The COVID-19 crisis is causing considerable anguish and mental health concerns among people who’ve never dealt with those types of feelings before.
At the same time, many people with prior mental health issues are confronting the added strain brought about by the pandemic.
We consulted Chemainus counsellor/therapist Anne Morrison, who has 50 years of experience in the profession, for her expertise during this unprecedented time. Morrison offers some important insight into what can be done to cope with the added pressures in life created by the new environment we find ourselves in because of the virus.
• Have you had a significant spike in inquiries ?
“I have had the usual steady stream of referrals throughout our COVID-19 crisis. What stands out, though, is the urgency of the referrals. The COVID crisis has provided an overlay of anxiety, fear, depression, and lostness over the issues that folks usually contact me for help. (Such as depression, anxiety, anger management, identity issues, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse; adjustment issues; couple tensions and relationship issues, marriage counselling, and grief counselling etc.).”
• What is the consensus of your colleagues?
“My colleagues and I all agree that our clients are moving through stages of grief. When the COVID situation was first named, there was shock, disbelief, numbness, almost a paralysis – not being able to take in the new reality that we were now in a pandemic, that our worlds are forever changed. They were stunned and disoriented. Their usual worlds had been suddenly turned upside down and inside out. Then they moved into a whole array of strong feelings breaking through the denial of the situation – sadness, fears, anger, resistance, fighting this truth, and a kind of bargaining, believing we could make it go away.
“As the feelings grew deeper roots, relationship issues became much more challenging. Folks felt very insecure inside and often reverted to old survival patterns with their partners or family members – increasingly irritable, overly sensitive, trying to take care of everyone but oneself, furtive efforts to “figure it all out.” There has also been an increase in turning to substance abuse, alcohol, drugs, or over-working to numb the pain and discomfort that they were feeling. There was an overriding sense of doom and angst about the unknown future, often ruminating and catastrophizing the worst possible future scenarios. As folks feared the worst, their fears increased and they often became more depressed or anxious and lost. This was especially prominent at the beginning of the social and physical isolation; a lot of people felt sad and anxious when they knew they had to stay in their homes.
“And then the grief of the recent Nova Scotia tragedy touched people deeply, and often connected with past losses they have experienced, as the whole country grieved the senseless deaths. Fresh grief overlayed the losses that folks were already dealing with through the covid crisis.
• How did people cope a few weeks into the physical isolation?
“After the first few weeks of isolation, folks found a kind of rhythm of how they could survive the loss of their usual lifestyles. But it was a challenge for many families and couples. It is especially challenging for single parents attempting to home school and establish how to work from home with realistic goals, so that impossible standards do not make them feel even more miserable. Also, every family member often needed to be at home if they had no jobs or they needed to do their work from home. Everyone being at home at the same time, 24/7, created additional stresses, as children and both parents were sharing the same spaces and trying to find calm ways to negotiate their days and accomplish their required work and school schedules.
”A few parents found this really stressful as they no longer were getting their “away time.” One parent said she sometimes wished she could have social isolation for half an hour a day as she was so exhausted trying to care for every family member. Couples who were used to having separate social lives, or different interests that kept them stimulated outside of the home, often found they needed to find a way to claim separate space for each person within their home, so that they did not feel crowded by the other. They were searching for ways to have their usual stress relief outlets within their home settings.”
• What about the impacts for people living alone?
“Many people living alone already were fairly self sufficient and so it was not a huge jump to have to shift to physically isolating, especially if they were self described introverts. However, the overriding yearnings that people longed to fulfill were to find a sense of connection – a sense of belonging, to feel the natural flow of enjoying one another’s company. And so many folks describe being really lonely – and after coming through the initial re-adjustments, I have recently noticed increased depression among folks, a blandness, a flatness, losing some of their natural interests, feeling trapped, and longing to have more freedom to go where they want, when they want, with whom they want. And a real sense of helplessness – “this could go on forever” catastrophizing. Free floating anxiety – where is the end to this? What is our next reality? “I miss my hugs”!
• What recommendations can you offer of how to get through the challenges of this “new normal”?
“In the middle of one’s grief journey, the initial powerful feelings, when accepted and expressed, do begin to have less of a grip and then folks can feel a little light which they can re-enforce through taking on some new ways to organize their lives that still honour who they are as individuals. The following are just some of the creative ways folks have found to navigate this journey. Folks have been able to put these together once they had processed some of the initial grief over what can no longer take place. Then their spirit was reignited to carve a way to still meet their important yearnings and needs – in a different way.”
