Getting Through Winter During A Pandemic

It’s no surprise that 2020 was a challenging year — with the pandemic bringing anxiety, grief, burnout, and financial strain to the masses, not to mention other stress-inducing events. Now that we’ve entered Winter 2021, we are currently experiencing a new challenge: navigating the pandemic’s effects at a time that is already difficult for many people. With pandemic fatigue, shorter and colder days, and social isolation, it’s safe to say that this winter hasn’t been an easy season to date for many people. Despite this challenging time, the good news is that we can do things to help us prepare for and cope with the transition into winter. 

Learn to enjoy the outdoors

Nothing is worse than experiencing months of winter when you hate winter. The antidote? Find ways to engage with the outdoors. The cold is an apparent reason why people struggle with winter. I’ve found it’s easier to bear with preparation — investing in warm and comfortable winter wear is a helpful first step, and a hot beverage in hand can make things more relaxing. Taking up a winter sport or activity can also make the outdoors more fun. Why not try sledding with the family on the weekend, try cross country skiing, or try to see the beauty in wintery nature by going for a walk? Trying different activities can also bring variety to your life, which is sometimes lost when we ‘hunker down’ during the pandemic.

Exercise 

With the winter months bringing in higher rates of depression and seasonal affective disorder, finding ways to cope is an essential step in their treatment. While exercise may not be a solution to these disorders, research has shown physical activity to be as effective in treating mild to moderate depression as medication (O’Neal, Dunn & Martinsen, 2000). Winter is when many people want to stay inside watching movies on the couch, and engaging in exercise might feel like a chore. The key is finding an activity you like and ways to make it the most comfortable choice. The best exercise is the one you’ll do, and often, it’s easiest to engage in an activity when it’s a part of your routine (like brushing your teeth). Experiment with a time of day that works best for you. Many people feel most motivated in the morning, and engaging in health behaviours early on in the day can snowball into more health behaviours as your day continues.

Try a little Hygge

‘Hygge’ (pronounced: “hoo – guh”) is an integral part of the Danish lifestyle, encompassing coziness, warmth, and wellbeing through enjoying simple pleasures in everyday life. Though Denmark is known for having intense winters, the hygge lifestyle is a custom that has contributed to making the country amongst the world’s happiest. So how do you incorporate more hygge in your life this winter? Light candles, snuggle under warm blankets, gather some good books, enjoy comforting foods, fit in some quality time to connect with loved ones – what sorts of things will you try? 

Schedule regular social time

Ever find that it’s becoming increasingly more comfortable to be socially isolated during the pandemic? These social distancing regulations make it challenging to spend time with our loved ones in the same way we once did. Many of us can become inclined to isolate; but, isolation can make winter especially difficult considering a time when depressive disorders are most common. Scheduling weekly video calls or socially distanced walks with loved ones helps manage the effects of social isolation. 

Be kind to yourself

When times get rough, it can be tempting to look for someone to blame — and we often direct it to ourselves. While many of us are our own worst critics and often criticize ourselves for instigating change, we may promote the opposite. How can any of us have a positive relationship with ourselves, feel motivated to complete work, or begin a healthier lifestyle if we unceasingly criticize, condemn, nitpick, or hate ourselves? We often speak to ourselves in a way that we wouldn’t talk to our worst enemy–so why say them to the person we’re supposed to have the most connected, intimate relationship with — ourselves? When you’re in the self-critical headspace, try talking to yourself as if you were your own best friend. What would they say? Would they be judgmental or provide a balanced view of the situation? Would they tell you all of the things you’re doing poorly, or would they highlight the positive and how for you’ve come? Would they provide further criticism, or would they soothe the wounds you’ve created for yourself? Remember, all you are ever doing is the best you can, at this moment in time, with the resources you have. That’s the best anyone can ever ask for, given the circumstances!

Seek professional help

Life isn’t simple, especially during a pandemic. Admitting that we need help can sometimes feel complicated. But no matter where you’re at in your life journey, you’re never broken — just stuck. Seeking professional help can be an excellent way to maintain your wellbeing and get support during your most trying times.  Consider contacting the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships (CFIR) if you are seeking therapy services. CFIR is a collective of over 70 clinicians who provide various treatment and assessment services and work with clients of all ages, life stages, cultural, sexual, gender, and romantic orientations. Free consultation and reduced fee options are available, making our services an affordable and accessible option for your therapeutic needs. We hope to be a part of your support network!

References

O’Neal, H. A., Dunn, A. L., & Martinsen, E. W. (2000). Depression and exercise. International Journal of Sport Psychology.

Carolyn Streich, BMus, B.A. is a counsellor at Centre for Interpersonal Relationships working under the clinical supervision of Tracie Lee, R.P. (Registered Psychotherapist). She currently holds a B.A. in Psychology (Honours), and is in her final year of her Masters in Counselling Psychology program (M.Ed) at University of Ottawa.

