By Sue Tiffin
Working collaboratively to support each other and reaching out for care to access all of the available resources remain two key messages during the fourth wave and after more than a year and a half of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Jack Veitch, manager of community engagement and education, Canadian Mental Health Association, Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge.
“I think it’s safe to say everybody is experiencing strain or stress,” said Veitch. “I think it’s safe to say for many there is sort of some more hope coming into this wave. The wave, the latest news is saying it’s plateaued, and I think there’s some – I wouldn’t say all, but some if not many – that are actually excited about the vaccinations and seeing an opportunity. Obviously others are not. I think there is some level of hope in this wave, which for me is a really positive outlook. Some light at the end of the tunnel, almost.”
Healthy lifestyle for wellness as winter approaches
“We’re living in a constant state of stressor,” said Veitch. “For many of us, constantly. If you have your body in that fight or flight response every day, all day for months, it’s just inevitably, it crumbles. You can’t carry weight like that for a long time and it’s why it’s so important that we’re doing things for our mental health and wellness.”
Veitch notes there are simple things to do to get ourselves on the right track that he speaks to often: Making a conscious effort to eat as healthy as possible – with treats, too; getting a good night’s sleep – sleeping properly and regularly, focusing on the circadian rhythm; being active and getting outdoors and socializing with others in safe ways with social distance in place.
“The lifestyle pieces, now more than ever, especially coming into the winter, we’re going to have shorter days, we’re going to have less sunlight, we’re going to have less opportunity to be out, outdoors doing fun things,” he said. “So let’s start to be more proactive. Let’s start to plan. Let’s start to build plans for, what could I do in the coming months? What am I looking forward to? What safe activities could I be engaged in? And building those plans now. Let’s plan ahead for the winter that we know is coming.”
Parents encouraged to ‘focus on the things we can control’
Sending a largely unvaccinated group of children back to school during the fourth wave, with the highly contagious Delta variant making headlines throughout Europe and the United States, Veitch said there is a feeling of “walking on eggshells” for many in the community.
“We’re sending our kids to school and we’re just really hoping, really hoping it’s going to be OK,” he said.
“I think what I would encourage parents to do is to focus on the things we can control,” he said. “It’s really easy to sort of get into that spiral state of, “oh my goodness, I’m going to send my kids to school, then they’re going to get sick, then I’m going to have to take time off work, then we’ll have to take the test, then they’re going to close the schools, then I’ll be working from home … it’s easy to sort of snowball, though I would say let’s focus on the things we can control, and focus on today.”
Preparing, if possible, for a contingency plan and knowing how a family might adapt to changes and disruptions and possible illness throughout the school year can be helpful.
“But really start to break it down into manageable chunks,” he said. “It’s actually a piece of cognitive behavioural therapy, trying to chunk out tasks. When we look at a mountain in front of us and the mountain is trying to get through the school year, that can be overwhelming. But if I break it down to more manageable chunks – what am I going to do to get through this week with my kids, what is the plan going to be for schooling, for home care. What am I going to do – intentionally building in time – and I can’t stress this enough, for that self-care and my own wellness. How am I going to make it through these little bits of time? A little bit at a time, break it down into chunks. There’s a saying in this therapy – how do you eat an elephant? Well, you eat it one bite at a time. If you think about eating the whole thing it’s going to be overwhelming, but we just focus on one bite at a time.”
With the announcement that vaccines might soon be approved for use in children under 12, Veitch said many are celebrating. “But I know for others, there’s probably a lot of anxious moments and fear and I think sort of recognizing that for many and validating that for a lot is important, too. Hopefully, through conversation and discussion, we can help to alleviate a lot of those stressors and fears that people might have.”
Getting through this, together
With emotions being heightened at this time, the choice for some to be vaccinated and others to choose not to receive the vaccine, or for some to gather while others don’t has created monumental rifts in relationships.
“Meeting someone’s resistance with anger or defiance or frustration is going to be an ill-effective way – an uneffective way – to work through conversation,” said Veitch. “Meeting their position with anger or frustration doesn’t create opportunity for anyone to move forward or learn or change opinion. It sort of encourages them to firm their ground, to defend their position. What I would encourage people to do, is that instead of meeting that sort of defiance with the facts or stats, the ‘here’s where you’re wrong, here’s what doctors are saying…’ I would focus on validating their feelings. Every behaviour serves a purpose, healthy or unhealthy. If this person has a really firmly held behaviour or position, it’s rooted in their feelings, somewhere. It’s rooted in something. Maybe it’s fear, maybe it’s frustration, maybe it’s anger for a sense of loss of control. Let’s focus on those feelings.”
In that case, Veitch said we can acknowledge how people feel, and ask about how they’re feeling, if they’re frustrated, and what we can do to help them feel better, or who else can they talk to to help alleviate some of those feelings.
“Instead of being angry or defiant or aggressive … I heard it said once that when two people disagree, that the stronger I argue their point, I don’t work to change their mind, I just further show them why they disagree with me,” said Veitch. “Instead of that, let’s focus on the feelings they might be feeling, try to find that common ground, and encourage them to sort of reach out to those trusted medical professionals that could help them answer some of their questions or help them address those feelings they might be experiencing.”
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“I think it’s really important for many people to acknowledge, and for all of us to say, you’re not alone,” said Veitch. “If you’re feeling anxious or stressed or overwhelmed, those are feelings that you’re not experiencing on an island, I hope, there are others there, too and there are things you can do to be well.”
It’s essential, he said, to take some time to self-reflect.
“Do that little check in – how am I doing?,” said Veitch. “How are things going for me? How long have I felt the way I’m feeling, and what can I do to be well? How can I make intentional time to focus on my wellness? It’s hard, you know, to build time for ourselves, when we spend our whole lives, especially as parents or caregivers caring for everybody else. Let’s intentionally schedule time to take care of our own health and wellness.”
Veitch said that when he would do sessions on anxiety and depression in front of a live crowd, pre-pandemic, he would see audience members with a pen and paper checking off what seemed to be a list as he was speaking.
“It was almost as if they were saying, OK, once I get enough checkmarks, or enough little ticks, then it’s time for me to reach out for help,” he said. “And what I’ll always tell people is, when is the right time to reach out for help? Whenever you want. If I had low mood and anxious feelings for seven minutes and I did not want to feel that way, there are absolutely things I can do to better improve that mood or those feelings. Again, it’s not always intensive psychotherapy or a dedicated medication regime – it might be – but it’s those little things I can do to actively engage my mental wellness. If I feel low for two minutes, and I want to work to improve it, let’s get up, let’s get active, get outside, get some sunlight, call a friend, reach out to a colleague. The little things you can do to work on your mood right away.”
Bounceback, a free, guided self-led program aims to help people experiencing mild-to-moderate anxiety or depression, who may be feeling low, jealous, angry, stressed or irritable. Visit BouncebackOntario.ca or call 1-866-345-0224 for more information.
Free, professional, confidential crisis support for anyone struggling with mental health, relationships, addiction or work life, 24 hours a day, seven days a week is available by calling Four County Crisis at 705-745-6484 or 1-866-995-9933. Visit http://cmhahkpr.ca/ for more information.