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March 17, 2020 by Speakers' Spotlight

Managing Your Mental Health During a Pandemic

Major public health crises impact us all, infiltrating our everyday life with added stress and anxiety. At a time when we’re all looking for ways to stay healthy, mental health experts Mark Henick and Dr. Shimi Kang have been sharing some of their top tips to help people manage their mental health while following recommended preventative steps during the Coronavirus pandemic.

1) Understand This Will Pass

“Like all challenging public health events, we will get through this and we’ll learn from it,” Mark said in a phone interview with CTVNews.ca.

It’s important for people with anxiety, especially extreme anxiety, to be reminded that this pandemic will inevitably pass and that they will get through it. There are simple ways to protect yourself from the virus, such as washing your hands, avoiding close contact, etc., and, along with the bad news, there is good news that a high percentage of people have not been infected and/or have recovered. Reminding ourselves of this can help manage uncertainty and fear.

2) Remember You Are Not Alone

Community matters now more than ever. We can only stop the spread of the virus by working together. Speaking with Breakfast Television Vancouver, Dr. Shimi Kang first spoke about panic buying, encouraging people to step away from that panic before entering a grocery store. While we should follow recommendations and ensure we are taking care of ourselves and our families, she said, we also need to remember that we are in this together and that panic buying will only put everyone at risk later on.

It’s also important, Shimi said, not to judge other people for their feelings of anxiety and fear. We should listen to each other and, most importantly, label what we’re feeling by using language such as “I feel scared” or “I feel panic.”

This will help prevent us from sitting in our fear-based emotion, which will only trigger a stress response, release cortisol, and actually weaken our immune system.

Honour the fear, Shimi said, and take the steps needed to feel better by talking with others and using those age-old calming techniques, such as deep, slow breathing; positive thinking; and optimism. Now is the time to start applying them.

3) Practice Physical Distancing Not Social Distancing

Self-isolation and social distancing are some of the top ways to stop the spread of the virus. This can be very dangerous for people though, especially those already suffering from mental illness, as we are social beings.

Shimi prefers the term physical distancing, as social distancing implies that we can’t connect with each other socially, while that’s not the case.

“One of the great parts of living in such a highly connected world now is that we have many ways of connecting with people and I think that we need to make the effort to do that,” Mark said.

Family members and loved ones should reach out to each other to check in and remind each other that we’re not alone through phone calls, video chats, etc. Regular social events can still take place virtually, such as virtual book club meeting, family dinners, etc.

4) Follow the News in Moderation

“Something that people do when they’re anxious, especially in times like this, is to overconsume media about it,” Mark said. “That’s just the way our brain works. We’re looking for answers, we’re looking for reassurance.”

While it’s important to stay informed, it’s equally important to pick and choose where you consume your news and when. Don’t overload yourself with content coming from hundreds of different sources across social channels, news outlets, etc. Take a break, re-group, and then come back to it when it’s right for you.

5) Develop Coping Strategies

Self-care strategies are key to staying healthy, mentally and physically, especially in times of stress. This can include following your interests – reading, listening to music, chatting with a friend, etc. – to employing more structured self-care activities such as mindfulness, meditation, etc.

Shimi shared three of her favourite coping strategies to help manage emotions.

  1. Play: It is okay to have fun, she said, and take the time to do the things we enjoy. Follow your passions, and take this time to explore them – learn that new instrument, tackle that “to read” list, etc.
  2. Others: We are social beings. We have a need to see and hear each other. Use facetime, or other means, to be connected and find those moments of love and laughter that we crave. Remember it’s “physical distancing” not “social distancing”.
  3. Downtime: Remember self-care. Now is not the time to deprive yourself of sleep and healthy habits. Take care of yourself, reflect, unplug from social media and news when needed, and practice mindfulness and gratitude. There is room for optimism amongst the negativity that surrounds us.