Finding Purpose and Peace in the Pandemic: Addressing the Existential and Spiritual Crises Created by COVID-19

COVID-19: An existential crisis

Amidst the coronavirus pandemic much concern has been raised regarding its toll on our mental health.  Strategies for managing the inevitable stress inherent in such a crisis are many and readily available on the internet, discussed on television, and in government bulletins. The reach of the pandemic, however, is far deeper than most realize, touching us at a profoundly existential and spiritual levels.  

COVID-19 and the sweeping government actions taken to contain it, have unearthed the “illusion of control” that most of us live under. The pandemic has revealed the apparent fragility and uncertainty of our lives and called into question our sense that we are in control of our destinies. Traditional therapeutic interventions alone may be inadequate to ease our spiritual/existential angst. Turning to spiritual resources can do much to bring peace and provide purpose amidst the pandemic. 

Finding inspiration from the past 

We are not the first to face a crisis of global proportions. Previous generations have lived though world wars, plagues, natural disasters, and much more. Unlike in our modern times, however, the illusion of control was more fleeting in the past, the fragility of life assumed, and dependence on a power greater than themselves more a part of most peoples’ experiences. Looking to stories of heroes’ suffering and being triumphant in the past and learning the spiritual lessons that enabled them to rise above their circumstance and thrive can be a great source of inspiration in these uncertain times. 

Reclaiming our spiritual heritage

We are no different than they with the need to see beyond this momentary crisis.  The fragility of life is every bit as real today as it was then and so is our need for a spirituality that can provide solace and the ability to rise us above our circumstances. Every group of peoples that has inhabited Earth has brought with it a spiritual belief system. Our ancestry not only includes our biological DNA but our spiritual one as well reminding us of our connection to our past, to others, and to God or the spiritual forces find strength in.  These building blocks hewn from millennia of spiritual and religious belief are what have formed the foundation of our moral conscience and the bedrock of the best in human nature. Understanding the transcendent and transformative power of the spiritual convictions that sustained those that came before us can be a catalyst for discovering our own spiritual convictions and a source of strength and solace amidst this current crisis. 

Spiritual resources around us 

Spiritual resources of all traditions abound.  They are readily accessible on the internet, at home in sacred texts, in local faith communities, in pastoral counsellors and in spiritual health practitioners in some mental health services.  Drawing on such spiritual resources can ground our struggle in ageless spiritual traditions and within communities of faith as well as providing a needed adjunct to traditional psychotherapy.  

Prayer and/or meditation

Private and family prayer and meditation can have a great calming and unifying effect.  It has been said that prayer does not change God but rather changes us.  Spending as little as three minutes a day in prayer or meditation can work wonders in grounding and quieting our minds. The effects of pray and meditation are many. They allow us to rise above the chaos of the moment. They calm us creating a sense of safety and security in uncertainty. They unify us drawing attention to our common need amidst discord.  They instill compassion expanding the scope of our concerns to include others outside of our circle. They are restorative allowing us the opportunity for honest expression of our need in a caring and accepting environment. Lastly, they help us realize the limits of our capacity to effect change while reminding us of forces greater than ourselves that can be accessed to work on our behalf.

An attitude of gratitude

Thankfulness is a primary spiritual state of being with tremendous ramifications for mental health. Recounting three blessings each day before going to bed has shown to reap great benefits for maintaining a healthy state of mind.  Being that blessing, can bring a seismic shift away from self-absorption toward compassion for others as well as for ourselves. Looking for the everyday gratitudes that mark our lives can change fatalistic pessimism into hopeful optimism. The scope of gratitude far outweighs that of negativity by opening our hearts and minds to the spirituality that exists everywhere in our everyday experiences and the benevolence that is ours for the asking.   

Let go and Let God

Recognizing and accepting our fragility and lack of control of our lives can be a tremendously liberating experience as we, as they say, “let go and let God.” Finding a spiritual anchor that can give both hope and security amidst this everchanging COVID crisis, can provide peace and purpose within the pandemic.

Dr. Marjorie Swarthout, C.Psych. is a Registered Clinical Psychologist at CFIR Ottawa. Prior to receiving her doctorate in counselling psychology, she had nearly 15 years of experience and extensive training as a psychotherapist and multifaith spiritual heath practitioner. 

Marjorie has been a been a university guest lecturer and conference presenter exploring issues of spirituality in mental health care.

Mind-Body-Wellness Sessions (Episode 2): Coping with the Pandemic through the Body

We’re back with another episode of ‘Mind-Body-Wellness Sessions’ part 2 of 3! In this segment, Tracie Lee, (registered psychotherapist at Centre for Interpersonal Relationships – Ottawa) and Stephanie Karlovits, (founder and CEO of EPIC Fitness + Lifestyle – Ottawa) talk about how coping with the pandemic has been affecting so many of us mentally and physically. There are ways to feel better, and in this video, this amazing duo of wellness professionals tells us what we need to know.

