Breathe, exercise and be kind: Tips for boosting your mental health during the pandemic

When a team of researchers looked at the mental health impact of the Fort McMurray wildfire, they were struck by how deeply anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress affected the community and how long it lasted.

With some distinct parallels to the current COVID-19 pandemic, a University of Alberta psychiatry professor who was part of that research team is concerned there could be many difficult days still ahead for Albertans.

“My worry about Alberta is that we have this COVID crisis … but it’s also associated with an economic calamity on top of an existing economic crisis,” Dr. Peter Silverstone said Thursday in a wide-ranging question-and-answer session with CBC Edmonton.

“And that layering of stress is what concerns me about what will happen here in Alberta. I really believe we need to try and get ahead of that curve and say, ‘How can we increase everybody’s resiliency, so that we’re better at dealing with it?'”

Mental health has been a recurring topic raised by Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health. In April, Premier Jason Kenney announced that the government would spend $53 million to implement more online, phone and in-person supports for mental health and addictions recovery. 

Dr. Peter Silverstone is a professor of psychiatry at the University of Alberta, and launched the Centre for Online Mental Health Support. He joins Edmonton News at 6 host Nancy Carlson to take your questions. 1:15:24

Silverstone said he is heartened by the attention and the underlying message about the importance of mental health.

“Right now, there are all kinds of stressors,” he said. “It’s very tough for a whole variety of reasons — not just COVID-19, but the economy, the stresses that puts on family, finances, all these other things. And there’s a lot of fear and anxiety.

“And yet mental health is not something that we’ve been speaking about perhaps as much as we should. So I’m delighted to see … those taking part in recognizing the importance of mental health support and ensuring that it’s there.”

Here are some of highlights from that discussion

Things to do every day

A handful of techniques can make all the difference when it comes to maintaining a healthy mental state, said Silverstone. “All of these things are grounded in hard-core neuroscience,” he said. “This isn’t something that is fuzzy or strange. The science behind this is pretty compelling.”

Exercise: Doing 15 to 45 minutes per day of moderate exercise helps the brain produce endorphins, known to result in a feeling of well-being. For those who haven’t exercised, he suggested starting with one minute and adding a minute per day. “Exercise has been shown, surprisingly, to be one of the most powerful tools to boost resiliency and to reduce your risk of developing anxiety and depression.”

Breathing: “When we take deep breaths, in through the nose and out … they enervate specific nerves that lead to areas of the brain that help calm you down. So it really is very effective,” he said.

Silverstone demonstrated some simple breathing techniques that he recommends practising every day. One, called the “rose and candle” technique involves crossing your arms across your chest, with hands on opposite shoulders. Turn to one shoulder and inhale deeply, as if breathing in the scent of a rose, then turn to the other and exhale as if puffing out a candle. Another, called “box” or “square” breathing simply involves a measured inhale, hold, then exhale and hold.  

Say something positive: Silverstone said that positive affirmations — both giving and receiving — can make a difference. “We all need to hear more positives in our lives.”

Dr. Peter Silverstone spoke to CBC Edmonton in a wide-ranging discussion about supporting our mental health during the pandemic. (Submitted by Dr. Peter Silverstone. )

Don’t fear the mask

Many people report feeling anxious when they see someone wearing a mask, unless it is an essential worker or a health-care worker, he said. 

“Wear masks,” he said, “Recognize that if everybody wears masks, that should actually decrease your anxiety.”

Take time for yourself

Answering a question that came from a mother with three young children, Silverstone stressed the importance of finding time for yourself, whether it is “exercise or reading or cooking or knitting or doing puzzles or card tricks. 

“Self care is critical,” he said. “Self care is not selfishness. It is self-preservation and it allows you to be better parents.”

Seek out help

In April, Silverstone and colleagues at the U of A set up an online resource, called the Centre for Online Mental Health Support, providing three- to five-day programs offering mental health advice and support during the pandemic. 

He said the site is an excellent place for people to start if they feel they need help, offering a number of resources on the tips he talked about Thursday, as well as information about other techniques, such as mindfulness or cognitive behaviour therapy.

“These are the kinds of things that you can use in the moment and practice for just a few seconds each day. So that when you are in a stressful situation – it could be at work, could be at home, could be on public transport, wherever it is — you have something that you can turn to that works.”

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