Less screen time, more boundaries: Psychologists offer survival tips for locked-down winter

By Ruby Irene Pratka – Local Journalism Initiative

After traditional New Year’s Eve celebrations were cancelled due to the rise in COVID-19 cases, Quebecers “rang in” the New Year several hours early with an emergency alert, broadcast to televisions and mobile phones, announcing the arrival of a 10 p.m. curfew. It was a shrill, bleak exclamation point on a year which saw hundreds of thousands of new COVID-19 cases in Quebec, more than 3,500 deaths and a return to tight restrictions despite rising vaccination rates. With a lonelier-than-usual holiday in the rearview mirror and a locked-down January ahead, experts say mental health struggles are to be expected this time of year.

“For the past two years, people have been experiencing levels of anxiety that are much higher than usual…and going through a lot of stress and burnout,” says psychologist Corinne Zacharyas, founder of the Resileste clinic in Sherbrooke.

For Zacharyas, who specializes in resilience, the work-from-home patterns of the last few years bear a large part of the blame. “There’s no breathing space when you’re working from home, no time spent outside of home or the office. People are taking fewer breaks…and there’s not much space for rest or freedom.” She suggests building in breathing space – such as a brief walk or jog around the neighbourhood – before and after work and reducing screen time outside of work for a more restful night’s sleep.

Outdoor physical exercise is also helpful, she says. “There’s a lot of beautiful green space in our region, and studies have shown that exercising outside produces better results [in terms of mental health] than exercising in a gym. The important thing is to build in time to breathe.”

Rest and free time are important for the body, but also for the mind. “People need to slow down, but they are going to be uncomfortable with that, because as soon as you slow down, you’ll be in touch with whatever feelings you’re running from,” Zacharyas says.

“Solitude brings people into contact with themselves, and they end up asking a lot of existential questions,” adds François Pierre Ménard, a bilingual clinical psychologist based in Sutton. “‘How am I as a person? Am I somebody? Am I interesting?’” He suggests using mindfulness – a meditative practice based on connecting with the present moment – to lean into the whirlwind of uncomfortable questions. “Take time to connect with yourself, to give yourself the grand tour of who you are and connect with that. If you get anxious during the day, take a minute to ground yourself and think of something that makes you happy.”

Another key to maintaining mental well-being, according to Ménard, is to accept that not everything can be controlled. “Everyone has issues loving and trusting themselves, but once we accept ourselves, we can accept life,” he says. “We create our reactions to situations. I could be angry about having Covid, I could be angry at the person who I believe gave it to me, or I could say ‘What am I going to do about it?’, accept it and let people know. You can learn from things that go wrong, but there’s no point in blame, punishment or self-flagellation.”

Zacharyas and Ménard also believe in the importance of setting limits, which can be easier said than done in a world where the boundaries between work, school, family time and leisure seem to be melting away. “People have a bit of a moral block when it comes to setting boundaries; they’re accustomed to always putting others first,” says Ménard. “It’s important to learn how to say ‘I’m not available’ and connect with yourself.”

For more information on building mindfulness into your daily routine, visit mindful.org. If you or someone you know are going through a mental health crisis, call 811,1-866-APPELLE or Kids Help Phone (1-800-668-6868) for free bilingual support.

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