Coping with Acute, Chronic, & Pandemic Stress

Coping with acute stress

Note: The sympathetic nervous system is the part of the nervous system that is responsible for activating the fight or flight response (i.e., acute stress response) and preparing the body for the necessary activity to protect itself from actual or perceived danger. The parasympathetic nervous system is the part of the nervous system that is responsible for recuperation and is important in feeling safe and calm.

There are many strategies we can learn and strengthen to help us tolerate and reduce the intensity of acute distress. It is important to note that we do not want to make the emotion “go away” as this will likely initiate less adaptive coping strategies, such as repression, denial, avoidance, and escape distraction. When coping with a distressing emotion, I encourage people to learn to tolerate some level of that emotion (i.e., within a “window of tolerance”), while also engaging in and using strategies to help reduce the intensity of that emotion. It is important to keep in mind that learning to tolerate emotion is a valuable skill and through practicing distress/emotional tolerance, we allow the emotion to rise and fall and, ultimately, run its natural course; while tolerating the emotion, we can “listen” to the emotion as it provides valuable information about what might be happening in the environment. Also, it is important to remember that all emotions are temporary

The following are a few examples of strategies that can be used to help reduce the intensity of a distressing emotion and bring it to a level that is tolerable; the goal of the following strategies is to help reduce nervous system activation (i.e., sympathetic nervous system) and increase parasympathetic nervous system function:

  1. Intense exercise: 3-5 minutes (or more) of intense exercise (i.e., enough to elevate your heart rate) will help to burn off anxious or distressing/unpleasant energy which is pent up and activating the sympathetic nervous system. This will help the body to regulate (allowing for the onset of the parasympathetic nervous system).
  2. Recovery-oriented relaxation strategies: there are a variety of activities and strategies that can be used within this domain and I encourage you to think about activities that help you experience a sense of ease and relaxation. Furthermore, encourage you to reflect on experiences that’ll allow your body to experience muscle relaxation to help reduce pent-up muscle tension.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation: this strategy uses repetitive tension and release movements in various muscle groups to help reduce muscle construction patterns induce muscle relaxation.
  • Diaphragmatic breathing: at any point when we are experiencing an unpleasant or distressing emotion, I encourage people to take stock of their breathing an attempt to slow their breathing down using deep, diaphragmatic breathing techniques. In doing so, feedback loops to our brain provide information and indicate that we are calmer and safer than the brain is interpreting. Deep breathing by itself may not be enough to reduce the intensity of the emotion we are experiencing, especially if the emotion is 8-10/10, with 10 being more intense. I encourage people to include deep breathing while using another strategy.
  • The “dive” technique: I use and recommend a modification of this strategy, which includes using a Ziploc bag full of cold water and is placed over the eyes, including the undereye area. There is a nerve that runs underneath the eye that, when cold, activates the parasympathetic nervous system.
  • Listen to calming music: Our nervous systems are acutely attuned to sounds from the environment. When we intentionally play music that is calming, we are providing a message to our nervous system that we are safe.
  • Use heat to induce muscle relaxation: Acute and chronic stress responses involve muscle tension. Using heat will facilitate muscle tension release and relaxation, in turn, sending information to the brain that you are relaxed and safe.

3. Mindfulness: The regular and intentional practice of mindfulness meditation can help develop our cognitive resources of attention allocation in order to more swiftly let go of distressing thoughts and sensations. As well, mindfulness helps create greater awareness of our bodies and minds (i.e., flow of consciousness). As we expand our intentional practice of mindfulness exercises into our greater daily experience, we allow ourselves to become more present in each moment, letting go of past and future thoughts and feelings, and creating “space” for in-the-moment experiences of cultivating contentment, joy, and ease.

Tip:  Finding it difficult to find time to engage in the above? Or single strategies not as effective as you would like? Try “doubling” or “tripling” up on the above strategies to send multiple signals to the brain that the body is calm/relax and safe. I encourage you to add deep breathing to all activity!  

Coping with chronic stress

There are many ways to cope with acute stress and chronic stress that can be applied at various times in our lives when acute and chronic stressors are present. I often encourage people to first take stock of their “foundations.” 

The Five Pillars to Wellbeing

  1. Sleep
  2. Nutrition
  3. Exercise/Movement
  4. Enjoyable activities (that bring you a sense of contentment, joy, and ease)
  5. Social connection 

By taking stock of these five “pillars,” we can start to make small, manageable changes to our foundation, which in turn, will provide us with ample physical and mental resources to facilitate our ability to cope with acute and chronic stress. It is important to note that during times of chronic stress, we often experience destabilization related to one or more of the above pillars; as well, when we get “busy,” we often reallocate time away from the above activities, which further perpetuates and exacerbates the impact of the chronic stress/distress. As such, I strongly encourage people to dedicate time (i.e., create “protected time”) each and every day to ensure maintenance of the above pillars.

