Brains under Covid fire — what to do?
It’s been 76 years since the end of the last time a global catastrophe profoundly impacted every corner of Planet Earth. That was the end of World War II.
For the first time since then, the entire world is under threat. This time, by a common enemy in Covid-19. And this time that foe is attacking every tiny corner of the Third Rock from the Sun.
It’s no wonder so many of us are stressed and fatigued. Never before has it been more important to be mindful of our mental health.
I spoke to Dr. Angela Grace to get her take on this. Dr. Grace is a Calgary-based Registered Psychologist and, like all of her colleagues, she’s been busier than ever during this Covid year.
“There are some times through Covid that I’m a front-line worker for front-line workers and I’m noticing myself getting exhausted,” she said. “We’re all human and we’re meant to go through a range of experiences and a range of emotions, but even myself, this is what I do for work, but I am still impacted.”
If mental health pros feel stress, nobody should be ashamed to accept that they feel it, too. But what to do? And how do you determine if stress is ‘manageable’ or if you are beginning to go to a dark and dangerous place?
“To me, the difference is your ability to bounce back,” said Dr. Grace. “What I do is look at what is the consistency and longevity of the complaints, of the concerns, of the emotions of the feelings. I even watch it in myself. If I had a really crappy day can I have a hot bath and get a good sleep and meditate in the morning and am I going to feel better? Or, am I still feeling terrible about everything?”
Time is key here.
Dr. Grace said she and her colleagues look at length of time when assessing stress levels.
“If it’s a few days or a few days a month when you go into a slump and you know how to pull yourself out of it, that’s emotional resilience, that’s good self care, that’s good honouring of your feelings and experiences,” she said. “But if it goes on and on for a couple weeks, a couple months, if you can’t seem to pull yourself out of the slump or don’t have the resources to help with that, then it’s definitely time to reach out for professional help.”
When I hear Dr. Grace speak, I realize that caring for our mental health is a lot like nurturing a beloved car (only a million times more important, of course :-)). Sometimes your ride needs major work. Most of the time regular tune ups keep it ship shape. And it always needs a little TLC.
We’re no different.
“Sometimes it’s a friend we need, sometimes it’s a colleague we need, sometimes it’s a family member that we need,” she said. “And sometimes it’s somebody completely outside of our lives who we can spill our guts to and have that outside perspective and just know our secrets are safe. And our deeper inner feelings that we’re afraid of being judged on by family and friends are going to be taken care of.
“Sometimes we need that skilled outside observer because we’re too close to the situation. We’re too close to what’s happening. We can’t see things objectively. We can’t hold on to a higher hope. We don’t have the skills to get out of it without that outside voice.”
But too many of us see asking for help – whether from friends or professionals – as a sign of weakness. Others don’t believe that real help is out there.
“There’s still a stigma about mental health that we should be able to ‘snap out of it,’” said Dr. Grace.
That’s a mistake.
Dr. Grace said that caring for our mental health is critical to a complete life.
“We always need to be doing things to boost our mental health, just like with our physical bodies,” she said.
Often, we can do this at the same time.
“One of the known prevention factors for depression and relieving anxiety is a good amount of exercise. So, weightlifting, getting some cardio, getting your body moving,” said Dr. Grace.
This is another way that Covid in combination with the recent cold weather has taken a bite out of us.
“I’m fortunate that I’m a yoga instructor and a dancer. I can dance and do yoga in my house and I’m fine with that,” she said. “But for the people who need that socializing at the gym, who need that routine of getting into the water for a swim, there is none. That is going to take a toll on people.”
That’s why Spring 2021 is going to be so important, literally opening the door for us to get out and active more often. It’s not just getting out, either. It’s getting the suns’ rays shining directly on us.
“We need that light for our circadian rhythm,” said Dr. Grace.
Circadian rhythms are physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a 24-hour cycle. These natural processes respond primarily to light and dark and affect most living things, including animals, plants, and microbes. This includes us.
“This is one of the hardest seasons. We’ve just got to get through the next few weeks until the sun comes out again and spring comes,” said Dr. Grace
But there is an option if you can’t get out in the sun and for those long nights and dark days of winter. They are special ‘sun’ lights designed for people with seasonal effectiveness disorder. She shines hers on her first thing in the morning for 20 to 30 minutes.