1) “Living closer to the earth! There is a huge renewed interest in gardening, in planting seeds, in growing their own gardens, in becoming self sustaining every way they can. Folks yearn for the pride to know that they are more able to take care of themselves and their health and create the landscapes they want in their own yard – brightly coloured annuals; all kinds of new plant species to try; experimenting with a larger vegetable garden; swapping tips on how to prepare the soil etc.”
2) “Intentional reaching out to family and friends in order to fortify the sense of belonging that is always there through the ups and downs of life. Feeling support and care from family and friends is vital when someone is feeling lonely and isolated. And this can take place through neighbours reaching out; friends making regular phone calls to check in; new ways to connect with loved ones through video conferencing, adapting family games that can still be played with grandchildren on line etc. Virtual birthday celebrations for friends and family; grandchildren dropping off drawings for their grandparents or showing them online.”
(3) “Much more intentional dedication to enjoying the new obligation-free time that many families and friends have at their disposal when they are not off to work. Taking more bike rides, or walks, hikes with a friend, family games, sing a long’s, neighbourhood appies and drinks at the end of their driveways, six feet apart. All kinds of options! (there is a huge rise in genealogy pursuits lately too!).”
4) “A return to nature; a kind of “waking up” to the beauty right outside our windows: the majestic trees, the beautiful transition into spring, the return of birds, the majesty of it all.”
5) “Self Care in spades. What might have felt like pampering, now is essential! To shore oneself up since so much energy is being spent adapting to the new normal. There is a rise in baking, home recipes, enjoyable hobbies etc. More meditating, reflecting, and a kind of spiritual renewal by experiencing the Source of Life that remains constant — the wonder of consistent change of seasons, new growth, new possibilities. This is also a time to explore new interests – so many online courses and coaching available!”
6) “Finding solace in what we can count on. What we know for sure and what we can let go. Finding solace in our permanent values, and the principles we always live by. Letting them guide our actions. Noticing how others live from their values and how we can respect our own values, and also theirs. “
7) “Breaking down our day-to-day lives into a relaxed structure, emphasizing good sleep over everything. Regularizing our meal times, allowing ourselves to rest when we need to, giving ourselves breathing room without cramming in crazy-making long tasks lists that overflowed in our previous overly busy lives.”
8) “Deepening one’s spiritual path – exploring what the overall message is for our society; what learnings are coming out of this. What new ways of living do we want to keep and what old habits will we continue to shed? How can we live without undue commercialism or the glorification of certain objects? How can we continue to live from love, which is bigger than fear, and selfless service, compassion for others, service for one another?”
9) “Revisiting certain self expression mediums and ways to share them in community – through all forms of music; virtual choir rehearsals; gentle background music, virtual art gallery tours; sharing poetry gatherings; painting at home; and a huge rise in adult colouring books! Dance! By oneself or together on line. Etc.”
10) “Concentrating on building new connections: We are finding new neighbourhood relationships; when we walk, we look the other person in the eye and smile at one another; we may actually talk to one another! That lovely feeling of community through the hearts in our windows and our dedication to supporting local business through our 7 p.m. rituals of banging pots and pans to capture our deep deep gratitude for our amazing front line workers. Reaching out to others literally brings us to a more vibrant life!”
What about our seniors?
“Seniors are very wise and often feel connected and cared about through their families, and close friends, whether in person, or across the miles; checking in on them, looking out for them. Neighbours and community members also intentionally reach out to those who are widowed or not well, letting them know they are not alone, offering a listening ear and a soft backdrop for them to feel comforted. I am part of a network that telephones the same nine people every week, just to check in on them, see how we can support them, and let them know we care.
“And seniors are ingenious! For example, I belong to a Wednesday morning tea group which has met for 10 years every Wednesday morning from 10:30 a.m.-noon at Nic’s Coffee Shop. We meet for connection, for companionship, out of caring for one another; and the joy of sharing stories over untold cups of tea. When the pandemic came, we continued – differently; we were not about to give this up! So we meet via Zoom – same time every week – and we check in with one another; share our various creative pursuits, and of course our stories from the past week. We have the same group of anywhere from six to 12 women who drop in to our gathering, just like it was pre-COVID.”
”The key is that yes, we have had to give up so much during this pandemic forced isolation. But that allows us to add in what we need to in order to feel connected, that we matter, that we are not alone – in new formats and new possibilities – which sustain us through this intense time. We are living a simpler lifestyle, a healthier life style, and discovering the beauty of the smallest acts of kindness! I have never been so proud to be a Chemainiac – such a caring community – and I continue to marvel at the resilient human spirit that can guide us through the scariest of times. We have each other’s backs and we are coming through this together, however it unfolds.”