Coping with Pandemic Stress

  1. Use gentle avoidance. Often psychologists help people to limit their use of avoidance as this is often driven by anxiety and leads us to be unable to engage in activities that he might otherwise enjoy. However, in some contexts, such as this pandemic, I encourage people to practice gentle avoidance regarding some aspects of activity and knowledge consumption.
  • Limit media consumption: The key here is to find reliable sources of information where you can stay informed about the procedures and guidelines to keep you safe. Additional information beyond this may contribute to and perpetuate anxiety.
  • Avoid discussing events: Although it can be helpful at times to discuss the pandemic and associated changes with friends and family, people can get swept into “anxiety spirals,” which worsen the acute/chronic stress impact and can maintain anxiety beyond the conversation. Also, misinformation can be shared, and in the context of high anxiety, it is easier to believe misinformation and become more fearful or paranoid. 
  • Keep things in perspective: Speaking with reliable sources can help us keep information in perspective and help to abate and let go of anxiety-driven thoughts/beliefs (e.g., catastrophizing). Remember, if people are bringing up topics of conversation regarding the pandemic that provoke intense feelings of anxiety/distress in you, it is ok to set boundaries and ask the person to not bring up said conversations with you.

2. Stay connected. Remember, we are social creatures and we thrive off of social connection, regardless of our place on the introversion/extroversion scale; the difference here is the frequency and intensity of social connection. Although phone and video connections do not provide the same sense of connection as in-person connection, it is important to stay connected to friends and family. Isolation, especially if living alone, can become very dangerous to our mental wellbeing. Without external sources of support, emotion-driven thoughts/beliefs can take hold and we start to believe them more strongly. 

  • Keep things in perspective: Speaking with reliable sources can help us keep information in perspective and help to abate and let go of anxiety-driven thoughts/beliefs (e.g., catastrophizing). Remember, if people are bringing up topics of conversation regarding the pandemic that provoke intense feelings of anxiety/distress in you, it is ok to set boundaries and ask the person to not bring up said conversations with you.
  • Use social connection as a source of adaptive distraction: Talk about topics that bring you contentment, joy, and ease! Share information about books/literature, movies/TV shows, and/or other hobbies and enjoyable activities. You may even wish to reminisce by sharing fond memories.
  • Remember that life will go on: It is important to acknowledge/validate that the pandemic and associated changes is difficult; however, because we cannot control the pandemic, it is not helpful to wallow or become preoccupied with the difficulty. Remind yourself and your family/friends that life will continue and try to anchor yourself to something hopeful in the future (e.g., a trip, a goal, an activity).

3. Movement/Exercise: Whatever the type of movement, try to incorporate some form of movement on a daily basis, whether it be walking, stretching, or a formal workout routine. Our bodies are meant to move and, as a result of self-isolation protocols, we are not moving as much as we have before. 

If you are having difficulty coping with acute, chronic, or pandemic stress, I encourage you to reach out to a professional (psychologist or psychotherapist) who can assist you in developing and strengthening your coping skill repertoire, as well as address other contributing factors to the maintenance of your symptoms. 

Dr. W. Rylie Moore, C.Psych., is a clinical psychologist & neuropsychologist at CFIR’s Toronto location and he has published academic articles in peer-reviewed journals and book chapters. As a requested presenter at numerous national and international academic conferences, Dr. Moore has spoken on topics related to gender dysphoria, LGBT2QA advocacy, psychological assessment, executive functions (cognitive abilities that could be described as the CEO of the brain), stuttering, and bilingualism. In his therapy practice, he works with clients to understand what is happening for them in its larger context, including past experiences and their social world. 

Mental Health in the Midst of a Pandemic

Reesa Packard, R.P., Ph.D. (Associate at CFIR – Ottawa) was on the airwaves with 1310News’ Sam Laprade! The two shared an engaging discussion about managing mental health throughout the pandemic and beyond. This conversation is one you don’t want want to miss.

To learn more about how clinicians at CFIR can help you online or by phone, go to www.cfir.ca

The Individual Impact of Pandemic Stress

The COVID-19 pandemic has had, and continues to have, a significant impact on us as individuals and as a society, on a worldwide scale. There have been significant changes to our daily experiences in the context of lockdowns, self-isolation, and physical distancing. As humans, we are inherently social creatures, and in the context of this pandemic, we have lost access to the typical ways in which we meet our social needs. This pandemic has significantly changed our lives and can cause (variable and/or persistent) acute stress and chronic stress responses.

