So much has changed for Canadians and for people around the world over these past weeks. Not only have we learnt more than we’ve ever cared to know about the effects of a pandemic on the health of a nation, or the subsequent ripple effects that continue to wreak havoc on the global economy, but we’ve also learnt the challenges that come along with just simply staying home.
The government of Canada has advised Canadians to stay home and to practice social distancing. Of course, essential workers are exempt in some ways to be able to keep the nation safe and functional, but the majority of Canadians are being asked to stay at home and keep away from neighbours, friends, and family outside of their household. In effect, we’ve been asked to isolate.
It’s been proven that social isolation and spatial confinement can have adverse effects on individuals mental health. From a recent study conducted by The Angus Reid Institute since the outbreak of this pandemic, we know that half of Canadians (50%) report a worsening of their mental health, with one-in-ten (10% overall) saying it has worsened “a lot”.
In a 2016 Statistics Canada report it was found that 78% of Canadian households were made up of two or more residents. Thus for the vast majority of Canadians now confined to a home that we share with others (partners, children, other dependents, roommates, etc.) there is the added challenge that extended periods of time spent in close quarters can pose to interpersonal relationships.
The good news is that there are tools and strategies that we can use to manage mental and emotional health while navigating this new and strange reality from home.
Tip #1: Create structure in your day by developing a daily schedule.
We are all experiencing significant changes not just to our social lives and relationships but to work life and our normal self-care routines. For many of us these changes and increased time at home is resulting in lack of structure which can add to feelings of stress and uneasiness.
To help combat this problem, try developing a defined schedule that you can commit to and practice regularly. Not every day needs to be the same, but it’s important to have some regularity. A 2018 study published in The Lancet Psychiatry found that people who have more of an active daytime routine versus a nighttime one would have healthier sleeping cycles that are consequently associated with better mental health.
Here are a couple of ways that you can add regularity and structure to your day:
- Wake up and go to bed similar times every day - ideally within 1 hour of when you normally would if you want to make it easy to switch back to a regular routine after quarantine. This will likely involve setting (and not just turning off!) alarms.
- Include in your schedule many of the things that you’re already doing like eating meals, working, talking to friends, watching TV, etc.
- Add simple things to your schedule that you would like to do like stretching, art, music, reading, etc.
- Exercise is helpful for most people for decreasing anxiety and improving mood, but it’s difficult to practice traditional forms of exercise like group sports or gym workouts while at home. To manage this challenge, try adding shorter but more frequent periods of exercise into your schedule.
DID YOU KNOW? There are loads of free workout routines to be found online. Common ones include yoga, pilates, dance and body-weight training.
Tip #2: Set goals to help solidify structure into your days.
NOTE: If you choose to set goals, be sure they’re realistic!
A great way to ensure that you stick to your daily schedule is to set associated goals with the tasks or milestones that you’d like to achieve.
For example, if you’ve set a goal of adding shorter and more frequent spouts of exercise throughout the day, use your smartphone to set reminder alarms and a steps tracking app to ensure you’re making the best use of those scheduled exercise breaks. You’d be surprised how far you can walk in a day - even while staying home!
Similarly, if you want to set a goal to reduce some of the pressure that you’re experiencing, try to allow more time for rest and self-care or make efforts to decrease self-judgemental thoughts.
When planning goals it’s important to keep them realistic. If you’re setting goals that are too challenging then you may in fact be doing your mental health a disservice. Thankfully, there’s a simple and easy method for setting goals to ensure you won’t run into that problem - SMART Goals.
Although there is no single agreed upon method, template or standardized guide for
writing effective goal-setting objectives, research has found that projects designed with an incomplete frameworks are less likely to achieve intended outcomes.
If you choose to set goals in this way, the model for building SMART Goals can be completed with the following framework. SMART goals must be:
- Relevant, and
- Time bound.
To start, think about why you’re setting the goal to help shape what the goal looks like. Next, ensure that you have narrowed the goal down to one milestone or achievement. An example of a goal that may be too broad would be to say “I would like to improve my health and fitness”. Too much ground to cover or too many variables involved in a goal can limit your potential to achieve it.
From there you simply need to ensure that the chosen goal can be measured, that it is in fact achievable, relevant to your overall wants and needs, and that it’s bound by a time or date that you can hold yourself accountable to.
Lastly, when it comes to setting goals while cooped up at home during this strange time, don’t expect to perform to your usual standards. You can’t expect that of yourself simply because things are not usual right now. For many of us there are increased demands (kids at home full-time, changes to work environment or schedule, etc.) that need to be taken into account when thinking about and planning what we’d like to achieve.
Tip #3: Maintain social connectivity.
For weeks now the recommendations from the government of Canada and other health authorities have been to remain at home and practice social distancing. However, this doesn’t mean that we need to become socially disconnected!
We know that social connectivity is core to mental health and wellness. A 2016 UK report on mental health asserted that people in neighbourhoods with higher levels of social cohesion experienced lower rates of mental health problems than those in neighbourhoods with lower cohesion, independent of socioeconomic factors.
In this time of unusual circumstances, here are a few ways that you can remain socially connected:
- Take time to connect with those you live with. If you share your home with others, try planning time for fun or special activities together--easy for this to get lost when we’re spending so much time together already.
- Leverage technology to connect with friends and family. Try texting, talking on the phone, video chatting, or even playing video games together online in place of in-person meet ups. The good news is that many people are easier to get in touch with right now and also isolated at home--reach out!
- Doing a shared activity separately (watching a movie, reading a book, doing the same exercise challenge) then talking about it after is another great way to create shared experiences from a distance.
