Managing Your Mental Health In A Crisis
BOOM recently interviewed April Dydra, a Registered Provisional Psychologist, from Synthesis Psychology about how to look after our mental health and the mental health of others around us in a crisis situation.
Can you define for us please what is a crisis or crisis situation?
This is sometimes a difficult description to provide because there is a different approach and, therefore, a different definition of what a crisis is considered to be. So, from a mental health perspective, crisis actually doesn’t necessarily need to reference or refer to a specific situation but it’s really characterized inside by a person’s reaction to a given situation or event and so, whereas one person might be significantly affected by a situation another person might experience fewer or no challenges or changes in their life at all.
If we think of the current situation regarding COVID it has been deemed a crisis, for the most part, because of the dramatic effects its had on people’s lives and then the unique reactions many of us have experienced, both personally and professionally, as a result.
How does a crisis situation typically impact a person’s mental health?
Just as much as our definition of crisis varies, this does, too, in some ways. So, again very different depending on the person when we think about it in the context of COVID. It’s not that everyone is experiencing a mental health crisis as a result of this pandemic, but a lot of people’s mental health has been impacted.
A recent survey released by the American Psychological Association found that about 70% of people have indicated COVID has impacted their mental health at least some of the time and we know that, right now, about 1 in 5 people are finding it is having a serious impact on their mental health – meaning that the symptoms or reactions to this crisis situation are negatively impacting them most, or all of the time. So, the vast majority of the population certainly has felt the impact of COVID on their mental health.
Understanding everybody’s going to react differently depending on their personality and the situation that they’re in, what are some of the common reactions you’ve seen people have to these crisis situations, in particular?
In particular to COVID, and I think most crisis situations for that matter, is there’s a lot of uncertainty about the future and so we know that this creates nervousness for people. Life feels like it’s on a bit of a pause right now because of the crisis, so we are finding people struggling with motivation, and this can easily dip into depression for some people. In addition, because of the realities of our living situations and work situations have changed quite dramatically, we’re seeing a lot of concerns related to relationships and employment, too.
Often what is most helpful is being able to identify what our own common reactions to a crisis are. Some of these common or mild reactions to crisis situations is to be aware of changes in our own bodies. This could be anything from a headache, to fatigue, or exhaustion. Whereas, we are much more in tune to changes in behaviours among other people such as, fluctuations in physical activity, performance at work, and general personality changes. These reactions, which are essentially our body’s way of alerting us that something is wrong and needs attention, makes it easier to manage those symptoms.
What are some of the things that you think people can be doing to help protect their mental health, or the mental health of others near them, during a crisis situation?
Once you recognize a reaction to stress or crisis, the next thing of course is being able to find a way to address that response and ideally mediate the situation as best as we can. The most important piece of advice I have for people is to focus on what you can control, at least in these situations.
The reality is that, in many crisis situations, there’s a lot of things beyond our immediate control and that can often be a source of stress for people in itself. With that said, there are typically a number of things that we can control.
One thing I like to recommend people do is to make sure they consume information from accurate sources. For example, the Public Health Agency of Canada, for people who are within the country, versus social media.
Next thing to consider is that, while we can’t be certain what the outcome of the crisis will be, we can certainly anticipate likely outcomes and make plans. Anticipating and preparing for the future, while supporting your own safety during these times, can be a helpful way to minimize uncertainty about the future.
And finally, helping others. I can’t emphasize enough how simple but critically important it can be to help people with practical needs. Often times during crisis situations, so much of our energy, either mentally or physically, is consumed by crisis management. Even essential tasks can become really overwhelming for some people. Therefore, even things like delivering food, mowing somebody’s lawn or a phone call to check-in, whatever it might be, can easily take a really immediate burden off that person.
Just remember, if you tell someone to let you know if they need anything it’s not likely that you’re going to hear from them again because they just don’t have the mental energy to consider that request. Instead, I encourage people to find out about the situations of people in their lives and make offers of support to do something really practical for them. Phrase it like, “Can I bring you groceries later or what help do you need with your kids right now?” These are much more concrete, and therefore, much more likely to be accepted.
Sometimes, it’s reaching out to people, having a simple conversation with them, and asking “how are you doing” or “did you see this”, “did you see that” or “can’t wait to see you when we’re able to get together again”. It is as simple as staying connected with them and making sure they know that there’s somebody else out there aside from them.
What are some things that employers can be doing to help with their employees’ mental health, to check in with them, or to provide information?
Simply checking in is one of the things that often gets overlooked. Maintaining the mental health of our staff is sometimes as simple as making yourself available.
We have this open-door policy that we often rely on. Unfortunately, that’s just too passive right now. A good approach to take is to make yourself available for informal meetings. Something we like to do at our office is virtual coffee, so we’ll set up a 15-minute meeting for a virtual coffee with a staff member. It’s really an active way of opening the door for that conversation. One thing that employers are often relieved to hear is that they don’t expect us to have the answer for them, but they at least expect us to be there for them, and if that’s all you can do sometimes, that’s enough.
What are some of the things that you can’t do in a crisis situation?
There are a lot of answers to this one, but I’m going to go back to that concept of control. One thing that we can’t do is control or influence what isn’t known yet. For example, with COVID, the endpoint of this crisis is unknown. It’s important to know that, while worrying about these sorts of things is normal, it’s ultimately going to drain your energy and could lead to feelings of helplessness or hopelessness if you dwell on it for too long.
Something I often do with my clients is to set up a 2-minute rumination rule where they can let their mind run wild, worrying, and wondering about absolutely anything and everything and then bring it back to the present moment after that time is up. It allows us to interrupt what could otherwise be cyclical or a spiral thinking pattern, while still giving ourselves permission to worry because that’s just human nature.
The next thing that is important to mention is we can’t decide what other people’s reactions to a crisis situation will be. I talk about this a lot with clients, especially now as we are rolling out the opening plans and we are noticing people are having really different opinions about how this is being approached. What I always encourage people to do, especially in crisis situations, is make your bubble smaller. In other words, focus much of your attention and energy on what you can do and influence. It’s so easy to become preoccupied and overly concerned with how other people are handling a crisis situation, especially when everyone is talking about what’s going on right now on social media, and it can be quickly overwhelming. So, make your bubble smaller.
What are some of the resources and tools that people might want to think about accessing during this time to help them move through it?
A good rule of thumb here is to look to the resources or tools that existed before they started. Your government and community agencies are a great place to start. Alberta Health Services and other government ministries in Canada and the US have extensive online resources for crisis situations and many that are specific to COVID.
There are also professionals, such as ourselves, who are trained to manage these types of situations, like psychologists and therapists, staying up to date on changing circumstances. Many are offering distance and emergency support options during this time.
Any final remarks for the readers?
The one take-home is that the reactions we experience and the mental health symptoms we have, in response to a crisis situation, is really just the way our bodies have been designed to warn us that something is wrong. Treat it as a normal, healthy, and helpful reaction to be experiencing stress, anxiety, depression, or a lack of motivation during this time. It is normal. In fact, it is quite helpful to experience those symptoms so your body can tell you what it needs and allow that to guide you in the direction you need to go.
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Click to watch the full interview!