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Ways to Mental Wellbeing in Waterloo Region: Online Panel Recap

posted by Scott Williams

On June 18, 2020 we held the third of our three online panel discussions celebrating our 70th anniversary. Our panelists spoke about how we are in uncharted territory when it comes to mental wellness during a pandemic. Most of us have never lived through a situation like this, and many programs and systems were not designed to help with the unique stressors now facing us. Join our panelists as they discuss the Ways to Mental Wellbeing, and the challenges facing our mental health at this time.

You can watch the recorded panel here

Our Executive Director, Rebecca Webb, noted that National Indigenous Peoples Day is coming up this weekend and it’s very important to us, as a first step towards reconciliation, that we acknowledge the truth that we are working on land that is the traditional territory of the Anishnawbe, Haudenosaunee and Neutral Peoples and on the Haldimand Tract which runs almost 10 kilometres deep on either side of the Grand River.

 

Christine Purdon, Professor of Psychology at University of Waterloo spoke about the difference between stress and an anxiety disorder, noting that the pandemic had created so many new stressors including working from home, or losing jobs, and having children learning at home. It’s an extremely stressful set of circumstances and it is normal to feel anxious, on edge, and worried when we have such a real fear for the health and wellbeing of our loved ones. It’s OK to feel stress, but we must be compassionate with ourselves.

The difference between stress and an anxiety disorder is like the difference between a cold and a bad case of pneumonia. When you’re stressed, you’re not feeling yourself – you’re feeling worried and unwell. When it gets more problematic is if you’re feeling like that all day, every day for two weeks or more. When you’re having a hard time meeting your obligations, it’s time to seek help.

Christine said that we can help ourselves to avoid getting burnt out by stress. Anxiety and stress cause us to be threat sensitive. That’s good if there’s a bear in your backyard, but when the threat is vague, uncertain and prolonged and our attention and capacity are focused on things we can’t do anything about it can be harmful. Christine suggests that we try to break away from the COVID environment; maybe only check the news twice per day, and make sure we are taking physical breaks to go for walks, do some gardening, listen to music, or reach out to family and friends. But, when we’re connecting with people, it’s important to remember that moods can be contagious. It’s easy for us to escalate each other and leave each other feeling worse. We need to move our conversation along to non-COVID topics and try to relate to people like we used to. We should talk about and enjoy the things that give us pleasure.

 

Washington Silk, OK2BME Program Coordinator and Therapeutic Counsellor at KW Counselling Services spoke about the effect that the pandemic has had on people who were already coping with depression, anxiety, and addictions or substance use issues. Some of the people Wash has been supporting have felt quite OK with the situation. They are used to staying at home and they have the skills to manage these challenges. For others, the pandemic has exacerbated their conditions. For some, external support systems were really important and have been lost. Some people are experiencing increased anxiety about going outside and making contact with people.

For people who use substances there have been benefits. We’re largely at home, not driving, and not experiencing stigma from society, but there are also fewer supports available. Substance use is on the rise because some people are using it to cope. For people who are using opioids there is a significant increase in overdoses and deaths. We’ve worked so hard to get people not to use alone, but now they are because of our isolating and distancing policies.

Washington also spoke about the specific mental health challenges facing vulnerable populations such as LGBTQ2+ people, and older adults and seniors. Community is a huge part of wellbeing, that is especially true for LGBTQ2+ people. It can be so important that we refer to the people close to us as chosen family. OK2BME and SPECTRUM have done a good job of moving services online but this is not what everyone needs. Some LGBTQ2+ youth had their support networks at school through their GSAs. Now they are stuck at home without them, where some youth are not able to be out, or are sheltering with unsupportive family members.

For seniors, many were already struggling with isolation before the pandemic. COVID has revealed a significant crisis in senior care. We are not all participating in the same narrative. Wash gave the example of getting most of their news from targeted social media, where their grandmother is getting only what is on TV. This can create distance. It’s important to reach out to the seniors in your life and create connection by talking about non-COVID things. Many of us are now breaking out of isolation and connecting within our circles of 10, but many seniors are not able to do this. We must remember not to leave them behind.  

 

Lisa Akey, Director of Counselling at Carizon Family and Community Services spoke about how sheltering at home has opened the door to more conflict than we might usually experience and how couples and families can manage these conflicts. We have the opportunity to implement rules, routines, and set new goals to reduce conflict. Lisa said some people are feeling like they’ve spent more time with their partner in the last three months than they have in the last three years. It’s a new dynamic. There are four areas we can practice to help.

