Island professionals offer pandemic coping tips

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Part II of a series

MANITOULIN – Many people have adapted very well to the current realities of living during the COVID-19 pandemic but some are struggling with feelings of anxiety, anger, tension or fear due to acute stress. People are out of work or the way they work has changed; children are home and so are parents; finances are strained and the future is uncertain. The Expositor spoke with local mental health professionals for insight into the added stressors of COVID-19 and strategies for coping.

Allan Chislett deals mostly with developmental trauma or complex PTSD. Because his caseload is fixed and consistent, he can’t speak about persons in crisis but he is having to manage existing clients and the current stresses they are experiencing. Often those in crisis have “pre-existing relational problems that are exacerbated by the confinement,” he explained. “Typically what you see is people who are always struggling, they start to activate during these difficult times. I think for the most part what you’re seeing is people who are more than likely going to be triggered, it just takes the right circumstances for it to push and that’s why you see the increase in domestic violence,” for example.

In his practice he’s found that clients are worried about added pressure from family members, making it harder to focus, or they’re juggling an added workload at home with kids and with homework. “You have two people working in the home, both employed, both working from home,” he said, “now they have to juggle the kids, they have to help them with their homework but they’re not good with math, not good at science and the pressures are building up.”

When there are problems in the workplace, Mr. Chislett said you can leave work and go home to vent your frustrations but that’s not possible in the current situation when people are working at home. “Maybe somebody’s working from home and they don’t get to debrief and they’re having trouble with a partner. In the workplace it’s not that it’s anything new. It’s the same old problems in the workplace that are occurring except they’re exacerbated in times of stress; you have a bully in the workplace and they’re hard on the person over video so then you have a person working at home, having a Zoom meeting and when the meeting is over they’re flustered,” he said.

He suggests setting up a separate office space. “Set up an office in the spare bedroom. Make that your office space and stay out of the kitchen, stay out of the house space,” he said.

It’s about getting focused, said Mr. Chislett. “In the military they talk about maintenance of the objective, meaning that everything you do should be designed to maintain the goal you’re trying to reach. If you’re on a convoy and you drop your helmet, it’s not your objective to pick it up. Your objective is to get somewhere so your helmet stays on the ground. You have to focus on the objective. How do you get there? How do you do it?”

Focus on what you know how to do and then do it well. “When you go to the grocery store, do everything right. Focus on that. Stay in the moment and focus on what you can do.” Simple things you can do include washing your hands, covering your mouth when coughing and avoiding non-essential travel.

Gerlinde Goodwin of Gerline Goodwin Counselling and Consulting reminds people that staying home and following the recommendations with regards to physical distancing and handwashing is indeed making a personal contribution to the health of others. People get bored and feel they should be doing something so she explains that’s how they’re playing their part.

Ms. Gerlinde thinks it’s important to express gratitude as part of a daily practice. “We have the time now to reflect and prioritize more, to be grateful for the things we have. We can reorganize the way we want to live our lives. COVID-19 has created a space for this type of reflection.” She recommends doing something positive for others, whether it’s volunteering, sewing masks for your family or helping with a cause.

Taking time for self-care is the foundation of wellness. That means daily exercise, good sleeping habits, eating properly and being a part of a community. “These principles of wellness apply universally whether we are in a time of COVID or we’re not,” said Ms. Gerlinde, but agrees that COVID-19 can make this a challenge. Closed parks, trails and gyms made it difficult to stay active. Twenty to 30 minutes a day of activity is recommended. “Jump or dance around to four or five songs on the radio,” she suggested. “Go for a walk now that the weather is improving.”

Make it a mindful walk by taking in the sights and sounds of everything around you. “Just being really present in the now is very helpful. If you stay rooted in the present moment you will not travel to the realms of the future or the past so you won’t be playing the ‘what if’ game.”

Using your senses helps you to stay in the moment. Baking bread, for example, activates smell, touch and taste. Petting our dogs or cats, wearing our favourite sweater are tactile things. These feel good and are simple, holistic ways to feel personal comfort and relief. “We derive a lot of positive energy from those five senses,” she said. “These all bring us pleasure. The minute we activate those pleasure hormones or endorphins we’re counteracting stress.”

Eight to 10 hours of sleep daily is recommended. Relaxation and mindfulness can help manage stress and anxiety and contribute to better sleep. Videos and audio recordings for relaxation are widely available. “Be in the moment,” Mr. Chislett said. “Manage your physiology by managing your breathing and focusing on your body.” 

Manage your news feed. The news about COVID-19 is everywhere 24 hours a day. People tend to focus on the horror stories and worry about what happens if it affects them personally, or their families. Take the time to refocus, said Mr. Chislett. “If you’re worried about getting ill because of the virus tell yourself you know how to keep yourself safe. You know how to read. You know how to look up information. You can make masks.”

Ms. Goodwin agrees. “There’s not a lot of good news out there,” she said. “If you spend your day watching hours of bad news on television, over and over and over again, it’s going to have an impact on you.”

It’s important to not only limit the quantity of news you watch, said Ms. Gerlinde, but also the quality. “Get good information from reputable sites, get news from accurate news sources and limit what you look at.”

“Use the news to inform yourself but then focus on what do you know how to do,” said Mr. Chislett. “Be discerning. You have to understand that maybe it’s not all accurate, or maybe it’s accurate to only one locale.”

Make sure you reach out. While many platforms exist to keep us connected and do what they do quite well, we are social creatures, said Ms. Gerlinde, not lone wolves. We live together in communities so the way we are connecting now does not entirely satisfy our needs but we still need to continue interact with others in a positive and meaningful way.

These are simple strategies for taking care of yourself. Eat healthy meals. Sleep eight to 10 hours every night. Exercise for 20 to 30 minutes daily. Limit your news to reliable sources and limit how much news you watch. Create a separate workspace within your home. Focus on what you can do and be mindful. Use your senses to release feel good endorphins. Finally, stay connected with others.

If you practice self care and still feel panicked or overwhelmed, reach out to a family member, friend or co-worker if you feel safe doing so or contact your family health team for a referral. Alternately, the crisis outreach clinic can be reached at (705) 368-0756 Monday through Friday from 8:30 am until 4:30 pm.