It’s no real surprise: COVID-19 has had a profound impact on the mental health for many of us. Mental Health Research Canada’s most recent poll showed that Canadians are citing their highest levels of anxiety to date, with significant increases since the first wave of the pandemic more than a year ago.
And now, with a vaccination rollout providing hope that we might soon be able to gather again (on some scale), it’s possible some people will still struggle with the initial readjustment to being in social environments (agoraphobia, we missed you never).
We spoke with mental health professionals about the impact COVID-19 has had on mental health and to gather some insight on how to cope with the coming readjustment period when things start opening back up.
Tip 1: Bring something comforting to hold
Vania Sukola, a registered psychotherapist who works with new parents and those experiencing trauma, suggests having something nearby that you know will be calming when you are going into an anxiety-inducing event. That can look like a toy or trinket or something else that reminds you of a comforting memory. Even just having that in your bag and knowing that it is there when you need it can help you feel more secure when leaving the house.
Tip 2: Establish boundaries and plans
Sukola also says that a cause for many peoples’ anxiety is that their boundaries are shifting. Before, no one could come into your house or plan a meetup. But, as things change, those boundaries start to look different. She suggests trying to establish new boundaries with the people you’re meeting up with and being clear about your concerns. “Tell a friend ahead of time that you’re concerned and make a deal to leave if it gets too much… Say what you need to be comfortable. For example, how much space do you need between you to feel safe?”
Tip 3: Check in with your body and surroundings
A key way to cope with anxiety is through grounding yourself in your environment and body. Take a moment to check in with where you are and how your body feels.
“Orient yourself in your room. Notice something specific. Then take a breath and notice how your body feels. Turn your head and look at a different object, take a breath, and notice your body,” Sukola says.
You may also like: 8 ways to practice self-care during the pandemic.
Tip 4: Embrace uncertainty
Raquel Cader, a psychotherapist and counsellor focused on general counselling with adults, notes that “folks who have struggled more with COVID, and who will likely struggle more with the post-COVID adjustment are those who are uncomfortable with uncertainty.”
She suggests using that uncertainty as a way to fight against your worry, pointing out that COVID-19 has already shown us that certainty is an illusion. Similarly, there’s no way to be certain that your anxieties about seeing your friends will be accurate. Cader points out that embracing the “Don’t Know” mind can help suspend anxious thought patterns.
“Just like we didn’t know what would happen over the past year, you also don’t know that your encounter with your friends won’t go well. Embrace that you don’t know.”
Tip 5: The tapping solution
Another tool that Cader notes is helpful in managing anxiety is The Tapping Solution. This online resource and app helps users use tapping methods to lessen their feelings of stress. This looks like tapping lightly along a series of points across your body, including your chin, head and collarbone, while thinking of what causes you stress. This is rooted in acupressure techniques and is something that can be done anywhere.
Tip 6: Tell your friends you’re scared
Samantha Sherer, a registered psychotherapist who does talk and art therapy, says that it helps to communicate your concerns, especially since most people probably share some of those concerns.
“Say out loud ‘I feel scared’, because they probably feel scared too and will be able to have some compassion. We have the unique opportunity to be transparent about how we’re feeling, and know other others feel the same.”
Tip 7: The palm/thumb technique
A self-soothing technique Sherer developed is the Palm/Thumb Technique. This consists of gently but firmly gliding your thumb across the palm of your opposite hand. As your thumb moves toward your fingers, focus on the feeling of your palm. As your thumb moves back toward your wrist, focus on the feeling of your thumb. As Sherer puts it, “it is impossible to think of anything else when you’re focusing on that.”
This is something easy that you can use to quiet any anxious thoughts or worries wherever you are!
Tip 8: Keep your mind occupied
Sherer also notes that it is helpful, when dealing with anxiety, to try to occupy your mind with something that requires all your attention. Some options to do that include conjugating verbs in any language or counting backwards from any number by intervals of six.
The key is to “tie up your brain with simple mental tasks to prevent circular thoughts”, says Sherer.
Tip 9: Identify something you can see, hear, smell, taste and feel
Another thing that can help with both keeping your mind occupied and grounding yourself is to identify something you can see, hear, smell, taste and feel. Sherer adds that specificity is important with this exercise. Rather than saying that you can see the wall, say that you can see the scratch in the wall. After each thing you identify, check in with your own feelings, and once you’ve done them all, try to say your name, your age, the date and the address of the location you are at. This can help you bring your focus back to your body and this specific time and place.
Tip 10: Practice compassionate self-talk
It is important to remember that readjustment is going to take some time, and to have patience with yourself even when you feel worry, stress or anxiety. Sukola adds that it is important to talk to yourself with compassion when you are having anxious thoughts.
“It is important to build a habit of having a dialogue of self-talk, rather than a monologue of fear,” she says.
Ask yourself key questions about how you’re feeling, where that feeling is happening in your body, when you tend to feel most anxious, and what steps you can take to alleviate those feelings.
According to Sokula, doing that can help the ongoing management of anxiety, as it encourages “having a relationship with anxiety, rather than a reaction to it.”