The pandemic as an “acute stress”

Initially, the onset of the pandemic can be considered to be an acute stress in terms of the way it impacted us and our ability to cope; regarding the impact on ourselves and our nervous systems, an acute stress response is one that activates the sympathetic nervous system or “fight or flight response.” This response is often referred to as “anxiety,” which can be more episodic in nature as our nervous system responds to a threat the environment and then we subsequently seek safety and can return to a state of ease. As such, the anxiety system is meant to switch on and off as a response to immediate threats in the environment. 

In regard to the pandemic, especially the initial onset, we perceive the presence of immediate danger and our nervous systems respond as if there is an immediate stress or risk of danger. In many ways, the pandemic provides a legitimate increased risk of danger in relation to the risk of infection and the consequences of that infection. As such, when responding to an acute stressor, our nervous systems respond with hypervigilance (i.e., scanning the environment for danger), muscle tension (in order to spring the action), worry/preoccupation (as a way to analyze the environment in hopes to keep us safe), as well as other sympathetic nervous system responses, such as increased heart rate and changes in breathing rate.

The pandemic as a “chronic stress”

In the wake of a prolonged period of an acute stress reaction, a stressor can become chronic. There are many stressors that can become chronic, such as work stress, interpersonal relationship issues, financial strain, and the prolonged fear of infection (i.e., pandemic), to name a few. For the context of this article, I believe there to be a difference between acute stress, referred to above as “anxiety,” and chronic stress, which I refer to as “stress,” but this is a matter of labels and diction.

When a stressor becomes chronic, it impacts the mind and body in a more profound manner as it continues to tax resources in a way that was not intended. During periods of chronic stress, stress hormones are continuously released in the body, perpetuating a fight or flight response. In the face of persistent sympathetic nervous system activation, we experience chronic muscle tension and soreness (e.g., in the shoulders, neck, jaw), disrupted sleep patterns, disrupted eating habits, significant fatigue or lack of energy, decline in cognitive function (e.g., poor attention/concentration), increased irritability, becoming easily overwhelmed, and feeling depressed. Other indicators of chronic stress include G.I. distress/digestive issues, chronic pain, headaches, poor immune system function (e.g., frequent infections/colds), and decreased libido. Over time, we begin to lose the capacity to engage more effectively in other parts of our life (that we previously enjoyed) as the chronic stressor takes up most, or all, of our physical and mental resources. Our lives become narrow in terms of activities where we confront/face the chronic stressor and resort to recovery actions; without awareness of our coping repertoire and the short and long term impacts of these actions, we often engage in “maladaptive” coping strategies that provide immediate relief of the stress response, such as escaping/disconnecting (e.g., excessive sleep, excessive use of TV or video games, zoning out), numbing (e.g., substance use, less health food habits and choices), and avoidance (i.e., not engaging in activities that provoke any level of distress). As maladpative coping of the chronic stressor persists, our lives may become more and more limited.

An interesting phenomenon that appears to be occurring during the pandemic is that many individuals report experiencing, sometimes extreme, fluctuations in their well-being, functioning, and emotion regulation/mood. People report this experience as functioning “ok” and being able to meet the demands have their daily life and some of the additional goals they may set for themselves for a few days, and sometimes without notice, the same person might report a significant reduction in their ability to meet these demands for a few days. During these “down days,” the person will likely experience the above-mentioned symptoms a facing a chronic stressor. Following a period of these down days, the person will return to an “ok” level of functioning -and the cycle continues, perhaps with longer periods of down days as the pandemic chronic stress endures.

Chronic stress – an analogy regarding coping

When speaking with clients about the impact of chronic stress, I like to use the analogy of a bucket, which I refer to as “the coping bucket.” When stressors appear in our life, as they do on a daily basis to varying degrees, it is as if liquid is filling our bucket; the larger the stressor, the greater the flow and quantity of the liquid. Once the liquid reaches the top of the bucket (i.e., our upper threshold for our ability to cope with the stress), we start to experience more severe symptoms, such as “breakdowns,” feeling overwhelmed, anger outbursts, emotional dysregulation, etc. 

In order for us to regulate the amount of liquid in the bucket, we need to find ways to release liquid from the bucket, and in the context of this analogy, I imagine spouts at the bottom of the bucket that can pour liquid out; these spouts are our adaptive coping (i.e., helpful) strategies. Similar to the flow speed and quantity of liquid entering the bucket, the spouts differ in terms of how quickly and how much stress they release. For example, in the context of the pandemic, the spouts that previously released greater amounts of liquid likely release less liquid currently because we strategy has been modified to fit within pandemic guidelines. A prime example of this is the way in which we connect socially during the pandemic; many people remark that there is something “different” about connecting virtually rather than connecting in person and that it does not meet our need for connection to the same degree as before.

It is important to note that, at certain points in our lives (depending on the surrounding context of our life), what may have been an adaptive and helpful coping strategy might actually become a source of stress and “add” to the bucket. Part of developing our ability to cope with the variable stressors of life is to pay attention to what our mind and body needsin a given moment and what will best serve the purpose of reducing the liquid (i.e., stress) from the bucket. For example, exercise is generally an adaptive coping strategy to burn off distressed energy; however, when we are feeling rundown and significantly fatigued, exercise may exacerbate this and push us closer to burnout.

