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January 26, 2022

COVID-19 is a grueling marathon, and the finish line is still hard to predict. To say the pandemic has been tough on our mental wellbeing is an understatement. Between the Omicron variant, restrictions, and uncertainty about schools, it’s never been more important to take care of your mental health.

Dr. Lesley Wiesenfeld is the Psychiatrist-in-Chief at Sinai Health. She knows firsthand the importance of resilience and is sharing her perspective on navigating these tough times.

We’ve been coping with this global pandemic for a long time now, and sometimes it feels like there’s no end in sight. How can we stay resilient?

It’s important to remember every wave ends, and pandemics always end. I think it’s helpful to remind ourselves that although we’ve been in this for almost two years, not every wave has been the same. There have been weeks and months where we’ve been able to do more things like be out and see our families, and some weeks and months where we can’t. Most of us have become creative at adapting and at trying to ‘keep the most important thing the most important thing’. Plus, each day is an opportunity to regroup and think about what’s worked for us so far and how we can keep going. Staying resilient doesn’t mean forcing yourself to stay positive; it is more about trying to be nimble and grow new capacities and ‘adaptation muscles’ in the midst of strain.

Winter can be difficult on people’s mental health; how can we keep our spirits up?

COVID winters are tough, to be sure. I don’t think people need to push themselves to keep up their positivity. The pressure to stay positive can make it feel like you’re failing at resilience before you even get started. Just try to keep a small inventory of what activities make you feel better and try to do more of those and less of the ones that don’t. It is easy to forget that list, so put it up on the fridge or on your phone so you don’t forget. When we are stressed and tired, it is very easy to forget what normally makes us smile or feel lighter but almost everybody can come up with a list of what raises their spirits. And keep it simple: your favourite foods, fresh flowers on the table, a favourite movie, a chat with a friend. Try not to focus on what you can’t do; focus on what you CAN do. It can also help to keep a bit of a list of things that you know are LESS good for your spirits, and try to watch out for them taking up too much time.

It’s been a tough and scary time for kids. How can we help them?

This is such a heavy and frustrating time for parents - I am hesitant to say much since I suspect the last thing parents need is more advice so perhaps I will just say that well before COVID, probably the best way to help kids with scary things was to focus on balancing protecting them AND equipping them, so that is a good goal for the pandemic as well. Trust yourself and your knowledge of your kid. What might work for you and your family might be very different for another family or set of kids or parents and that is perfectly fine. Try your best not to judge yourself or another parent’s choices. Use the best information and options you have, and if it doesn’t go well blame COVID-19, not yourself.

What’s your advice to parents juggling raising a child and looking after themselves?

People need to give themselves a break, this isn’t the COVID-19 Olympics - there is no medal for the best choices or technique - the main goal is to just get to the finish line. This pandemic has been a lesson in humility - we can’t control everything. Let yourselves off the hook. Give yourself permission to be imperfect in an imperfect time. If your kids are old enough, let your kids watch a couple movies or set them up for a long activity, while you get some alone time, either as a couple or on your own. If they are little, ask for a little bit of help from an older teen you trust or, maybe pair up with some other parents of little kids so you can each give each other a break and some support. Even taking time to take a walk on your own or with your spouse to catch up can feel like a welcome break.

What if we’re feeling lost?

Our resilience coaching squad frequently shares the acronym “MAPS” from a colleague of ours and I still find it a helpful one to guide me when my resilience is wobbly. “MAPS” can be a way of reminding yourself of four elements of feeling and doing better. You can try to do one each day or just pick from the categories to help focus your self-care.

Mastery: Do something that is about getting better or more skilled at something, maybe photography or playing piano or knowing which bird or tree you are noticing on your walks.

Altruism: Do something that helps someone else.

Pleasure: Do something just because it makes you happy to do it, whether it’s a winter walk or a chocolate bar- go ahead and indulge.

Silence: Do something quiet and contemplative-get away from the screen and the noise and be present in the moment.

How can we stay resilient during the disruptions brought on by COVID-19?

We all want things to improve in a straight line. These steps forward and back and then sideways are hard for all of us. This wave descended upon us just when became more “open” than we’d ever been in 18 months, when we were feeling excited for the vaccines to be available to kids. As hard as it is, we probably need to just accept that the pandemic is going to have a bumpy trajectory. When we take a few steps back, we just have to try to remember we have taken steps back before and still moved forward again. We truly have to focus on what we can do to live through it rather than expecting it to become more predictable.


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