The last few weeks have been anxious for everyone, as the new realities of social isolation and potential economic collapse set in. For the three million plus Canadians who live with anxiety disorders, the mental health implications are especially, well, stressful. So how best to cope? We spoke with Christine Korol, a registered psychologist at the Vancouver Anxiety Centre about coping with the uncertainty, how to be mindful while washing the dishes—and whether it’s okay to ditch your bra.
First things first: How are you doing?
I’m doing pretty well. I do deal with anxiety, but for whatever reason it hasn’t really acted up during the COVID-19 outbreak. That’s the thing about anxiety—it’s not necessarily predictable. I was totally fine during the SARS outbreak and then for whatever reason H1N1 really freaked me out.
Are you doing anything to stay mentally healthy?
I try to follow the same advice that I would give a client, which is to set aside time to just relax and unwind. After doing back-to-back virtual therapy sessions all week I took the weekend off. My kid is really into RuPaul’s Drag Race, so I watched that for the first time. And I exercised. I’m lucky to have treated myself to a Peleton last summer. Talk about good timing.
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How important is getting exercise when you’re feeling anxious?
Very. Physical activity releases stress and all that pent-up energy we have from being cooped up. It’s also a way to be in your body, in the moment, which is a good way to combat the hamster-wheel-brain thing. As far as I know it’s still okay to get out for a walk or a run, as long as you’re practicing social distancing. [Editor’s note: This applies to those who are symptom free and haven’t travelled or been in contact with anyone with COVID-19, read more about getting outdoor exercise safely during a time of social distancing here.] You can also get creative: do yoga on your patio, even run up and down the stairs. You also want to take care of your body in terms of eating well. Anxiety can be an appetite suppressant but brains don’t like being starved and a brain under stress can be more anxious.
Being cooped up and alone can’t be good for anxiety levels?
Definitely there are mental health consequences that come with isolation and social distancing. It’s why you are seeing this movement to refer to it as “physical distancing,” meaning there are ways for people to connect socially using virtual tools. That’s really important. It’s been amazing to see the way people are hanging out and spending time with loved ones on video chat platforms like Zoom and Facetime. It’s a good idea to schedule these “dates” the way you would in the physical world so that you feel committed to having that social time. One of the things with anxiety and depression that comes with being alone is you might start to feel like you don’t want to be with other people, but it’s important to push past that to experience the positive results.
So [safe] social interaction is an anxiety buster?
Connection is really important. And then the other thing in terms of this kind of widespread crisis is that it can be helpful to understand that you are not alone. To feel yourself as a part of history and a collective effort. You think about previous generations where people were going off to war and we got through that. I’ve heard from people who have started journaling while they’re stuck at home. Taking the time to record your experience, to acknowledge that things are hard, but also that this is a moment in time. That it is not forever.
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What about the anxiety caused by others? Most of my COVID-related stress has been around seeing people ignore the rules.
This is definitely a tough one. With anxiety in general it’s best to distinguish between the things you can control and the things you can’t. And then focusing on the second group. You can stay up all night fuming about people still going to the beach, but what is that going to accomplish? Instead, focus on something you can do that might actually make a difference. Offer to pick up groceries for an elderly neighbour. Check in with a friend or family member who’s having a tough time. The other thing to keep in mind about the way other people are behaving is that you don’t live in their head and you don’t necessarily know why they are acting the way they’re acting. Maybe they have a hard time watching the news and keeping up with best practices, so their ignorance is a coping mechanism.
Meanwhile so many of us can’t look away from the local news, CNN, Twitter. How does the 24/7 news stream affect anxiety?
Again, watching news, knowing about every single new study or statistic, every person who’s died in Italy. That can also be a way of coping, but it’s not good for you. The news, even during a global health crisis, is still designed to hook you. You are going to hear about one death rather than all the people who survived, and so on. I think it’s a good idea to choose a few sources that you feel are reliable, rather than just taking in everything that’s on the internet. And then set limits. Maybe you check once in the morning and once at the end of the day.
Mindfulness is something we’re hearing a lot about in response to mental health challenges around COVID-19. Can you explain how it works?
There are a lot of different ways to be mindful. Some people practice mindful meditation, where you are sitting, doing nothing but focusing your thoughts. But really you can be mindful while working on a puzzle, while baking, while cleaning the dishes. The point is that you are actively directing your focus to whatever it is you’re doing. Even if it’s I am turning on the tap, I am putting the dish in the dish washer. It’s a way of combatting that hamster wheel where your brain is running a mile a minute.
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Can you be mindful while binging on endless hours of Netflix?
No. Even if you are really into whatever you are watching it’s still a passive brain activity, so it doesn’t have the same benefits. I’m not saying don’t watch movies or TV. Just that you aren’t going to see those mood benefits.
What about “I am pouring a glass of wine…I am taking a sip…”
Ha. Right. I get that people are using alcohol to help them unwind, but I would be careful with that. Drinking alcohol interferes with your sleep. Even if you are sleeping through the night you’re not getting a deep sleep, so that’s going to impair your ability to manage stress and reduce your resilience.
There is some debate about quarantine wardrobe. Some people are getting dressed as they normally would while others are enjoying this time of bra-lessness and PJs.
If you’re having trouble adjusting to working from home, it’s a good idea to dress for the day and to do whatever else you can to instill a routine and make distinctions between day and night. Try not to work in your bedroom and if you are working in your bedroom, set up a workspace that isn’t your bed. Otherwise, your brain is going to get confused and have trouble powering down when you want to go to sleep at night. On the other hand, it’s okay to recognize that we’re in special circumstances and give yourself a break. If that means not wearing a bra, go ahead.