If you are having difficulty coping with acute, chronic, or pandemic stress, I encourage you to reach out to a professional (psychologist or psychotherapist) who can assist you in developing and strengthening your coping skill repertoire, as well as address other contributing factors to the maintenance of your symptoms.

Dr. W. Rylie Moore, C.Psych., is a clinical psychologist & neuropsychologist at CFIR’s Toronto location and he has published academic articles in peer-reviewed journals and book chapters. As a requested presenter at numerous national and international academic conferences, Dr. Moore has spoken on topics related to gender dysphoria, LGBT2QA advocacy, psychological assessment, executive functions (cognitive abilities that could be described as the CEO of the brain), stuttering, and bilingualism. In his therapy practice, he works with clients to understand what is happening for them in its larger context, including past experiences and their social world. 

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).

How Frontline Workers are Being Impacted by COVID-19 and What They Can Do

As we all navigate through the uncertain time of COVID-19, frontline workers face a set of particularly unique challenges. What follows is a list of ways that frontline workers are being affected by COVID-19, with some suggested coping techniques. It is my hope that, in creating this list, frontline workers will feel better understood and validated, while those not on the frontline may learn how to better offer their support. 

Isolated from Family/Friends

Being isolated from loved ones is perhaps one of the most challenging aspects frontline workers face. During a time when they may need it most, they may not be able to receive the same love and support from their family that they usually would. Keep in mind that, although frontline workers may have to or choose to isolate themselves from family physically, it doesn’t mean that they have to isolate themselves emotionally. 

Be creative – read bedtime stories over the phone or prop up a phone or tablet with video chat for dinner time. It might still be possible to meet in person, but with a degree of separation like a glass door or window. Also, activities like walks might remain an option, so long as there is physical distancing. Even short, positive, love-affirming texts throughout the day can make a world of difference. 

Direct Interaction with the Disease

Imagine a poisonous snake is living somewhere in your home. Every time you open the refrigerator to get food or hop into bed, you risk being bit. This is the reality that frontline workers are facing. Every person that they interact with and every surface they touch is a risk of contracting this disease. Their stress response is heightened for every moment of their day as they are at risk and may feel they can’t let their guard down. 

Frontline workers may benefit from practicing short-term stress-reduction techniques throughout their day, such as grounding or breathing exercises, as well as practicing long-term techniques like meditation, exercise, or therapy outside of work. Continue to take precautions as necessary to help minimize risk. 

Generally Chaotic Work Environments & Long Hours

Whether its hospitals at capacity or grocery stores swarmed with people, frontline workers are generally working in a chaotic environment at this time. Furthermore, working long hours can also be draining, regardless of the type of work. Imagine being used to going for an evening walk and now suddenly having to be able to run a marathon. The demand for frontline workers continues to grow as confirmed cases of COVID-19 increase, and as there is a need to cover shifts for those that are out sick.  

Try different relaxation techniques before and after shifts and, if possible, create a sanctuary or safe space at work in order to have a place to calm down or take a break quickly. Frontline workers are providing an essential service and are helping their community – use that as a basis to create meaning and satisfaction from work and to help maintain a positive attitude. 

Lack of Equipment/Resources

Some workplaces have been extremely aggressive in trying to keep their workers safe. For example, grocery stores are sanitizing carts, have put up a plastic divider between customers and cashiers, and not accepting paper money. Despite best efforts, however, many places are experiencing a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), such as face masks. This significantly changes how frontline workers interact with people and how they do their jobs, and it can also lead to a general sense of uneasiness or not feeling safe. Furthermore, the added layer of PPE also affects the patient relationship by way of creating an extra barrier. 

Just today, Prime Minister Trudeau has pledged $2B to buy personal protective equipment, in which Canadian companies are being enlisted to provide critical medical supplies like ventilators, surgical masks, and test kits. Until then, however, continue to focus on things that can be controlled rather than dwelling on things that can’t, and continue to remain positive and practice self-affirmations. Don’t repress worry or stress, however, but give proper times to process and handle those concerns. 

Increased Risk for Mental Health Issues

Many frontline workers are reporting an increase in depressive symptoms, anxiety, insomnia, distress, and trauma-related disorders. Through direct contact with patients, as well as through vicarious trauma of other frontline workers’ experiences with COVID-19, and witnessing illness and death around them all the time, frontline healthcare workers are at significant risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as increased suicidal thoughts and/or behaviors. Some could also turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms and even addiction to help get them through this time of overwhelming anxiety, confusion, instability, and loss. Despite these growing mental health concerns, many still have to continue working and treating the ill. 