  1. Self-Awareness: We need to recognize our own triggers and conflict style. We might be in hyper-aroused states, and perceiving things that are not intended. Having compassion, and recognizing that everyone is trying to balance a lot is key.
  2. Setting “Rules of Engagement”: We need to accept that there will be conflict, and decide together as a couple or family how to “fight fair”. We can sit down together and discuss this. We also need to own our reactions. At a time when so many things are out of our control, being able to control our own contributions can help us with some capacity to reduce conflict.
  3. Communication: We have unmet needs and communicating that to our partners or family members is important
  4. Setting Goals: Couples and families can use being housebound as an opportunity to create memories together. We can work on improving communications, for example. We should ask the question, what do we want to remember about the pandemic?

There is a negative connotation to conflict but it can also be an opportunity to change. We can choose healthy communication and goal setting to reduce conflict.

 

Helen Fishburn, Executive Director of CMHA Waterloo-Wellington spoke about how we can manage grief and loss at this time. Losses at this time include loss of routine, normalcy, and basic things that bring joy like hugs. But there ae lots of layers. People are dealing with the regular deaths of people we’re close to and not being able to grieve as we normally would. People are also dealing with COVID-related losses. It can be difficult to mourn due to physical distancing. Coming together and celebrating someone’s life is such a comfort to a grieving family. The pandemic is increasing feelings of guilt that families are experiencing. For example, when a loved one living in long term care passes away and the family hasn’t been able to be there with them. There’s a lack of closure in not being able to say goodbye. This can lead to depression and deep sadness.

There are many people who have been keeping our healthcare system working, including doctors, nurses, cleaners, food service in hospitals, etc. They have been in extreme work conditions for a long time and many are experiencing grief firsthand when they lose a patient or resident, or a colleague becomes ill. The inability to mourn as we usually do can make grief feel like it’s suspended. We’re holding on to a lot that we are unable to express, but there are still ways to grieve. It may look and feel different but there are ways to be therapeutic about it. We should focus on what we have control over, what we can do. We need to give each other and ourselves permission and the ability to honour loss. For example, we can still congregate virtually to remember loved ones.

 

Jen Forristal, Naturopathic Doctor and Founder of the Umbrella Project, spoke about the Ways to Mental Wellbeing and how they can help us improve our self-care and mental health.

  1. Connect: The biggest predictor of long term wellbeing is the quality of our relationships. This has been put to the test during the pandemic, but there are little ways to maintain connection. It can be something as simple as saying hello to people when we pass them on the street; try to learn your neighbours’ names. This is small but significant.
  2. Be Active: For some, the pandemic has given us a chance to become more active, but many of us have let physical activity slide. Remember that our bodies are meant to move. Releasing endorphins can cause a positive ripple effect, which can help to make connecting with people easier. You might try making a list of 10 ways you like to be active. This might include simple things like walking, gardening, or yoga. Each day, choose one way from the list to move your body. Some activities might be great to do as a family.
  3. Be Mindful: Mindfulness is about helping us to focus on the moment instead of worrying about the future, or being stuck in the past. Being in the moment really can help us to be much happier. Try to connect with what you’re doing and do it intentionally, even if it is just watching TV. You might go through your day and rate every activity you do on a scale where +2 fills you with energy and -2 really drains you. Just building awareness around your activities is mindfulness.
  4. Keep Learning: Continuing to add new inputs really helps broaden how you’re thinking about the world and is important.
  5. Give Back: We can get so stuck thinking about ourselves that we often overlook this. Think about ways to shift energy to others. This can be done with simple acts of kindness like encouraging the people around you to do things they like to do.

 

Washington addressed an audience question: “The pandemic has reduced the numbers of situations where members of vulnerable communities (like transfolk) can do information sharing around navigating systems (mental-health and medical).  This has become especially problematic, since the pandemic has changed how we navigate systems. How can we help vulnerable communities deal with access to local systems that are vital to wellbeing?” Wash answered that there is not a good answer to this. We know that trans people in Waterloo Region will avoid going to the emergency room 25% of the time, even when they need it. Many trans people find that health professionals will pay less attention to the issue they come in with, than to their transness. Trans people connect with each other and share when they have found doctors they liked working with. They can’t do that physically so we need to help them stay connected virtually. It’s also important to acknowledge that many trans people have been on waiting lists for surgeries for years, and those have now been cancelled. It’s a challenging time.

Christine addressed the question, “How does anxiety affect our physiology, emotions, attention, and internal dialogue?” Anxiety is a threat response geared to prepare body to flee or fight danger. When we’re anxious, there are physiological changes that occur to help us flee or fight. Adrenaline redirects blood flow from extremities to our muscles, which is where the expression “cold feet” comes from. It can increase our heart rate, cause us to perspire, and cause faster breathing which can make us feel feint. We’re not great multitaskers, and when we’re focused on threat we’re not focused on safety. Mindfulness can help us find a more balanced view.

 

 

Check out the resources mentioned in the panel: