions to our distress. Secure attachment is a healthy antidote to stress, anxiety, and depression!

Research suggests that individuals suffering from mental health issues also tend to be insecurely attached to others. Insecurely attached individuals are less able to efficiently or effectively signal to others, or do not signal to others at all, when distressed. Developing relationships that allow for reciprocal and mutual caring is important because as humans we are not designed to be emotionally distressed and isolated. When we are alone and isolated with the stress and distress of everyday life, our mental health can deteriorate. Insecurely attached individuals cannot turn to others, or they are not effective in their efforts to seek soothing, comfort, or problem-solving responses from others. In their childhoods, their attachment figures may not have been accessible and responsive to their physical and emotional care needs. As a result of these earlier experiences involving non-responsiveness of caregivers, deep down the insecurely attached individual may feel unlovable and unworthy of care or believe that others will be unreliable, undependable, and untrustworthy when in need of support. In the present day, prolonged emotional distress and stress without a connection to others and without foreseeable solutions can contribute to anxiety and depression symptoms. Many individuals with anxiety and depression have difficulties in their attachment with others.

Clinicians at CFIR can support you to create stronger bonds in your relationships with others through an assessment of your attachment style and treatments that enhance your capacity to develop and maintain healthy relationships. Learning how to experience and express your emotions and needs to others in a safe and secure relationship is central to becoming securely attached. Being able to rely and depend on others, and develop reciprocal and mutual attachment relationships with others, is key to our mental health and wellbeing.

Dr. Dino Zuccarini, C.Psych. is CEO and co-founder of the CFIR. He has published book chapters and peer-reviewed journal articles on the subject of attachment, attachment injuries in couples, and attachment and sexuality. He has taught courses at the University of Ottawa in Interpersonal Relationships, Family Psychology, and Human Sexual Behaviour. He has a thriving clinical practice in which he treats individuals suffering from complex attachment-related trauma, difficult family of origin issues that have affected self and relationship development, depression and anxiety, personality disorders, sex and sexuality related issues, and couple relationships. At CFIR, he also supports the professional development of counsellors, psychotherapists, and supervised practice psychologists by providing clinical supervision.

How CBC Toronto Employees Helped to ‘Beat Blue Monday’

by: Roselin Leonard, Internal & External Relationships Manager

Monday, January 15, 2018 (the third Monday in January) marked what’s come to be known as Blue Monday, also known as “the most depressing day of the year”. A time when the impact of holiday spending, frigid temperatures, and long carb-loaded days laden with low motivation hits hard.

While the theory behind Blue Monday has yet to be scientifically proven, symptoms of the winter blues feel undeniable for many of us. According to CAMH British Columbia, 2-3% of Canadians will experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D) in their lifetime. This makes up about 10% of all depression cases.

When Kai Black, Executive Producer at CBC Music in Toronto, heard about the Blue Monday phenomena, he knew it was a great starting point for a discussion about mental wellness at CBC. He envisioned an event that would raise mental health awareness and offer valuable resources to help counteract the effects of Blue Monday. Once his vision was realized, the wheels of action were set in motion.

Kai engaged CBC Toronto’s abilicrew –an amazing ‘Employee Resource Group’ for CBC employees with disabilities and their allies– to create something great. Let’s just say, they did not disappoint. The team transformed Kai’s idea into ‘Beat Blue Monday’, now an annual event.

The event today rose out of a need to communicate to staff that this is not just the saddest day of the year, but it’s a good day to find out how you can deal with your own sadness at this time.” – Kai Black


Centre For Interpersonal Relationships (CFIR) was thrilled to be invited back to ‘Beat Blue Monday’ alongside other local exhibitors for yesterday’s festivities at the Toronto Broadcasting Centre. More exciting than the invitation itself was the opportunity to connect with employees eager to learn more about mental and physical wellness and strategies to beat the blues.

The entertainment was fun, informative and elevated the festivities to another memorable level!

CFIR Clinical Director and psychologist, Dr. Lila Z. Hakim, C. Psych. joined CBC personalities including the host of CBC Radio’s Day 6, Brent Bambury, CBC Sports host Scott Russell, and CBC Music’s Raina Douris and Angeline Tetteh-Wayoe in a game show testing their ’emotional intelligence’.

Lisa Clarkson (Executive Director, Business & Rights and Content Optimization at CBC and Executive Sponsor for the Beat Blues Monday Event) introduced the ‘Mayfield Magnetics’, the top Grade 12 vocal jazz class in Ontario and the winners of 2016’s CBC Music Class Challenge.

‘Beat Blue Monday’ 2018 was a wonderful experience. Sincere congratulations to Kai Black, Helen Kugler, Sylvie MacLean, CBC’s Engagement & Inclusion team, the CBC Toronto’s EAP, the abilicrew, DiversifyCBC and outCBC for a successful event and for their ongoing commitment to–and investment in–the mental wellness of CBC employees.

Think you might have a case of the winter blues? 

Dr. Lila Z. Hakim, C. Psych. offers a few helpful tips below to start feeling good again **:

Nourish Your Body

Many of us experience cravings for certain foods when the winter season blows in and our bodies develop a yen for carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are directly linked to the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin, an emotion regulator that helps you feel emotionally stable, less anxious, calmer, more focused and energetic.

When that 3 p.m. craving for a savoury or sweet snack hits, it’s your body’s way of self-medicating, seeking to improve your mood by boosting your serotonin levels. Listen to your body and give yourself that much-needed serotonin lift.

Instead of calorie-dense, sugary breads and sweets that offer a quick mood-boost and then a crash, consider healthier alternatives such as fruits, nuts, and yogurt.

Get Active!

Physical activity increases not only the calming neurotransmitter serotonin, but also increases dopamine, the emotion and pleasure neurotransmitter, and endorphins, your pain-relief and pleasure neurotransmitters. Incorporating movement into your day (climbing stairs, going for a walk, etc.) gives your body the activity it needs to keep your mood up throughout the day.

Make Sleep a Priority

Sleeping excessively (or hibernating) is normal in the winter and is often a reaction to the cold, but for some, ongoing insomnia or difficulties falling or staying asleep create difficulties that can lead to the blues. Provide yourself with a space at home that includes comforting objects (such as a warm blanket, beautiful objects, etc.) to calm your stress hormones. Aim to get exactly the amount of sleep you need to feel fully rested and ask a professional if you are unsure about how much rest is the ideal amount.

Do Things that Light You Up

Find activities in your life that give you a sense of pleasure and meaning, that involve curiosity, exploration, and interest­–this could be collecting or building things, researching something you love like travelling, or caring for other people. Artistic endeavours like creating and listening to remarkable music are also great options. Pleasure, curiosity, exploration, and interest all stimulate dopamine, which makes you feel exhilarated and alive!

Which strategies do you find most effective for curing winter blues? Feel free to share your comments or feedback below.

(**Note: If you or a person you know is experiencing regular symptoms of depression, it is important to seek medical attention from a physician. If you don’t have a family doctor, click here for additional information and options via Ontario.ca.)

CFIR OTTAWA is moving to its new home JULY 4TH, 2022. Click here for more details.