It is important to remember that there can also be post-traumatic growth, not just distress during these times. There are important resiliency factors that could help buffer against developing any of the above-mentioned mental health disorders. These factors include, but are not limited to: not avoiding the situation and self-disclosure of distress or trauma to loved ones; having social support available to you and being connected with others (practicing safe physical distancing); spirituality, or having a sense of community or belonging; having an identity as a survivor, and finding hope and optimism wherever you can; helping others, and finding a positive meaning in the trauma.

Frontline workers should know that they are valued and appreciated for all that they are doing and sacrificing for the better of their community. I am offering pro bono services (1-5 sessions) for frontline healthcare workers in Ontario (through the Ontario COVID-19 Mental Health Network), and reduced cost services for other frontline workers. Please reach out if you need support – we are all in this together. 

Dr. Brianna Jaris, C.Psych. is a clinical psychologist at CFIR. She has extensive experience in psychological assessment and diagnosis and the treatment of a wide range of psychological issues, including trauma, depression, anxiety. She is currently the head of CFIR’s Trauma and PTSD service. 

Hold the Chocolate Chips: Change and How to Do It

Today, I scooped myself a bowl of ice cream. This is no different from countless other times I’ve done the same thing, save for one fact: I didn’t add chocolate chips. Now, let me back up for a second. I’ve been putting chocolate chips in my ice cream since I was a small boy. (somewhere out there in internet land, there is a mention of me eating too much ice cream-it’s true!).

Vanilla ice cream? Add some chocolate chips. Chocolate? Add chocolate chips. Cookie dough brownie with fudge? You guessed it, that’s going to get some chocolate chips too. So why didn’t I add them tonight? The answer: the global pandemic.

By now, I’m sure we’re all sick of reading about and talking about and hearing about the COVID-19 pandemic. So, I won’t belabour that. However, one side effect of the situation is that it’s caused almost all of us to re-think our routines. I didn’t add chocolate chips because when I went to grab another package at the grocery store earlier this week, they were all out (we really do seem to modulate our emotions with baked goods). That made me change a tiny part of my daily routine in a way I haven’t done for probably 20 years.

I’m betting that you, dear reader, might have had something similar happen to you in your week. Maybe you made that meal that you’ve been planning on for months. Maybe you cleaned the baseboards. Maybe you finally reached out and actually called your mother, or your grandmother (or their male counterparts!). Whatever it was, I’m betting that it felt weird at first, but that you felt better after doing it.

See, massive societal changes don’t just change things on the macro (read: big picture) level; they change on the micro, too.

Brent Mulrooney, M.A.S.P. | Therapist

See, massive societal changes don’t just change things on the macro (read: big picture) level; they change it on the micro, too. For 20 years, I have consistently thought that ice cream just wasn’t right without chocolate chips, so I consistently added them to every bowl I’ve ever eaten. Today, because of a situation entirely out of my control, I changed my habit. But here’s the thing: I liked it better. I tried it and I liked it better.

That got me to thinking. How often do we recognize that there’s something happening in our lives that just doesn’t sit right with us? Maybe you don’t call your friends because you think you’re going to bother them? Maybe you want to say hello to someone in an elevator, but you get shy because you’ve never done it before and …don’t weird people do that? (I say hello quite often, so make of that what you will). Maybe you want to start going to the gym, but you haven’t found the right day, or the right time, or the right gym outfit.

Yet, when we actually try something new, those tales we tell ourselves don’t often hold water. Sometimes they’re just not true. Sometimes, the ice cream is better without the chocolate chips.

Looking to start a journey towards change and your life? Mental health professionals at CFIR can help you navigate where you’re coming from and support you in developing healthy strategies to build an emotionally healthy future.

Brent Mulrooney, Ph.D., is a therapist at the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships. He works with individuals and families to improve mood, anxiety, relationships, work, and school. He also works to alleviate problems associated with substance use, learning difficulties (including ADHD and Learning Disabilities), bullying, trauma, violence, grief and loss, transitions in life, self-esteem, gender identity, sexuality, and intimate relationships.

Lessons from a Bereaved Cancer Parent on How to Emotionally Survive the COVID-19 Pandemic

Almost two years ago, the worst thing in the world happened: my precious, loving, silly, joyful, brilliant, freshly two-year-old son was unexpectedly diagnosed with cancer. Despite putting him through every treatment available, nine months after that, he suddenly began to decline, and one day, he came to die in my arms. 

For the past two years, I have been living every parent’s absolute worst nightmare, every single moment of every single day. 

