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Sharing strategies to help manage stress and anxiety as we continue to adapt to our pandemic driven environment

Written by Katherine Henderson, CEO Curling Canada, WISE TO Founding Board Member
Prescription for the Pandemic was a lunchtime gathering designed for our community, held on February 26, 2021.

“We all know this has been a very long winter” began Tanya Phillips, WISE Toronto’s Board Member and Diversity and Inclusion Chair. “Extended lockdowns have kept us away from loved ones, colleagues, events, experiences, everything we are passionate about, for this extended period of time; it all seemed so unimaginable a year ago.  In addition to additional social and racial injustices leaving us traumatized, we are hurting and we are distressed”. 

She added that IMI International, the presenting sponsor, recently shared research that seven in ten Canadians are concerned about their health and nearly four in ten are severely concerned. 

Tanya presented that we gather together to discuss and to discover strategies of coping with stress and health issues, and she introduced us to two remarkable women.

Joining WISE and our on-line community, was frontline hero and highly respected family practitioner, Dr. Sheila Wijayasinghe in conversation with the incredible media personality Kate McKenna.

“It’s so important that you are all here and have taken time for this discussion” were Dr. Sheila’s opening words.  And, with a deep community breath taken to separate our time together from a stressful morning, our conversation began. 

“The majority of people who are coming to see me - it’s related to their mental health, burnout, feelings of sadness and being overwhelmed that have accumulated over the last year.  It’s difficult to talk about as it’s stigmatized still, despite it being so common”.  Dr. Sheila reviewed with us the differences between sadness and depression.  She acknowledged that most of us are sad and grieving now, but worries more about patients who are unable to function as they once did, have stopped communicating with friends and loved ones, or cannot find pleasure in things that used to bring them happiness. These are symptoms of depression and require some health intervention.  She reviewed options for accessing help in treating more serious symptoms, both in person and virtually, including family doctors, Wellness Together Canada, Bounceback Ontario and employer support services and other resources for specific needs. 

The discussion evolved when a question from our community was asked about the anxiety of returning to a post-pandemic world.  The first thing to do is to acknowledge that these anxious situations will arise as we move into new situations and become aware of their risks.  She recommends, if at all possible, a gradual return to work and a reach out for support resources if needed. 

“The amount of loss that we’re processing is so heavy” was Kate’s lead into her questions about grief.  Dr. Sheila pointed out that we all live different lives and how we grieve is rooted in our history, our culture, and how we have been taught to express our emotions in childhood.  She offered exercises in understanding one’s grief; writing out what we’ve missed so we can honour those things that we feel we have lost, was one suggestion.  More migraine headaches, sleep issues, abdominal issues other physical manifestations are signs that people are grieving, and these may manifest from not being able to express, in a healthy way, what we are feeling. There are particularly vulnerable groups to the effects of grief and its associated symptoms, at this moment in time, particularly racialized people, those who have suffered trauma or intergenerational trauma and who are truly experiencing a double pandemic.  In these cases, Dr. Sheila reviewed specialized resources and therapy such as Healing in Colour or Talk for Healing

Kate moved the conversation to managers of people who are trying to create safe spaces so that their employees could feel supported.  It was discussed that all people at work are feeling incredibly vulnerable and stressed, including management.  Dr. Sheila has noticed that, while there is an epidemic of burnout and mental stress, people who have a supportive workplace have been able to return to work more quickly.  Acknowledgment is incredibly important as a foundational step in managing uncertain and stressful times.  Utilizing employee program supports, taking a vacation even when there’s nowhere to go, setting time or space boundaries between home and work life, are all ways in which we can create a supportive environment for both employee and manager.  Self-permission for the time and space we need away from work is critical to managing this.  Dr. Sheila gave us all a “prescription” to block off time in our schedules at least once a week for ourselves and suggested we do this for our staff.

“It feels like we are living at work”, Kate McKenna described as we moved the topic to burnout.  Dr. Sheila described “burnout” as the feeling of being mentally and physically unable to engage with work things that used to bring satisfaction.  Irritability, avoidance, lack of real engagement becomes rampant when one can’t get away from work and it looms constantly.  Burnout is related to anxiety disorders and depression, so it’s critical that burnout is addressed.  Dr. Sheila discussed evidence-based ways of managing burnout when most of our coping strategies are limited to what we can do within our homes.  Practicing gratitude, connecting with others in small ways, mindfulness practices, and meditation were discussed.  In highly charged situations she outlined potential need for some cognitive behaviour therapy for on-going stressful thoughts and provided us with some breathing techniques (box breathing!) for acute management of anxiety.

Kate then brought up the topic of social isolation.  Dr. Sheila asked us to acknowledge that loneliness and isolation are real and reminded us that we are our best resources to help one another.  Check-ins with one another are especially important during this time. 

