News Clips: Here in Canada, there’s an optimism about where the numbers are right now, as much of the country continues to reopen.
Confidence in BC, where case numbers are much lower.
Small social gatherings with physical distancing will be allowed.
In Montreal, the country’s COVID-19 epicentre, daycares are open.
We have almost half of the elementary school open.
In Ottawa patio season finally is just days away.
Today is a big day for the reopening in the province of Saskatchewan. Many that have been unable to work over the last number of weeks, will now have an opportunity to do so.
Jordan: As I sit down and record this, my province has just announced its lowest COVID-19 case count in two months. In Ontario, much of the province is moving to phase two of reopening, and other provinces are well ahead of us.
Obviously, I really hope that I’m not jinxing it by saying this, but Canada is slowly emerging from our long, isolated, hibernation. And we should be jubilant. I mean, this is just in time for a real summer full of patios and gatherings and even a haircut. So why do some of us feel so anxious about it?
What has the past three months done to our brains? How have our feelings about risk adapted to what was a new normal, and how will they shift back? Why are some people eager to join their friends in the park and others still wary about a trip to the corner store? How has Canada coped with our long collective bout of anxiety?
And what’s going to remain in the backs of our minds long after this virus goes away.
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Judith Law is the executive director of Anxiety Canada, and it’s been a busy few months for anxiety. Hi Judith.
Jordan: Why don’t you start by telling me what it’s been like since the beginning of the pandemic? What has this year in general, done to anxiety and Canadians?
Judith: Great question. I would say that firstly, since about March, we have as an organization been really on our toes. It has been non-stop. So we’re hearing from Canadians, actually North Americans, anxiety is ever present in our lives. And March, when measures started to be put in place across Canada, was very much the start of the peak of heightened anxiety across the country. And we saw and heard from Canadians that the level of uncertainty was at times intolerable. Yeah.
Jordan: How does that work over time? So it peaked in March, and you mentioned it was the start of that peak. How long did you guys see that peak last, and how do people adjust to such a strange new world, and does that anxiety sort of drop off over time?
Judith: What we experienced is really a solid eight weeks of people just feeling that they weren’t sure what they would be hit with next. I think ordinary people, we all have anxiety, it’s what protects us, but we were very much feeling it in the background and in the forefront.
So we were unsure of our personal safety. We were unsure that if we were perhaps asymptomatic and perhaps passing on the virus to someone else, someone we love. There really has been a lot that people have had to grapple with, because measures were evolving and we were glued to the news. So that was on the one hand reassuring. Cause that’s what we do when we’re anxious, we look for reassurance. And so, your aunt, your colleague at the office, everyone you know, is talking about the latest stat and we were so trying to keep up because we were looking for more and more information, but that of course then worked against us.
We became increasingly more anxious. Either, because we weren’t getting the information that we thought we should be, or very simply, we felt that the information that we were getting, emotionally, we weren’t able to cope as well. It was all about coping.
Jordan: Well, can you tell me a little bit about how anxiety, especially this kind of really intense anxiety, can present really differently in different people because I’ve mentioned on this podcast before that I’ve struggled with health anxiety.
And as this began in March, I assumed that it was going to make me an anxious wreck, but it actually turns out that having a health scare right in front of me was something that I had basically spent my life of anxiety preparing for. And I know other people expressed similar feelings to me. And then some people who are amongst the most self assured people I know, just couldn’t do anything. So what’s it been like to try to work with people to navigate these different responses?
Judith: All really great questions. I think what we heard was that people who had really suffered from anxiety, so every day this mild to moderate level of anxiety that you feel because you are someone who has struggled with it. And so for those people who are able to really become experts. So by that, I mean, these are people who have studied up on anxiety. They know that the worries happen in our heads, and then we feel anxiety in our bodies. And who’ve really on a daily basis battled this, when the virus came for many of those who were learning about it, they were in some ways more prepared.
And that’s what I was hearing from people who have learned a bit about cognitive behavioural therapy, which is a very effective form of psychological treatment for people with anxiety, anxiety disorders, and depression. And then their observations were also really interesting because what I was hearing from them was, ‘my God, when you look around, all these people are behaving like I used to behave.’ Like they are panic shopping because they’re worried that they’re going to run low. There’s so much irrational behaviour. People wanting to feel a lot safer and doing things that might help them in the short run, but is going to really harm them in the long run if they continue behaving this way.
So what you said is true, there was a range. So you had people who normally were quite social, but suddenly they go into lockdown mode. That’s why so many people were telling us, ‘we’re working from home, the kids of course are home with us, we’re ordering all our groceries into the home, we haven’t stepped out in 10 days’. So that sort of really self-imposed quarantine, when perhaps the measures in that province didn’t require that, but they, as a family unit felt they really had to go into a form of lockdown while others who had, as I said earlier, lived with anxiety all their lives were able to use some of what they had learned to manage on a daily basis.
