This article about maintaining mental health and relationships during the COVID-19 pandemic was written in collaboration with Dr. Rami Nijjar
We are moving into a typical Montreal winter, but this year the cold weather and the dark can’t be combated by connecting with each other at cozy gatherings, whether at home or out and about. Many folks dread the winter at the best of times, but this year can’t help but be different.
As we enter yet another month of second-wave lockdown and it starts getting so much darker so much earlier, it’s hard not to get worried about how we are all going to cope — especially when the springtime is so much further away than it was the first time around.
With a COVID vaccine still far off and cases spiking around the world, social distancing is most likely going to be the way it is for the coming months, and this raises some mental health concerns. As everyone’s Netflix queue starts getting a little short, it’s hard not to get a little down. Seasonal affective disorder is a real thing, and that’s when we aren’t dealing with the coronavirus. But there are things that we can do beyond hope for the next Tiger King.
Dealing with the types of worries and anxieties that people experience outside of pandemics, psychology is something that helps us understand how our minds respond to external stimuli and why we feel the way we do. Psychology also helps us to figure out what to do about it. And understanding what we can do is important when it seems that there is so much that we can’t.
As inherently social creatures, when we are isolated, the stress levels in our bodies rise. In biological terms, the stress (aka fight or flight) hormone cortisol shoots up. Essentially, our nervous system responds as if we are in direct threat of something horrible happening — even if that is not actually the case — and when our nervous system is consistently activated like this, we end up feeling anxious and depressed, not to mention lowering our immune function. But there is good news: if we can recognize that we are stressed and prioritize nurturing ourselves and loved ones, we can mitigate the impact of social isolation.
What often helps us are things that soothe our nervous system and increase the “tend and befriend” hormone called oxytocin. Often oxytocin is released in moments where we feel present, connected and cared for — either by ourselves or by others.
When we are by ourselves, it can be hard to stay present (i.e. out of our heads) and grounded; and it is the same when we are around those we are closest to (our families/partners), because they are so familiar to us that we habituate (get used to) them being around and forget to actually put in the work to be present with one another and reduce stress in our relationships.
Thinking about things in this biological way helps us to understand why it’s so hard to be apart from our friends and loved ones right now, and why the simple act of being around other people is something that helps to manage stress.
But different people have different issues. Whether it is dealing with single life and living alone, managing friendships, navigating being a couple or negotiating family issues, the pandemic has and continues to wreak havoc on us. So we need to consider what we might do to reduce that stress, up that magic oxytocin and deal with what’s to come as the temperature drops.
Whether we are alone, or in a household with family or significant others, it is important to have a plan to keep grounded, calm and secure through isolation and uncertainty. By integrating a few important habits, we can build resilience in our relationships with ourselves and with others.
And there are specific things that help to reduce stress: routine and consistency, touch, feeling seen and heard, and something called “co-regulating.” This is relevant to people in relationships, be they together or apart. A definition of “regulation” is something that helps bring our stress levels down to the point that we don’t go to dark places in our minds or engage in unhealthy behaviours. The anxiety, helplessness, insecurity and anger that seems omnipresent right now is what can be termed an experience of dysregulation.
When one person in a couple or a family experiences this, the other person or people can work to express calm – to assist in regulation. If you are alone and you become dysregulated, you can try to find a place in your body that feels calm and put attention there until your nervous system can find a balance.
Another thing that can assist in dealing with the stress of social distancing is, of course, a dose of oxytocin — and this is possible alone or together. Some things that increase oxytocin include the following:
- Touching (hugs, cuddles, self massage)
- Sex (with self or other)
- Engaging in creative outlets
- Gentle movement (yoga/dance)
- Warm, soothing vocalizations (calm, present, nurturing conversations)
- Expressing affection verbally or with gestures
- Listening to music
- Doing things as a group (trivia, online classes, meditation groups, etc.)
- Meditating – loving kindness meditation in particular
- Active listening
- Mindful eating/cooking together
- Pet your dog/cat
- Doing something nice for someone
- Hot baths
Whether couples, single or part of a family with children, you can use these tips to help build a plan for how you’re going to stay healthy and sane throughout the winter. Delve into a creative project, have singalongs with your children, prioritize sex, or at lease skin on skin touching, express gratitude towards your personal traits and those of folks around you, call up your bff and have a date to stretch together on video chat in the mornings, join a Mindful Self Compassion group or a meditation group that practises loving kindness. These are simple things, but they make the world of difference when it comes to our mental and physical health and wellbeing.
One way to manage stress in the household is to know what everyone’s signs and symptoms of stress are and to make a plan for how to regulate when these states arise (either self-regulate or co-regulate). Based on upbringing and life experience, when our stress levels rise to a certain height, we will engage in negative thought patterns (i.e mistrust of others, dwelling on the past, feeling of anxiety/anger, engaging in stress behaviors such as eating, substance use, smoking, cleaning, picking fights). It is so helpful for us and those around us to know how to tell when we are going into “dark places” so that we can up the nurturing behaviours and bring ourselves back.
It is important to note that problem-solving will not work when stress levels are high, as it’s using logic to approach something that is inherently emotional. It’s not surprising that you’re unlikely to solve problems when experiencing high levels of emotion. It simply will not work. On the contrary, it will likely worsen the emotional state. Instead, we need to do things that calm the nervous system — soothing touch, warm vocalizations, getting calm and relaxed and just listening. It is valuable to think of it less as an issue to be fixed and rather as a stress wave that you’re riding out.
Think of it this way: we comfort a child when they have the flu not because it will make them feel better but because they feel bad. This is what is key: we need to enhance nurturing and caring behaviour during a hard time, and that hard time is RIGHT NOW. This isn’t because our actions will make the hard time stop — make the pandemic go away or magically make it possible for us to go out and hug everyone we’ve ever loved — but because this is necessary. It will help us live through this stress and build a degree of resilience.
It seems difficult to think that the pandemic will eventually end, but it will, and these techniques will still be useful. And we’ll be darned well practiced. ■
Dr. Rami Nijjar is a psychologist, sex and relationship expert and director of the Resilience Psychotherapy clinic who has used these tips to keep her an her loved ones sane through the pandemic.
Erin MacLeod is a writer and teacher who is trying to follow Rami’s fantastic advice while struggling to make CEGEP education work online.
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“Maintaining mental health & relationships in the second wave of COVID-19” originally appeared in the November issue of Cult MTL.