Dr. Sheila and Kate discussed communities who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and what we can all do to help.  From food bank donations to supporting programs for our black and indigenous brothers and sisters, Dr. Sheila spoke that there are many areas that we can contribute to and by doing so we are helping ourselves and contributing to our sense of connection to others. 

“It’s really hard to parent right now” as we think through strategies for dealing with children at home during extended school closures. We are managing our own anxiety about the pandemic, but also the feelings of others, who may not have the ability to understand why they cannot see their friends or do things that make them happy.  Our children’s feelings can lead to behaviour changes, skills regressions, and mood lowering.  Open conversations at home and helping children identify what they are feeling, finding children professional support, if needed, and accessing help, such as art therapy, are some suggestions.

For those of us who are not working because of the pandemic, how do you help find productivity, purpose, and joy?  If this is sudden, Dr. Sheila suggests that you first concentrate on financial matters first that might cause anxiety issues and access government programs.  In the longer term, movement, being outdoors, connecting with people, volunteerism – even virtual volunteerism -- are all suggestions for finding meaning and mental release.  She suggested that this might be a good time to think about a well-being project such as exercise or working on sleep hygiene. 

For managing our health, sleep is critical and most of us are not getting what we need.  Creating routine sleep habits, avoiding alcohol and caffeine before bed, sticking to bedtimes are all are important pieces of groundwork for good and restorative sleep. 

Exercise has been shown to be as effective as anti-depressants for some people and so keeping a regular exercise routine is an important aspect of health.

Dr. Sheila has also noticed the effect of increased screen time related to eye strain, headaches, back pain from lack of movement, and poor posture and recommends limitations, regular breaks, and in some cases, ergonomic assessments of the working environment.  She suggested that we monitor and limit screen time where possible.

The conversation turned to reproductive health during this pandemic.  Dr. Sheila states that the medical community says that there is no reason to delay childbearing and that COVID 19 does not appear to have effects on pregnancy.  However, she acknowledges that it is challenging to be pregnant right now because the natural connections we have during pregnancy and supports are not there.  She reviewed some pregnancy and breastfeeding support programs that are available for those who are bearing children during this stressful time.

We felt supported and hopeful in our conversation with Dr. Sheila and Kate.  They reminded us that we are almost there and that there are good things coming.  In the spirit of our gathering, they summarized that “our best resource is each other, listening and speaking to one another and getting help when you need it is so important”.

Tanya Phillips summarized that the keyword is “acknowledgment” and that recognizing that it’s okay to be not okay during this time. 

Tanya closed with thanks to our guests, and our presenting sponsor, IMI International.  IMI recently completed a study amongst Canadian women and found that they are most looking forward to simple social interaction.  “The promise of coming together is what is going to see us through”, said Tanya. 

WISE Toronto is looking forward to those times when we can be together again.  In the meantime, all the resources that were discussed at Prescription for a Pandemic are listed below.  This event was also recorded.  Please feel free to take in the discussion at the link below.  We also extend an invitation to join our WISE community through membership with the benefits of mentorship.  Since the start of the pandemic over 500+ hours of WISE community support and mentorship have taken place.  

Dr. Sheila’s resource list: 

Wellness Together Canada: ca.portal.gs
This government-funded initiative provides:

  • Immediate crisis support – text WELLNESS to 741741
  • Information and videos on common mental health issues
  • Mental wellness programs you can do on your own and with coaching
  • Monitored communities of support

Bounceback: bouncebackontario.ca
A free skill-building program managed by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). It is designed to help adults and youth 15+ manage low mood, mild to moderate depression and anxiety, stress or worry. Delivered over the phone with a coach and through online videos, you will get access to tools that will support you on your path to mental wellness.

Mindshift CBT – Anxiety Relief: Available in the App store
Manage your anxiety, relax and be mindful.

Hasu eCounselling – Hasuecounselling.ca
Private, secure and affordable therapy. Aiming to help Canadians with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety or trauma as well as substance abuse and problem gambling, this service offers counselling via video, talk or text. 

Wellin5: Wellin5.ca
Combat the obstacles in your life with secure online counselling.  
Video sessions are $34 for 30 minutes or $68 for 60 minutes. 

Wellnest: wellnest.ca
Offer services with diverse therapists for unique needs.  Get matched!  

Healing in Color – healingincolour.com
Envisions a world where people of colour, in all our intersections, have access to therapy that supports healing and liberation.  Find a BIPOC therapist in your community.

Hope for Wellness Helpline- hopeforwellness.ca
Offers immediate help to all Indigenous peoples across Canada. It is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to offer counseling and crisis intervention. You can call their toll-free number 1-855-242-3310 or connect online via their chatbox.  The service is available in English/French and cree/Ogjibway and Inuktitut.

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