Jordan: So you mentioned that the peak that you saw lasted about eight weeks, what happened after that? Do we normalize these type of conditions? Does it just become part of our regular lives?
Judith: We are such resilient creatures. So I’m not sure that normalizing is the word that I would use, but I’d say that tolerating uncertainty is what we’ve increasingly been required to do, and it is what we’re doing. And we’ve seen that there are changes. During the beginning of the pandemic, we were asked if we had personal protective equipment to share, that there were lots of collections, throughout Canada, masks were reserved mostly for healthcare workers for first responders. And then of course that’s evolved because our chief medical officers have learned more about the virus, how it spreads, we’re still learning, but suddenly when you go out now, people are wearing masks that they’ve made or bought. And we’ve been told that this is an added layer of protection.
So I think that that’s another piece, where with all the uncertainty we’ve been tolerating and coping, and ways that we’ve been coping have been to isolate ourselves to, seek reassurance, we’re avoiding situations, we’re avoiding people, we’re looking for more information. And in the short term that has helped us to feel a bit better, although they’re not necessarily healthy things to be doing for long periods of time.
Jordan: Well, that brings me to the question that really interests me, and one of the reasons we wanted to talk to you, which is that now that most provinces have either opened up mostly, or like us in Ontario here, are moving into phase two where some restaurants are expected to open and et cetera. This is probably the most anxious I’ve felt as it starts to become expected that we’ll go back to taking public transit, and be going into office buildings. And I know none of that is happening right now, but talk to me a little bit about what kind of things are going on in the minds of folks who, who should be excited that things might be getting back to normal, but instead are worried.
Judith: Right, we’ve certainly talked to a lot of workers. Vancouver’s a good example right now, the city is still looking very much like a ghost town. Many of us have gone back to work and that’s been tough because people are worried about riding transit to get to the office.
We are worried about the measures that have been put in place for physical distancing. So how is that going to work? If I need to go to the washroom, I know that our washroom’s pretty small. So does that mean that we’re going to queue for the washroom. How am I going to take my breaks, because will there still be a lunch room? So all these practicalities have come into play and people are worried. And then there is the fear of bringing that back into your home. And it’s been really tough because there’s more uncertainty, there’s more change. And what we’re also hearing is that people who are, say your grocery store clerks, people who really are every day engaging with a lot more people. And so they feel the probability of them catching the virus is higher, and same with dentists. Recently heard from my dentist who’s sent an email, as are the paramedicals. So there’s a long list of things that you have to read, then they pre-COVID assessment, and then they call you the day before. So there are measures that are being put in place. And interestingly they’re measures that are to keep us safe, but how we might react is really just with a bit of fatigue and irritability that ‘gosh, this thing, it just hasn’t gone away’. The pandemic is still here with us and we’re still having to pivot and adapt. And how long is this going to take? So I think it’s a combination of things. There’s impatience, right? And yet we know that based on recent surveys, something like 75% of Canadians really support health measures that have been put in place and that are evolving. We really support it, but we also, 88% of us in a recent survey that went from April to May, experience at least one symptom of anxiety, and there’s high anxiety for those of us who aren’t working. So that’s that other piece too, that I should say is that there are people looking for work, right? And they still have financial obligations while they’re looking for work, or while they’re accepting the CERB from our federal government.
So really, really tough. There’s that opening up, those lucky people get to go back to work. There was fear that we experienced as those who are still working about a personal safety, about the safety of loved ones, about all the changes we’re having to make still. And then of course there are those who are currently unemployed.
Jordan: What do we know about the long term impacts of this? We’ve been really lucky just as a country in general, that Canada has not faced any real sort of collective disaster, collective trauma, for years. And everybody now is grappling with, and I don’t say this jokingly at all, but are we going to all end up with collective PTSD when this is hopefully finally over? What do we know about the lasting impact?
Judith: We don’t know a lot, but we certainly know that the pandemic is affecting a lot of people at firstly. And in particular, it is at firstly affecting those who are on the front lines, and having to make really difficult decisions.
It’s also affecting family members because so many have passed away during COVID-19 and we weren’t able to say goodbye in person. Perhaps we weren’t able to say goodbye at all to our loved ones. So there’s a sense of grief and loss. A great sense of that. There are also those who are graduating this year from high school, or reaching another milestone and they were expecting to be celebrating. And instead during this time, really since March, they’ve had to make do, and that making do has been extremely unfair and difficult. This period will, I would say for all of us who are going through this, some more than others, will certainly be memorable.
