As more Canadians are vaccinated against COVID-19, people are beginning to plan ahead to return to work and resume “normal life.”
However, with so much still uncertain, many Canadians have expressed feelings of stress or anxiety about what exactly the “new normal” will look like.
While experts say these feelings are to be expected during a large transition, there are some things people can do to manage these feelings.
Managing feelings of stress and anxiety
Dr. Roger McIntyre, a University of Toronto professor of psychiatry and pharmacology, said anytime people experience a large life transition, feelings of stress and anxiety will arise.
He said all of the uncertainty regarding the pandemic has only amplified this.
When it comes to managing feelings of stress and anxiety, McIntyre said it’s about creating “structure.”
“People are tired and fed up and it’s understandable,” he said. “But now, more than ever, you’ve really got to be structured. You’ve got to keep on top of that. That gives you that sense of control and that’ll allow the transition to be a positive, more healthy transition.”
McIntyre pointed to the military as an example, saying members of the CAF are taught to cope with stressful and chaotic situations by living structured lives.
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It’s about regaining control over the parts of life that you are able to, he said.
McIntyre said people should focus on the things within their control such as eating healthy, exercising regularly and keeping alcohol consumption to a minimum.
We also need to schedule time to do things that we enjoy, McIntyre said.
That can include hobbies, or making time to chat with friends via Zoom or Skype.
Mark Berber, a staff psychiatrist at the Markham Stouffville Hospital and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, said as offices re-open, there needs to be “open” and “honest” conversations about the risks associated with the virus.
He said there also needs to be transparent information coming from the government so people feel well educated and informed while they transition back to work or other social settings.
Knowing when to seek help
McIntyre said while many Canadians will feel low amid the pandemic, there are a number of “red flags” that suggest you may be in need of professional help.
“If you’re finding that you are really down, it’s persisting for weeks and you’re just stuck there — that’s a red flag,” he said.
He also said if your ability to function normally has decreased, that is also a sign you need professional help.
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Thirdly, McIntyre said if you’re having thoughts of self harm or suicide that is “clearly a red flag.”
“Suicidality is not normal and should be evaluated,” he said.
Berber echoed McIntyre’s remarks, saying if you are experiencing feelings of “hopelessness” or “helplessness,” that is “a danger sign.”
Other symptoms include a loss of interest or being unable to sleep a loss of appetite, loss of self-esteem.
“You just aren’t functioning right,” he said.
Berber said if you feel this way, you should seek help from a counsellor or other mental health professional.
A good first step, he said, is to contact your family doctor.
How can employers help make the transition smooth?
As more people are vaccinated and some head back into the workplace, McIntyre said there are several things employers can do to ensure a smooth transition.
“I think [employers] are increasing their awareness to start with their more hybridization capability and flexibility,” he said.
McIntyre said employers should also encourage staff to partake in “therapeutic engagement.”
This shouldn’t be a group therapy session, McIntyre said, “but perhaps [employers could] facilitate and encourage more engagement of staff in the workplace,” he said.
“In other words, for many people, the workplace is not just a place to make a paycheck.”
The impact of the pandemic on mental health professionals
Dr. Katy Kamkar, a clinical psychologist at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health, said throughout the pandemic, many organizations have undergone many changes and have used “proactive strategies” to communicate with their employees about the ever-changing situation.
She said regular communication between employers and employees about upcoming steps or changes is the key to a smooth transition.
Kamkar said employers should also be prepared to provide additional support or resources to those who may require extra help during the shift.
She said it is also helpful to take things day-by-day or week-by-week.
“The reason being is that right now, again, we are facing so much fluidity and a lot of changes happening every day of the week,” she said. “So it very much helps to focus more on the moment and the present time.”
Strained mental health infrastructure
Overall, Kamkar, said since the onset of the pandemic, the mental health needs of Canadians “have been on the rise.”
“Certainly we have seen an increase in reports of depressed mood and anxiety. Also, we have seen an increase in binge drinking (and) feelings of loneliness,” she said. “And of course, we have seen that in a very short period of time we have really had to create a new normal and a new routine.”
In fact, a poll conducted exclusively for Global News in early March found that a third (34 per cent) of 1,000 respondents said their physical health had worsened over the past year, while 43 per cent said their mental health had deteriorated since the start of the pandemic.
McIntyre said this increasing demand will put a strain on Canada’s mental health infrastructure.
“I sincerely believe that will be the case and that is already happening,” he said. “We’ve had a congenital problem in Canada is going way back to the first days of our country, and that’s an undersupply of psychiatrists and mental health care providers.”
And, that’s “not going to change tomorrow,” he said.
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