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Maintaining mental health and mindfulness during the COVID-19 pandemic

Calls for social-distancing and isolation are growing in Saskatchewan, with the province declaring a state of emergency after COVID-19 cases in the province doubled in one day.

The ever-evolving conditions of the pandemic are naturally affecting people’s mental health.

Gordon Asmundson, a psychology professor at the University of Regina who is researching the psychological impact of viral outbreaks, said distancing is critical, but can be hard.

“It’s certainly a challenge for many of us, for most of us, but it is not an overreaction,” he said.

So what can people do for their mental health during a time of uncertainty and disruption?

Validate this ‘weird’ experience

Myrna Kanigan, director of programs for Saskatoon Family Services, said people should reframe the idea of “social distancing” to a temporary “physical distancing.” It’s not forever, she said, and people can still connect through calls, electronic messages or hand-written letters.

Kanigan urged people to talk to someone openly during this time of “heightened anxiety” and reach out to others behaving a little differently.

“What we can do is just validate: this is a really interesting, weird time right now,”  Kanigan said.

She said it’s paramount people prioritize personal care by making sure they get proper sleep, exercise and even fresh air, if possible.

Kanigan said people react differently to situations and their reactions can be affected by their personal circumstances, community and what’s available to them.

“This is an unprecedented time right now. We really are experiencing a lot of emotional roller-coasters.”

Keeping balanced

Asmundson said responses to past pandemics or viral outbreaks show that “in situations of uncertainty and ever-changing understanding of what’s happening, some people respond with considerable fear, anxiety and stress.”

These are the people who give in to “panic-buying” or overburden the health care system because they’re worried.

He said fear can be contagious.

“If we see people fleeing for the fire exit we don’t stop and wonder why, we also flee for the fire exit.”

He said some might react in the opposite way, under-responding. That means they might not take social distancing seriously and could inadvertently spread the virus.

Asmundson encouraged balance in emotion and said people can still strive for normalcy in this new reality.

For people working remotely, he said establishing a routine or schedule and sticking to it can keep the anxiety at bay.

Slow down and find the silver-linings

Asmundson said people should “stay informed but don’t over consume the news or the social media.”

He echoed the idea of reframing the isolation.

“Try not to view this as ‘I’m stuck inside’ and instead view this as an opportunity to focus on yourself, your home, your family,” he said.

Extra time can be used to exercise, help the neighbours, try a new recipe or catch up on sleep. While spending time with each other can help, Asmundson said allowing the people you live with their personal space and setting boundaries is important.

“Just slow things down a little bit and try to find some silver linings in the very difficult situation.”

Mindfulness to reduce anxiety

The practice of mindfulness can be helpful in managing symptoms of anxiety, stress or mood, said Adam Stacey, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Saskatchewan.

He defined mindfulness as paying attention to the present moment on purpose (with intention) without judgement and with kindness.

Stacey said it’s important people control where they put their attention and when.

He said taking a moment to check in with yourself or STOP (Stop, Take a breath, Observe, Proceed) can help throughout the day.

Modelling calmness for the kids while working at home

Stacey said the STOP method works for people of any age, but can be particularly useful when transitioning kids from one activity to another, something that may become important for parents whose children are out of school.

He said the way adults respond to stressful events — like navigating a provincial emergency amid a pandemic — has an incredible impact on the youth around them.

Children look to caregivers and adults as a model of how to respond, he said.

“If we are reacting in a panicked, quite reactive manner that’s going to influence their response,” Stacey said.

He suggested adults now socially distancing at home with kids should mindfully listen to their concerns before responding in an age-appropriate, informed way.

Conversations like these can keep kids calm, as opposed to becoming “an anxious mess like maybe some of their parents are,” he said.

CBC

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