The other Covid challenge is that many of our outside stress relievers are shut down. This limits all of us and the options that Dr. Grace and her colleagues can suggest to patients. So, we can’t go do that hobby, like making pottery, we can’t go have coffee with a friend to debrief and unwind. These aren’t just ‘nice to haves.’ These activities are key to our on-going mental health, she said.
There’s another thing. Even some of the tools that are helping us get by through Covid are causing us stress.
“There really is such a thing as ‘Zoom fatigue’ where our brains can’t handle that much screen time,” said Dr. Grace. “I actually find it more tiring to do sessions by Zoom that I do in person because you just don’t’ get the same sense.”
She found that she needed to cut back the number of sessions she does a week to counteract this. It’s not just the screen time, either.
“I’ve also felt the stresses of kids home from school, husband working from home, my grandma passed away in November. I’ve got my own stuff to deal with and I can’t get over extended and truly be there for other people in the best way if I’m not well,” said Dr. Grace. “And I know a lot of my colleagues who I’ve spoken to recently have said the same thing. They’re closing the doors to new people for a couple of months because they’re full and overwhelmed. Just like our doctors and our nurses and our front-line workers, we’re not robots. We can’t give, give, give without that replenishment.”
What’s true for the professionals is true for all of us. Balance is always important, but especially now. Pushing ourselves too hard is a mistake.
“One of the biggest things is we need to notice our levels of fatigue and honor our need to rest,” she said.
Dr. Grace suggests trying to use the period as a time of growth.
“How can I turn it around into ‘how can I understand myself and humanity and how the world works just a little bit better,’” she said. “With some more hope, humility, letting go of the things you can’t control and turning it in to something that can be meaningful.”
But this can’t be accomplished by just sitting and meditating and being in a peaceful state. She said that you’ve got to feel the outrage, you can’t be benign with your feelings or try to sugar coat what’s going on around you. Again, working this through with friends and colleagues can help. It can also be great to talk to professionals who are trained to help you unpack your feelings.
For help finding a psychologist you can do what I did for this piece and connect with the Psychologists Association of Alberta. Their website is: www.psychologistsassociation.ab.ca
They have tools on the sight that can help understand what their members’ offer and guide you in choosing the right fit for you.
“It’s always a good idea to have your go-to therapist that knows you and can be that voice that says ‘hey, maybe you are in a real slump right now and we need to get some more resources and help in place,’” said Dr. Grace.
But she notes that not every situation is the same. If how you are feeling seems severe, go to the hospital, they’ll do an assessment there and lead you to the right support.
Back to the idea of finding the positive, the growth opportunity in a time of stress and turmoil, Dr. Grace points to Kazimierz Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration.
In 1967, the Polish psychologist, psychiatrist, and physician observed that adults go through a second adolescence. But this time, instead of their bodies going through pain full, dramatic changes and re-emerging as adults, in the second adolescence it is a person’s soul and belief system that have to fall apart to be transformed.
“It’s at this point that we can completely disintegrate and go into severe mental health issues, addictions, destroying families,” said Dr. Grace. “Or, we can turn this into a positive disintegration where we re-evaluate what’s important to us, re-evaluate our values, come into alignment with who we really are and what really gives our life meaning and so the disintegration becomes positive. “
For me, my stroke may have taken me through this disintegration. Looking back, I feel like it did and that I came out of it on the positive side. For many people, Covid may be the trigger for this disintegration.
With all that’s going on these days it’s easy to focus on just keeping your head above water. But keeping it dry isn’t good enough, you need to keep it healthy.
If you want to reach out to Dr. Grace, you can connect though her website: www.heartcenteredcounselling.com
Yoga, milestones & books…
Oh, BTW, I took to yoga after my stroke. It was the first thing I’d found since my karate days that took my head right out of whatever had been stressing it since I’d had to stop practicing karate. Now one of my daughter’s, Kristina, is a certified yoga instructor. If you want ton try an on-line class, check out her website at: https://kristinaseefeldt.cloudstudios.com
Another thing – this coming Monday, March 15, marks 11 years since my brain sizzle. It’s my first strokeversery with a book done and in the can, with the hunt on for a publisher, so that’s cool. I always get some weird vibes on that day, though.
While I’m on about the book, the five publishers who were looking at it in December are still looking. Or, at least they haven’t said that they’ve stopped looking. One additional one asked to take a peek and quickly said ‘no thanks.’ It’s nice to have top publishers interested. I’ve had some good feedback, as well. That eases the sting of a ‘no thanks’.
Who knows, maybe my next blog will lead with details on a new book deal?!