And yet, for the past two years, I have also maintained a thriving psychotherapy practice; expanded my skills and hobbies and personal culture; developed a deeper practice of self-compassion; cultivated a stronger sense of connection with others both close and far and across different life domains; and immersed in a strong sense of meaning and purpose, more than I could have ever imagined at any point in my life before losing my son… 

This era that the world has been ushered into so suddenly and most unexpectedly, by the novel coronavirus and COVID-19, reminds me in so many important ways of the life of a cancer parent:

  • One day, you and I each woke up to a whole new world. Nothing was as we expected it to be anymore. All of the mainstays of our day-to-day lives, everything we had come to count and rely on, everything that made us feel like our normal selves—our daily routines, our goods and services, our relationships with others, all the sights and sounds we had grown accustomed to—had seemingly ceased to exist. Our sense of normality, sense of safety and security, hopes and dreams for the future—all of these and more were shaken to their very core, one day, oh-so-unexpectedly. And this new world had no roadmap. We felt lost and disoriented and scared.
  • As we took in the intensity and severity of what was happening around us, we lost the luxury of ever forgetting, even for a second, how fragile life really is. Without a moment’s notice, everything can change, even for the worst, despite our best efforts and wishful thinking. Our shared experiences, like confinement to our homes, financial strain, social isolation, perceived scarcity, and a sense of helplessness, all combine to worsen the impacts of the situation further, while also failing to make it better. 
  • We learned, in an undeniable way, once and for all, that we are all vulnerable—that even we are impermanent.

When our basic sense of normal is so shaken up—when we understand that we are vulnerable to this disease, that it can get and take us or our loved ones, or at least, our financial means and other things that mean so much to us, this is such a massive weight that becomes piled onto our shoulders. 

“…even when the worst thing imaginable happens, we can still be okay.”

Reesa Packard, M.A., Ph.D., R.P. 

Notice that in calm times, to feel free and peaceful and relatively unburdened, the fragility of life and our inherent vulnerability is not always at the forefront of our thoughts—it simply cannot be. To feel okay enough in the present moment, we cannot also be so terribly consumed with what might happen in the next moment, or tomorrow, or next month or year.

The burden is so heavy that we cannot sustain carrying it so much all of the time. Sometimes we have to put it away and change our focus to something else—ideally something uplifting, something that deeply soothes and nourishes, whatever that is for you (nature? connection with self or other? a sense of something bigger than yourself? something creative? something fun?). 

COVID-19 and its consequences are still going to be there when you return to thinking about it, and your time away will not change anything significant, so we can surely all afford a good, well-deserved, full break from it every now and then.  

The helplessness of all of this is a common theme that I am hearing people struggle with the most. We want to protect ourselves; we want to fix it, and we want to be safe. To this, I offer some food for thought:   

  1. There is only so much that we can control. If we trouble ourselves with trying to control it all, all we end up with is despair. Learn, through credible sources, what we best understand for now as being some ways to protect yourself and your loved ones, and take these actions, and then speak to yourself directly to remind yourself: “I have done everything I can.” 
  2. Because we cannot control everything, there will be things that upset or stress us, that we cannot directly do anything about. In moments when these feelings strike, try to embrace them, and try to embrace yourself as you experience them. Speak to yourself again, this time to remind yourself: “this is hard—really, really hard—and we have to get through it. This will come to be okay, somehow, someday. It will pass because nothing has ever lasted forever, so nor will this”. 
  3. There is a harsh reality that none of us can truly ignore right now: even though we have done all we could, and coped as well as we could, sometimes, things still go wrong or not as planned. Sometimes all that we can do is not enough, and the worst happens anyway… And even as we work to accept this harsh reality, I am here to tell you—because I now absolutely know this to be true—that even when the worst thing imaginable happens, we can still be okay. We still get to wake up the next morning, coax ourselves out of bed, and choose to find or create the meaning and purpose that keeps us going. We can make it through, and we will make it through. 

Suffering is relative. Many of you have already survived so much. Some other hard thing you lived through before this might have already felt like “the hardest thing ever.” This, right now, may or may not be harder. 

Remember that you are strong and resourceful and have a lot, already inside of you that can help get you through this. You have come this far, and you will keep trekking forth. 

Remember that you are not alone and that we are globally in this together through our common humanity and shared experience. 

Remember that we can choose to approach this current crisis with the goal of simply trying to make the most it that we can while trying to minimize negative impacts as best we can. 

Remember that the brain and the body respond to the demands that we place on them. Whether or not you can imagine this, you can and will grow in incredible ways as you live this extreme experience that is capable of stretching you, far beyond the confines of your previous self that didn’t yet have to deal with all of this. 

Remember that we can and that we will. 

Take good care. 

Reesa Packard, M.A., Ph.D., R.P. is an Associate and registered psychotherapist at CFIR (Ottawa). She has a doctoral degree from the Saint Paul School of Psychotherapy & Spirituality and works in private practice as a registered psychotherapist. She works with clients hoping to develop a more integrated sense of self as a means to well-being and meaningful, lasting transformation. Reesa is also involved in the teaching and supervision of psychotherapists-in-training and advanced knowledge through research in her specialty fields.

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