Staying Healthy, and Sane, During a Pandemic

I’m hoping by the time you read this article that COVID-19 has started to loosen its grip and that we will be in the process of gradually re-opening Alberta, and more broadly the whole country, for business. However, as I write this, it appears that we have not yet seen the peak of this virus in our province so it is difficult to predict when our recovery, in both an economic and emotional sense, will begin. As we continue to be vigilant with the public health orders in place, it can become difficult to keep a positive outlook as there doesn’t seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel. Or as the old saying goes, we see the light but worry that it is actually an oncoming train!

Many of us are sharing a concern for our own physical health and that of our loved ones during this time but the real toll as days turn into weeks turn into months, is the toll on our mental health. There are a few factors contributing to this. One of these is uncertainty, we don’t know how long this will last, how long physical distancing measures will be in place, and if there will be a second wave of the virus, so many unknowns. In addition, particularly in Alberta, the financial aspect can’t be ignored. Many businesses are closed or operating on a very limited basis and the oil and gas sector has been particularly hard hit. Further, to quote from an article by Dr. Susan Pollock (co-founder of the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at Harvard Medical School), ‘the very scaffolding of our world, all that we have depended on to sustain us, has come tumbling down – work, school, friends, family, travel, places of worship, gyms and restaurants. So much of what structured our lives and kept us happy is gone’. Of course we will get through this and a new sense of normalcy will return but what can we do in the mean time to help keep us afloat? I am not a mental health expert by any means (see the end of the article for resources if you are struggling during this time) but here are some ideas that have been helping me.

The first is exercise. I have exercised regularly, more for mental than physical health benefits, for many years. Here are some of the things which make exercise so great for your mind and why it is so relevant now: an increase in mood enhancing chemicals like serotonin (sometimes called the happy chemical) and endorphins; increased energy; better quality of sleep; decreased stress and anxiety; feelings of control and success; and to name one important physical benefit, a boost to your immune system. Perhaps you are new to exercise or you are a regular exerciser but your favourite exercise facility is closed. There are great online resources many of which are free. This can be a time to branch out and try new things. I have added a 10 minute morning yoga practice and Pilates fascial release to my daily routine and am feeling the benefits of both.

Another great mood enhancer which is readily available for those of us in the Bragg Creek area is to just spend time outdoors. Being outside has also been touted as a way to decrease anxiety, stress and depression and elevate mood. In nature we tend to get out of a ‘doing’ frame of mind and instead tap into just ‘being’. Exercising while being outdoors (while respecting physical distancing guidelines and park closures) definitely ramps up the benefits.

Counter intuitively, being of service can be a powerful tool. Being focused on the needs of others can take us out of that negative inward focus which often occurs when we are stressed or panicked. Helping someone else is a way to recognize that we are all in this together. Even small acts of kindness go a long way. Texting a friend to see how they are doing, calling an older relative to check in, shopping for someone, these are just a few examples. Even buying local and supporting the local economy can bring a sense of helping. I had a virtual shopping cart full of books on Amazon and instead decided to see if I could order the same things from a local bookseller. Turns out I could and they were grateful for my business. Win/win! Being on the receiving end of these gestures can make your day too. Someone anonymously paid for my coffee the other day, unbeknownst to me, and it changed my mind set for the day. Feeling the kindness of others makes you want to pay it forward. Try it, it can turn your day around. 

Maintaining social connections is challenging given the physical distancing restrictions but with technology and warmer weather you can find creative ways to feel part of your ‘tribe’. Facetime, Zoom meetings, emails, text messages or an old fashioned phone call are just a few examples of how to keep in touch with friends and family. I have been part of virtual online happy hours and game nights with my neighbours and have visited with them from across the driveway. I encourage you to find ways to feel connected with those you love. 

The last weapon in my arsenal for thriving (some days just surviving!) during this time has been meditation. I have dabbled in meditation in the past and have experienced its benefits but it has become a lifeline during this time. Although I had heard a lot about the benefits of meditation, I didn’t really start to practice it until I heard Dan Harris, an ABC news anchor, talking about having a panic attack on the air and how he found meditation as a result. He is as non woo-woo as they come! He has written a couple of books notably his ‘Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics’ whose title seemed to be speaking to me directly. In any case there are many meditation books and apps (Headspace, Calm or you can check out Dan’s 10% Happier app/website which I use and has great free content). When I meditate I feel more grounded and more able to stop ruminating about the past or worrying about the future, it brings me back to the present.  

To wrap up, remember to be kind to yourself. Social media can lead us to believe that everyone is learning how to bake bread or speak a new language during their time at home which can be daunting if your major accomplishment for the day has been getting out of your pyjamas. Everyone is struggling at times in their own ways and what we see isn’t always the full picture. Try not to compare yourself to others. The Alberta government has recognized that this unprecedented time is causing increased stress and anxiety for people and as a result, has increased funding for mental health initiatives. The de-stigmatisation and increased awareness of mental health issues means that people are more readily reaching out for help. While this article may provide some tips on how to get through a blue day, this isn’t meant to replace mental health care. Please reach out to a friend, family member or your physician if you are having difficulty coping. You can also call Help Link at 811 or the Mental Health Helpline at 1-877-303-2642.

From all of us at Bragg Creek Physiotherapy we hope you are staying safe and healthy during this time. Please note that that we are treating acute/ urgent cases so if you find yourself in that situation you can contact us by email or leave us a phone message. We look forward to fully re-opening and serving the needs of our community soon. You can refer to our Facebook page for updates and to access mini workout videos. 

Tish Resta
ACE Certified Personal Trainer
Co-owner Bragg Creek Physiotherapy