Originally published in August 27, 2020.
Five months have passed since covid-19 hit us full force in Canada and with the coming return to school, we may be about to get hit with a second surge of illness. That second surge may mean isolation and social distancing again and that may lead to depression.
Depression feasts on isolation, on worry and fear, it gets fat on a lack of physical activity and human interaction. Worse, depression feeds itself by robbing us of the joy of those activities that will keep us healthy and safe. The very activities that will keep depression at low levels are the ones that depression makes us avoid, keeping us down and unable to free ourselves.
So what can we do to best arm ourselves for the coming days; to give ourselves the best chance to keep our mood and spirits up? Lots. And fortunately many of us may have already started some of these good habits over the last surge of covid-19. It helps to look at mental health as a table on five legs representing Nutrition, Sleep, Exercise, Socialization, and the Spirit. Remove one of those legs and the table can wobble, remove more, and that table becomes unbalanced and unable to remain standing. Resisting depression is so much easier if we can strengthen those table legs.
Nutrition – we derive a lot of emotional comfort from food but often it’s the wrong kind. I know when I am feeling down, or isolated, I reach for a bowl of chips or something carb heavy that will fill that emptiness inside. We end up feeling overfull, lethargic and sleepy. However lighter foods, such as fruit and vegetables, perk us up and provide energy. In particular, colourful plants elevate mood and require very little energy to prepare. Berries, red, orange and yellow peppers, a pretty salad, all take but a moment to prepare, have that satisfying crunch and are pretty to look at all without that carb guilt and a bloated tummy. When We make it a habit to add a few berries and veggie sticks to lunch, We are shoring up that first table leg and strengthening ournfight against depression.
Sleep – the funny thing about sleep is that too much is not a good thing. A common symptom of depression is just as much about too much sleep as not enough. Where one person may find themselves unable to sleep when depressed, another may sleep for as long as they can, but never feel rested or recharged. Depression robs us of our energy and our motivation. We toss and turn, may spend hours on the couch or bed, but never rest, never be able to turn off, and never feel energized and ready to fight.
This can be particularly difficult in a pandemic where there is little to do or to look forward to. With nothing to motivate us, sleep becomes a refuge and a sanctuary that later betrays us and our minds. The best way to shore up this table leg is discipline. A regular bedtime and a regular waking time, regardless of how much we actually slept, helps to maintain our sleep/wake cycles and does, in time, provide us with better sleep, actual rest, and better energy.
Exercise – there is more than enough proof of the benefits of exercise to our bodies, but exercise is also a valuable tool for our minds and emotions. Exercise releases endorphins which improve mood and motivation, it provides reason to feel a sense of accomplishment and achievement which boosts self esteem, and in times of isolation and uncertainty, exercise provides us with something to look forward to, a project or task to take up a moment in our day to aim for and enjoy.
Socialization – this can be tough when we cannot meet in person and may be the biggest struggle of all when dealing with a pandemic. Even introverts can see a stretch of time without human connection with no foreseeable end as a reason to despair. This is a crucial table leg for depression. As with sleep, the more we need social interaction, the more depression keeps us hiding from it.
Fortunately we are living in a time where can interact with others without being in close proximity to one another. Technology has afforded us many opportunities to reach out. We can visit with friends by phone or video call, we can email, we can text; there are many, many ways to interact and many of them are free or already a part of our lives. But the key here is not just to talk, but to connect with the person on the other end of the device. It is crucial to our mental health to truly open ourselves up; to be vulnerable and honest about how we are doing and give space to hear the truth from the other end of the line. It doesn't have to be a litany of complaints, we may be talking about something that filled us with joy, but being authentic about it and really sharing from our lives will provide us with that connection that we need to keep that table leg stable and our minds healthy.
Spirit - the final table leg is spirit. Spirit can be religious or faith based, but it doesn't have to be. Rather the spirit table leg is about taking the focus off ourselves and onto the world around us in a positive way. For those who find their strength in religion, this may be attending online church services or reading scriptures, for those with an artistic bent it may be painting, music or creating something out of clay, for others it may be sport or communing in nature, and for any one of us it can be giving in the community through activities like volunteering with the food bank or crisis center or shopping for a shut in. The point is that we take our minds off our current troubles and spend time appreciating the world around us, or its creator, and make it just a little better for everyone through kindness or art.
Practicing any and all of these disciplines will go a very long way to keeping our mental health table solid and stable, to surviving a possible second covid 19 time of isolation and distancing, and living a full and healthy life in the days to come.