I think that we underestimate, and this is the thing about anxiety and human beings, is that we have a tendency to overestimate the probability of bad things continuing or going wrong. And then we also underestimate our ability to manage and to deal with these bad things. So-called bad things. And also to manage uncertainty. I’m always a glass half full person, and in the anxiety world, we really want to help people by having them understand what they’re feeling is real.
Absolutely. This is unprecedented. And then to focus on the things that they actually have, that we actually have control over, which is still quite a bit. So I would say that there is trauma. It isn’t over yet. We’re not sure what’s on the horizon. And certainly for those who have had to make very difficult decisions these past few months, it’s very likely that a lot of people will seek help.
Jordan: What kind of resources are available, have been made available, or will be, from provincial and the federal government? Have we seen a renewed investment in mental health, given that it seems like we’re going to need it down the line?
Judith: I think that the federal government has really stepped up to support businesses, so to support Canadians so that they can stay in their jobs and also if they’ve lost their jobs that they’re receiving support and financial support is so important, it is actually critical to people feeling that they are empowered to meet their obligations, and that they’ve got some certainty. So that’s a big piece, I think the federal government has done a really good job of rolling out. Mental health continues to be underfunded. What we’ve seen is the government has announced support for certain organizations, such as telephone support so that you’re getting some coaching. Provinces like BC have created or funded an app that young people, post-secondary and high school kids can access. And these are all helpful. I think what’s really missing is that in a way, it’s surprising to me, but there isn’t a lot of, I’ll just say depth. They’re not understanding that there is a spectrum, and that people are going to really need some psychological treatment. We don’t know what the percentages are, but what you want is to teach people, is to provide them with real skills that they can learn to use, and that they can use for the rest of their lives.
So when phase two comes, we know that these are the ways that we can help ourselves, and that if we are experiencing trauma that we would get psychological treatment, and that can be through group treatment or one on one therapy. I’ll just mention that we as anxiety Canada, we have a leading, totally free anxiety management app.
And we’ve seen an increase, a significant increase month to month this year, of the number of people who are learning about anxiety management by using the app. So people are learning to become experts, but I think that the federal government and the provincial governments need to take this a lot more seriously.
It is anxiety and mental health, as you mentioned, has always been taking the back seat to physical health. And there really is no real health without mental health.
Jordan: You kind of touched on it a minute ago, but that was going to be my last question, is if I’m somebody listening to this right now, and I realized that I am struggling and that this is having a real impact on my life. What are some resources that I can access right now? And without digging too deep into what’s already probably a depleted bank account.
Judith: Yeah, some of the resources that I recommend are available online at AnxietyCanada.Com. And we have two courses called my anxiety plans. There’s one for parents who can coach their kids. So first you learn about anxiety, cause that’s the best way you are going to be able to help yourself and also help your kids. So that is a free online course. We also have my anxiety plan for adults. And right now tens of thousands of Canadians are using these virtual courses.
They log in, they learn about anxiety management strategies. Everything from balancing your worries. So those are the cognitive pieces to creating a fear ladder, to learning in the moment, chill out tools. And that’s also available on the Mindshift CBT app, which is our free app. And I believe it is the world’s leading free anxiety app.
There are also stories. So often we think that we’re alone when we have mental health challenges. So podcasts like this, as well as our anxiety stories are really, really helpful. They validate what we’re feeling and they also help us to be able to have those conversations. We’re so disconnected from self care. It’s always, ‘Oh, when things get tough, the tough get going’. But I think that self care means acknowledging how you’re feeling, acknowledging what is happening around you. And then creating space for yourself to take breaks, to allow yourself to not be as productive as you’re used to being, for example.
So these are some of the ways I think. It’s reaching out to what is available online since we’re still physically distancing and socially distancing. It’s learning to become an anxiety expert. And then also a really simple one that our psychologists have talked about is finding a pandemic partner.
So if you haven’t already, it’s so important that we have people around us who, even one person whom you can go to and say, ‘Hey, today I woke up, I’m just feeling really lousy, not sure why, but just feeling, you know, this way’. And that person is a safe person whom you can have a conversation with, and there’s exchange. There’s that humanizing engagement that we all need.
Jordan: Those are fantastic tips. And thank you so much for taking the time to help ease our worries, Judith.
Judith: Most welcome, my pleasure.
Jordan: Judith Law, executive director of Anxiety Canada. That was The Big Story. If you would like more, you know, where they are, thebigstorypodcast.ca. You know where we are on Twitter @thebigstoryfpn. You should by now know our email address, firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you need something new to listen to, by all means, check out our brother and sister shows at frequencypodcastnetwork.com. Including a new one, you might remember it from an interview we did last week. It’s called Heaven Bent, episode two was out this week and it just gets crazier from there.
Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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