Throughout your efforts to remain socially active it’s important to remember that holding on to or comparing social interaction today to those before isolation will only bring distress. Instead, try to focus on the bigger goal which is staying connected during this unusual time so we maintain those bonds once we’re able to socialize in our regular ways again.
Tip #4: If possible, set defined spaces for work, play, meals, etc.
For years now, technology has enabled companies and their employees from around the world to engage in remote work set-ups. Some companies have gone as far as to limit all corporate office space or headquarters - moving operations solely to the remote arena. In a 2017 study by Regus Canada it was found that 11% Canadians work from home full time. This number is sure to have risen in recent years and even more significantly since the outbreak of the ongoing pandemic
Although remote work has traditionally been considered a “perk of the job” for many people, during this strange time it’s common for remote work arrangements to become less of a perk, and more of a challenge.
If you’re working from home during this period and have the space in your home to define a clear working area, start there. By defining a space for work, you’ll create a mental separation between times where you’re focusing on work versus regular life or relaxation. One report by Harvard Business Review warns that unless you are careful to maintain boundaries, you may start to feel like you’re always at work and losing a place to come home to.
If you don’t have the space for a defined work area, try at least to limit work to an area outside the bedroom - especially if you struggle with sleep issues.
(Side note, I’m working in my bedroom right now… These are unusual times and no person or situation is perfect, but thinking about how we can set ourselves up for success is a good place to start!)
PRO TIP: If you struggle with snacking throughout the day or portion control at meals, try to limit all eating to an area in the home that’s different from the kitchen. That way you’ll be less likely to mindlessly reach for that second helping. Instead, you’ll be making the conscious decision to get more depending on your hunger levels.
Planning space in this way can be supported by regular daily schedules that you’ve worked with other members of the household to develop and agreed to in advance.
All in all it’s important to remember that these times are anything but ordinary and we all deserve a little slack - which brings me to my next tip…
Tip #5: Give yourself a break! We’re all doing what we can, and that’s good enough.
In the last few weeks I’ve been talking to a lot of clients about being critical about where this need for “productivity” comes from. It’s not uncommon to feel as though you need to take advantage of this time with family, or that you need to achieve all of your home improvement or other goals while in isolation. There seems to be a perceived requirement for productivity when in fact the most important goals for everyone and every household should be to stay home, stay well and support one another.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, this is an unusual time and with that comes a tidal wave of changes and challenges. No need to look at this as “special time” to do the things you’ve been meaning to--if you see it that way, great! But for many, this is just a difficult time to get through and that’s okay.
REMINDER: While it’s important to cut yourself some slack during these unprecedented times, it’s equally important that you give others a break too. Adjust expectations of others, give them space when needed, reach out even if it’s just to check in.
If you experience overstimulation or hyperarousal due to stress and anxiety and are looking for ways to cope--strategies like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga/stretching, meditation and others can help by activating the parasympathetic nervous system and balancing the overstimulation or hyperarousal.
Otherwise, try diving into a favourite hobby or connecting with a loved one. During this unique time there is no right answer. If you can find something to help you to feel grounded and well, that’s all that matters.
Tip #6: Know where to access resources, and when to seek professional help.
Health authorities across the country and from around the world continue to provide free and accessible resources for the management of mental health and wellness while stuck at home. Some of these resources include:
- Wellness Together Canada: Mental Health and Substance Use Support Introduction
- Canadian Mental Health Association: COVID-19 Mental health and well-being
- Crisis Services Canada: COVID-19 Resources
- Mental Health Commission of Canada: Mental health and wellness during the COVID-19 pandemic
However, it’s important to note that it may be time to seek professional mental health support if:
- your symptoms are not being managed by self-care tips like the ones provided in this article,
- you’re experiencing new and/or severe symptoms (e.g. panic attacks, persistent low mood, inability to get out of bed, feeling disconnected from reality, etc.),
- you have any concerns about risk of harm to self or others,
- people close to you are recommending you seek support, or
- if you are not experiencing any of the above but would none-the-less find comfort in speaking with a professional.
In summary: managing mental health while at home is about proactive measures, leveraging resources and being part of a supportive community
While social distancing measures persist it’s important to look out for signs that friends, family or neighbours may be struggling. Those of us managing in isolation on our own may be at even higher risk of experiencing challenges during this trying time.
The recent Angus Reid Institute report identified 26% of the Canadian population have experienced declines in both their household financial situation and their mental health through this pandemic.
Signs of struggle could include unusual behaviours like increased irritability, less talking/decreased engagement with the family, increased substance use, etc.If you notice that someone may be in need, offer support. This could just be letting them know that you’re there to talk, or it could be an offer to help connect them to formal support if the circumstance requires it.
By educating ourselves and our families about the risks of mental health during times where normal activities are limited, we enable better health outcomes for all. Tools and strategies such as the ones discussed here can help to manage mental and emotional health while navigating this new and strange reality from home.
Meet Saretta Herman - Clinical Lead, Layla
As Layla’s Clinical Lead, Saretta acts as the resident clinical expert, strategic clinical advisor to the business and team lead for partner therapists.
With a Master’s degree from the University of Toronto Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, Saretta started her post-graduate career at the Clinic on Dupont while also working in Children’s Mental Health in community, residential, and youth justice programs.
Saretta brings over a decade of experience working in various mental health settings. She is passionate about issues of social justice and is interested in supporting people on an individual level and also holds a strong interest in organisational and systemic changes that can help improve people’s lives more generally.