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Empathy for others and ourselves is key right now, says therapist

Tips for coping as pandemic lurches toward the end of its second year.

As the pandemic drags on, even cup-half-full folks are likely starting to feel down. 

Who can stay uber-positive with the exhausting hyper-vigilance that we have been maintaining? Not to mention, the daily twists and turns with case counts and changing pandemic restrictions overwhelming us.

A national Canadian Mental Health Association survey found that 42% of B.C. respondents reported their mental health has deteriorated since the onset of the pandemic. And that was after Wave 2 in the pandemic. Most of us have lost count of what wave we are in now.

Squamish counsellor Nicole Thomson says she is seeing folks feeling depressed, anxious and angry. 

"Depression relating to trying to stay hopeful and being told to 'keep hanging in there,' and wait[ing] to be able to see loved ones, or for things to go back to normal," she told The Chief. 

"Anxiety about how many things are out of our control now compared to before. Not to mention having to be extra careful around germs," she said. 

She is also seeing folks' anger at others increasing, as "we're looking for something to blame for the way things are dragging on." 

Thomson said that the increasing upset manifests in people's relationships with others and themselves. 

"A lot of people looking at having to learn to set firm boundaries with loved ones and their beliefs around vaccinations, or with increased and changing demands from work, or even with ourselves as we try different coping skills to manage stress and get through very tough times that seem to be a new normal," she said. 

"I also think we're having new awareness of what drains us, and it's getting harder to keep pushing through."

Who is most impacted?

Thomson notes that almost all of us are impacted by pandemic pressures, but we aren't all experiencing the pandemic or reacting to it in the same way. 

"I'm noticing people who identify as self-starters/usually being quite empowered to change their situations, starting to feel more hopeless as they continue to get knocked down after pulling themselves back up over and over. Also, people who are team players and usually self-sacrifice, [are] being really taken advantage of, and are run down and burned out," she said. 

Some folks are beating themselves up for not accomplishing more during the past couple of years or for how they are coping. This has been a time when life, in many ways, has been put on pause, so try not to be so hard on yourself, Thomson said.  

"Step back a bit. And look at the context of what we're going through with society right now," she said.

What can we do about it?

We can't control the virus or the pandemic restrictions that accompany it, so what is the average person to do? 

Thomson said it starts with empathy. 

"Truly trying to understand people with compassion, starting with ourselves. Often, we're used to trying to push aside our needs and shame ourselves for needing rest. With everything going on, adding guilt and shame isn't helpful. Empathy for others as well, understanding that people do think they're making the right choices and are doing their best isn't always easy when we are frustrated and want things to change," she said. 

She said people tend to label their coping skills as good or bad, — eating chocolate and watching reality TV after work is bad while going to the gym is a good way to cope, for example.

"If we could just stop judging ourselves a little bit," she said. " Getting back to trying to trust our instincts that we know what we need. Also, being aware that some coping just helps us shut down and get through time. And sometimes that's OK, because it's a hard time" 

While typically 'thinking positively" is a good thing, it isn't always helpful advice. 

"Some people are struggling, and just being positive blindly isn't working for everybody," she said. 

"We're not checking our privilege if we're telling others to stay positive all the time.”

Setting boundaries

Thomson said she has been seeing some people struggling with relationships with anti-vaccine members of their family, for example, and she acknowledged that it is hard to have empathy if you feel that person is putting you or your family at risk or you can't see each other because of the division. 

"It's hard, you know, but if we think about it, there's a lot of people who have no reason to trust the system," she said. 

 "It's such a hard topic, because, normally, we would be like — to each their own. If someone had a different religion [for example], you'd just be, 'Oh, good for you.' But now it feels like we are all so fed up, and this is taking forever, and we're looking for people to blame. This blame is getting pointed at those [anti-vacccine or mask] people. And then those people are defensive and angry. But, really, I think under that is fear, not understanding, or feeling like they're being judged. And for me, I guess maybe as a therapist, I try and see the best in everybody — not saying that people should just get away with doing whatever they want. But I think it is important to try and see their perspective, too."

Tough conversations

Sometimes we have to set boundaries and that can be tough.

If you aren't comfortable with a family member who is not vaccinated coming over to a family gathering, for example, she advises keeping the conversation on your own feelings. 

"It depends on the person. If you're with someone who you trust, say a close family member, then being vulnerable, and sharing your concerns in a place that isn't about them, but it's about you, is a really good approach," she said. 

"For example, 'I don't feel comfortable with anybody who's unvaccinated coming to dinner because grandma's this age, and, you know, I just feel really nervous and it scares me. And I hope you understand.'" 

Attacking someone's beliefs is not going to work, she added, but sharing your own feelings might. 

"What that does is let them hear it because as soon as they start attacking someone, they don't even want to hear it; they just want to go on the defence and they're going to attack back." 

Thomson said it is important to validate that things do suck in a lot of ways right now, but to watch how we are talking to ourselves. 

Our brain wants to generalize, she noted, so to check that we aren't believing all the doom and gloom. 

Look for counter-evidence for what your mind is telling you, she said.

What contributes to resilience?

Thomson said people who are the most resilient to life's dramatic ups and downs of late seem to be those who know what they can control and what they can't. 

"People who know when something's out of their control, and can really let it go. To really be like, 'Well, I've done everything I can,' and find a way to get their nervous systems to realize they're OK in this moment.— the ability to just be present. And if they're not currently sick, or, if everybody they know is healthy right now, they enjoy that rather than live in fear," she said. 

She added that this mindset is an ideal, and no one is in that state of mind all the time. 

There is no shame in struggling or reaching out for help, Thomson noted, and there are counsellors whose whole job is to help. 

**Please note, the headline of this story was tweaked after it was posted to clarify that the pandemic is nearing the end of its second year (lurching toward its third).