By Stan Ashbee
COVID-19 has affected us all in a myriad of ways. From families to individuals of all ages, the pandemic has left its mark, leaving mostly every southern Albertan not-unscathed. But what now, as the planet works on getting back to things the way they were pre-pandemic? If that is even a possibility at this juncture.
There will be, no doubt, plenty of apprehension, as southern Albertans step back nervously into a new normal-based world. This could continue to be a challenge for some, while others will just begin to feel the aftershock from a global wake-up call, in the guise of a devastating virus.
Primarily, social anxiety is what is at play here, says Amanda Fontaine — a Family and Community Support Services (FCSS) counsellor. Fontaine left Regina, SK to join FCSS in April. FCSS provides a plethora of supports to southern Alberta area residents. “If southern Albertans take the anxiety about the coronavirus and put it aside for a moment — re-entering social activities we haven’t been able to do for so long — means we’re encountering social anxiety, which might be new to some people.”
That’s not something some people have experienced before, Fontaine adds, “they might have thoughts — why is my heart rate racing? Why am I having a hard time sleeping after I’ve been around people? For folks that experience social anxiety pre-COVID, this is going to be old hat to them. But, for those who are new, it can be quite frightening.”
Anxiety, in and of itself, Fontaine explained, is a naturally occurring process for the human body. “But we don’t want the anxiety about the anxiety. It is normal and expected to experience some anxiety when we’re going back into the same kind of social activities we were doing before. The task becomes learning how to cope with anxiety, when it shows up. And knowing how to care for one’s self when that is happening.”
“Exposure Hierarchy” is used for working with social anxiety, according to Fontaine. “Starting with an activity that might provoke a one out of 10-level of anxiety. Doing that repeatedly until you’re able to cope with that anxiety using some strategies.”
Fontaine pointed out someone working on their social anxiety could start the one out of 10-level anxiety activity and practice that enough times to become comfortable with it before moving onto the two out of 10. “What we don’t want to see is folks rushing out and doing the 10 out of 10 anxiety activity right at the beginning. That’s going to overwhelm a person’s nervous system, quite likely. We hope people will practice responding to their anxiety in a healthy way.”
Fontaine adds the go-to for folks, strategy-wise, for responding to anxiety are deep breathing and mindfulness.
“The reason those strategies work is because it works with how our nervous system is set up. We’re not trying to squash down or push away those stress responses in our body. We’re working with them. For deep breathing, it reverses that fight or flight response. When we slow our breathing down, we slow our heart rate down, it lowers our blood pressure and our brain can stop releasing adrenaline and cortisol,” Fontaine said.
There are a number of videos available on YouTube or through Smartphone apps for practising deep breathing exercises or for learning the art of mindfulness.
Exercise is also the body’s natural anti-anxiety and anti-depression medication, notes Fontaine. “The golden number is 150 minutes a week to increase serotonin levels. Serotonin is our mood stabilizer. It’s something everybody can do. It doesn’t really matter what form of exercise you’re doing, as along as you’re getting your heart rate elevated.”
Six or even 12 months ago, and speaking only from Fontaine’s own experiences with clients — clients showed more signs of depression and social anxiety, while the pandemic continued to create chaos worldwide. Now, clients are somewhat less depressed, and there seems to be more hope and optimism in people.
“We’ve gone through a crisis, and for some, a trauma. Now that we’re emerging from that crisis potentially and we have our physical safety established — things like our emotional well-being are going to be more at the forefront of our minds. It might just now start to hit people in a bigger way,” said Fontaine.
Before, Fontaine says, people were worried about their physical safety and survival. “Now, there might be things like acknowledging losses that we’ve had in the last 18 months or even if there’s grief from people who have died or things like that. It’s more likely those things are going to start to impact us now. Sometimes when people are in that survival response they can kind of numb themselves at the time and now that numbing might start to wear off. We’re hopefully getting to the point where the crisis passes.”
Sometimes, when the worst of it is over, that’s when people need more self-compassion and prioritizing health and well-being, says Fontaine.
With children, Fontaine notes, it’s very important to normalize anxiety and use the word for what it is. “We don’t want to buffer people from their emotions. We don’t want to avoid talking about things like anxiety.”
For younger kids, it’s OK to ask “is your body kind of feeling nervous or is your body feeling worried?”
“It’s OK to talk about it in that language,” said Fontaine. “Earlier on, so they are familiar with it and the more readily they will acknowledge those feelings. Setting them up, in a good way, for the rest of their life.”
As for families, Fontaine says, take time to connect with each other, keep each other grounded and spend quality time together. It’s also good to work out stress and be physically active too.
Currently, FCSS still encourages phone and video counselling sessions, for the time being. There’s some advantages to remote counselling sessions and FCSS may continue this service moving forward. “We’re in a rural area. Sometimes folks can access us a little bit more easily,” said Fontaine.
There’s also availability for in-person counselling services on a case-by-case basis right now in Coaldale, Barnwell, Taber and Raymond.
“Communities outside of that — call our intake,” said Fontaine. “We’re pretty creative and pretty flexible.”
FCSS counselling services are free. And, Fontaine adds, “right now, there isn’t a waitlist.”
Visit fcss.ca for more information.