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Stay mentally healthy while staying at home

March 23, 2020 — 

Due to efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19, we will be spending a lot more time at home in the coming months. These changes to our routines and constant barrage of news related to the pandemic can make anyone feel anxious, adding to that the lack of social interaction.

We spoke to psychologist Dr. Patricia Furer, an associate professor in clinical health psychology in the Max Rady College of Medicine and head of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at St. Boniface Hospital, about how we can maintain our mental health while practicing physical distancing or self-isolating.         

Furer says the first thing people should do is acknowledge that it’s normal to have some anxiety and fear right now.

“This viral outbreak is a new thing. We’re still learning about it and figuring out what we’re supposed to be doing. There’s lots of uncertainty. I think these constant changes make most people feel a little anxious,” she says. “We want to be kind to ourselves and recognize it’s a natural reaction. It can also be a helpful reaction in that it can motivate us to take action to protect ourselves and others in a positive way.”

A good starting point in managing one’s mental health is to think about what you would typically do to manage stress and anxiety.

“Some of those same skills and strategies may be very applicable to managing the stress related to, for example, having to self-isolate,” says Furer.

Some ways to help manage stress and anxiety include:

  • Basic self-care strategies: Relaxation techniques, breathing exercises, meditation, yoga, stretching
  • Exercise: Seek out the free online videos that many gyms are posting or dust off the treadmill
  • Go outside for fresh air and walks in your yard or your neighbourhood (while maintaining social distancing)
  • Maintain a regular sleep schedule
  • Eat healthy food
  • Do not increase caffeine consumption
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs, which can increase anxiety levels

Since shifts in routine can contribute to stress and anxiety, try to maintain a daily schedule similar to a typical work or school day. People working from home should designate certain times and space as a “work zone.”

Furer says that people should also limit the amount of time they spend reading and hearing about COVID-19.

“There’s so much information online that people are getting overwhelmed by the sheer quantity. That tends to feed the anxiety when we’re reading too much. I would suggest people would be better off if they limited their online presence to no more than once a day.”

She suggests scheduling breaks from electronic devices and taking time to unwind.

“Remind yourself some of the anxiety and intensity you’re feeling will settle if you allow yourself to take a break,” says Furer.

When seeking out information, stick to well-established authorities and avoid less reliable sources such as social media platforms.

Since many people will be spending time alone, Furer says people should think about how they can connect with friends, family and colleagues as much as possible, whether it’s by phone, email or other means.

“Stand in your driveway and chat to your neighbour from a safe distance apart. Even a few minutes of connection with another human being can be really helpful,” she says.

Furer also suggests planning a variety of activities throughout the day to keep yourself engaged and interested.

“If you’re in a self-isolation phase where you need to be at home for several weeks, it’s important to plan some structure in your day, and not spend the whole day on Netflix. This is a nice time for people to refocus on hobbies,” she says.

Some activity ideas:

  • Listening to podcasts (not on the pandemic but any other topic of interest to you)
  • Spending time on a language app
  • Cleaning out a closet
  • Getting to a novel you haven’t had time to read
  • Cooking and baking

Furer’s final piece of advice: “I think that people can really benefit from reminding themselves that they’re resilient. Most people have had to cope with stressful things in the past. If we take this one day at a time, people are very capable and can handle challenging situations like this one.”

 

Resources:

Canadian Psychological Association

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (includes a section on things parents can do to manage their children’s anxiety)

Anxiety Disorders Association of Manitoba

UM Employee and Family Assistance Program (EFAP) plan members and their dependents can contact Lifeworks by Morneau Shepell at 1-800-387-4765 (English) or 1-800-361-5676 (French).

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