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Among the things Dr. Susan Abbey of UHN's Centre for Mental Health suggests to help overcome the feeling of imprisonment that can come with isolation is to go for a short walk, or into your backyard or onto your balcony, or even just look out the window for a little bit. (Photo: Unsplash)

While much is still unknown about COVID-19, one thing is certain: it is an unparalleled situation for everyone around the world.

This pandemic is taking a toll on lives, the economy, our social lives, and also on our mental health.

Dr. Susan Abbey, Psychiatrist-in-Chief at UHN's Centre for Mental Health, says it is important that we all take some time to remember that these are exceptional times.

"These are difficult times, and it is okay to feel stressed, we need to remember that," says Dr. Abbey.

"I think one important message that applies to everyone is – be kind to yourself."

During this pandemic, there are many articles and, of course, social media posts and videos with directions on what to do to keep busy and protect our mental health. And although a lot of it is useful, a good idea is to take in only what works for us. We all have different minds, bodies and lives and what is helpful for some is either not helpful or harmful for others.

"Don't let yourself get caught up in comparisons on social media – who reads more, who takes better care of their kids, who exercises the most," says Dr. Abbey.

She shares with us some ideas of how to cope in these times of physical distancing, but reinforces that they are just suggestions and that it is important to recognize if you need help, and use the resources available.

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Dr. Susan Abbey is Psychiatrist-in-Chief at UHN's Centre for Mental Health. (Photo: UHN)

How can I cope with the feeling of imprisonment?

  • If you're not required to be in isolation, go for a short walk outside (keeping the six-feet distance from others).
  • Go to your backyard or balcony, or even put your head out the window a little bit. If you don't have a window that opens, perhaps just looking out the window might help.
  • Take a moment once a day to remind yourself why we are all staying inside – to protect others, our loved ones and all the hard-working healthcare professionals and essential workers.

How should I deal with loneliness, especially if I live alone?

  • Extend your world using technology, keep connected to friends and family, and even create new connections.
  • If you don't know how to use technology to stay connected, Google directions or talk to young folks – they know all about the new technologies and how to use them.
  • Create a list of two or three different people you can check on every day, so you have a social routine and also feel helpful to others.

How can I protect my close relationships, with a partner, parent, orchildren living with me?

  • Even healthy relationships can feel the impact of suddenly spending 24 hours of every day together.
  • A good idea is to give yourself some alone time – go for a walk, a nice bubble bath, read a book in your room.
  • Take time to check in with people living with you, talk about your feelings, fears and anxieties.
  • Try to build some small pleasure into every day that you can share.
  • Remind yourself that everyone is doing the best they can so you're kinder to yourself and others.

How can I help my kids understand what's going on?

  • Try to use age-appropriate language to explain what's happening without frightening them.
  • Ask them to share what they think and how they feel.
  • Art can be a very helpful avenue for them to express their feelings. Try drawing together, or painting, using clay, Play-Doh – whatever feels good.
  • Also remember to be kind and forgiving with yourself as a parent. We're all trying our best and these are exceptional times, so if you feel like you need to give them some more screen time to get through the day for example, that's okay too.

If I'm out of work, how do I keep a sense of purpose?

  • This is difficult as it adds to our stress with financial worries. Remind yourself that this is an exceptional situation and apply for government support programs. We all need that social safety net at some point in our lives.
  • Repeat to yourself that this is not going to last forever, it will get better.
  • For everyone this is important, but especially if you are out of work, try to keep a routine. Having a consistent wake up time and bed time is a good idea.
  • Exercise is of great help, it reduces stress hormones and helps with a healthy routine. There are several free videos online that can help you exercise at home.

For healthcare and other essential workers - How can I cope with the risks I take daily, for myself and loved ones living with me?

  • Have your step-by-step safety routine at work and upon returning home, it will help you feel in control and know you're doing your part to mitigate the risks.
  • Try to find a balance, understanding you can't control everything.
  • For healthcare workers, especially if you're at the frontlines, try to keep the disease in perspective. Remember you see the worst cases of COVID-19 so you have a skewed perception of the risks. Try to remind yourself that the vast majority of cases don't require people to come to hospital.

For healthcare workers – How can I reset after a difficult day when I lost patients to this pandemic?

  • Try to consciously mark the transitions during your day – when you start your shift, breaks if you have them, the end of your shift.
  • Keep reminding yourself that this is an extraordinary situation and that you are doing your best, with all the challenges COVID-19 presents. It might not be your best in pre-COVID days, but it is the best today.
  • Acknowledge that the moment is very hard, that there is a lot of suffering around you, and try not to disconnect from your own humanity.
  • Use resources available to you. It is okay to ask for help.
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Dr. Susan Abbey notes that exercise can help reduce stress homones and helps with a healthy routine. (Photo: Unsplash)

WHERE CAN I FIND HELP?

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