OPINION | COVID-19: Doing too much, calmly together

This column is an opinion from Dr. Judi L. Malone, the CEO of the Psychologists' Association of Alberta.

I am a "hugger." Physical contact, including handshakes and hugs, are a big part of my social connectedness at home, with family and friends — and in the workplace.

It's cultural, but also community-building. And, I like it. But these are difficult times right now! As a society our most diligent response includes social distancing. Tough stuff for those of us who are particularly social.

As a person with an autoimmune disorder (treated with immunosuppressants), I've always practised good personal hygiene and balanced fears with facts in relation to illness prevention.

Now, I'm turning to my profession and the science of psychology to bolster my reaction to a situation that has particular risk for those of us in high-risk health categories — and for everyone else by default (straining health-care capacity puts us all at risk).

When people feel overwhelmed, responses can range from panic to apathy. Best practices can seem extreme. None of us wants to overreact (or at least have the out-of-control feeling that comes with that response), but who might we harm if we aren't doing enough? And, how do we manage the anxiety that comes with the stress of the unknown?

I've been particularly proud to be a Canadian of late. Although our risk remains low, we've been taking considerable measures to flatten the curve of COVID-19 transmission. I've become fond of saying, "let's do too much — calmly, together, as a society." After all, we really are all in this together.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Pandemics challenge the way many of us will cope. Strong emotions become commonplace during times like we are currently experiencing with COVID-19.

Why? Fortunately, psychology helps us to understand what are actually typical responses to atypical events.

People are very resilient — but often we have witnessed or developed ways to cope with stressors. When a threat is novel (and unfamiliar), it's typical that this will provoke anxiety. In extremes, this leads to unrealistic fears and responses, including racism.

We know what we can do that will make a difference — social distancing, effective communication, and following public health measures will keep you, and others, safe. These are realistic lines of defence. But what can we do to help — and build — our psychological health in times like these?

My personal top two tips are staying informed in a healthy way and staying healthy physically.

Stay informed — Not overloaded. As with any major news event, the media inundate us with coverage and potential implications and that can create additional stress. Limit your media consumption to just enough to stay informed and only from the most reliable sources. Gather information that will help you accurately determine your risk, so that you can take reasonable precautions. Frame your risks with clear facts — that typically helps quell panic. Alberta Health Services, the Public Health Agency of Canada, the World Health Organization, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control are all reliable information sources. Avoid unnecessary exposure to stories or gossip about the pandemic through media, social media, and even in your social conversations.

Stay healthy. A healthy lifestyle is your best defence against disease. Physical health has positive impacts on psychological health (and vice versa). And, it's possible even with social distancing and good personal hygiene. Be creative with home workouts and local walking trails.

Want to really build your psychological health? Reflect on which of these strategies will work best for you:

Manage your stress levels. Prioritize, problem solve, and ask for help when you need it.

Actively enjoy life. Take some time for yourself, go for a walk, or spend time with friends and family doing things that you enjoy.

Avoid unnecessary negativity. Stay away from discussions about the pandemic if you think they have the potential to escalate to conflict or increase anxiety. Be aware of the frequency with which you're discussing the news.

Work on issues you care about. Stress and anxiety about the future is not productive, and we can channel that same energy into rewarding tasks.

Keep everything in perspective. Leaders need to prepare for possible worst-case scenarios, but that does not mean we need to expect the worst. Remember that life will go on. People have always survived difficult life circumstances. There is no reason why this situation cannot be similar. Avoid catastrophizing and maintain a balanced perspective.

Build your resilience. We can learn to adapt well to stress. How have you coped with stressors before? Add resilience tools to your tool bag to manage life's adversities.

Stay connected. Maintain your social networks (thank you, social media and telephones).

Make your plans. How would you respond if you or a loved one were diagnosed with COVID-19? Developing contingency plans for potential scenarios can lessen your anxiety.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Professional help is available if you are struggling to get through your daily responsibilities and activities. Signs of psychological distress include feeling overwhelming nervousness, lingering sadness, persistent feelings of distress or hopelessness, or even feeling like you cannot cope.

Psychologists are trained to help people find constructive ways of dealing with anxiety and emotional stress, and many psychologists offer (or have transitioned to) online and telephone services.

We can use this opportunity to build our psychological strength while being part of the solution.

Let's do too much — calmly, together, as a society.

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