Mental Health in the Time of Covid: A Personal Journey

Vijay Chander
8 min readMay 16, 2021

It was the best of times,

It was worst of times,

It was the age of wisdom,

It was the age of foolishness,

It was the epoch of incredulity,

It was the season of Light,

It was the season of Darkness,

It was the spring of hope,

It was the winter of despair …

The above introduction to, “A Tale of two Cities” was written by Charles Dickens approximately 162 years ago, and yet it feels like it was written last year. The past year has been a time of trials and tribulation for humanity. The pandemic of the Twenty-First century has impacted humanity’s mental health beyond imagination. Since May is the “Mental Health Awareness Month” and I wanted to share my personal journey and learnings on some of the practices I have incorporated during this time, with a hope it might help you

Understanding the “Why” of emotional roller coaster?

Pandemic has altered our lives is an understatement. The loss, despair and sense of helplessness has affected all of us in some shape or form. Our human brains evolutionarily crave certainty and copes well with predictability. When uncertainty becomes a constant our brains experiences amygdala hijack i.e., fear takes over and any sense of normality is thrown out of the window. Dr. Dan Siegel coined a term, “Window of tolerance”. This phrase is commonly used to understand and describe normal body and brain reactions, especially following adversity. The concept of “Window of Tolerance” suggests that when we are within the window of tolerance allows ups and downs of emotions experienced by humans. We may experience hurt, anxiety, pain, anger that brings us close to the edges of the window of tolerance but generally we are able to utilize strategies to keep us within this window as shown below.

(Levine, Ogden, Siegel)

When we experience sustained or extreme adversity such as pandemic, this can drastically disrupt our nervous system. Our senses are heightened, and our experiences and reactions are typically intensified. Adverse experiences also shrink our window of tolerance meaning we have less capacity to manage ups and downs of emotions, as a result we become overwhelmed more quickly resulting in anxiety, panic, sleeplessness , etc., at the peak (Stuck on “ON”) and during the low (Stuck on “OFF”) depression, lethargy, exhaustion , etc., will set in as shown in below diagram.

(Levine, Ogden, Siegel)

I used this understanding to regulate my emotions by creating practices which reinforces certainty during uncertain and unpredictable times. My effort to get off the emotional roller coaster is still “work-in-progress” and my personal choice. There are days when I slip especially when I hear another loss of life of a dear one. I make the time to acknowledge, make the space to sit with grief and when I am ready, I let it go. Each breath we take teaches us to let go off the previous breath before we take another breath. I consciously choose not to dwell in the grief because it is neither helpful to me nor any of my family members.

My personal practices for creating certainty and regulating emotions

1. Meditation: My approach towards meditation is rather unorthodox in that, “l never lay claims to meditate but I just make space to sit, and meditation happens to me”. I find meditation helps me to go within, so that I don’t go without. This practice has helped me to regulate my emotions. I usually make space for meditation in the morning and as well as in the evening for an hour .

2. Exercise: I take every opportunity to exercise at home while I am on conference calls, I use stationary bike, do 5 push-ups every hour, 5 squats every hour and every hour I plank for sixty seconds. In addition, I spend running/speed walking for 90 to 120 minutes daily along the Credit River. Gamifying my exercise routine has been fun and as well as gives me a jolt of dopamine to keep me going and by exercising daily, I am also increasing endorphins “the happy hormones”

3. Reading: I have incorporated reading to manage my emotions and stress since my high school days. Reading takes me to my safe place and my solitude. Habit of reading has helped me a great deal to get out of my own head and transport me into a different place. I choose to read books that make me happy, that are inspiring or books on neuroscience and human behavior. I also enjoy reading poetry. Reading for an hour or more every day helps me stay grounded and brings lot of joy to me.

4. Connecting with work colleagues and friends: I find reaching out to my colleagues and friends helps them as well as me to share some of our challenges and ways to cope. Reaching out to others, helps me feel connected and inspired. It gives us hope and few laughs. The human connection is strengthened.

5. Family Time: My immediate family and extended family members living in different parts of the world gives me immense joy. I enjoy my time with my wife and stepchildren. I make sure I connect with my brother and his family, my cousins, aunts and uncles in India and other parts of the world regularly.

6. Gratitude: I start my day with gratitude and end my day with gratitude for everything I have in my life. This practice of heartfelt gratitude has helped me to be appreciative of every minute aspect of my life.

7. Seek help: Over the past year I have lost many friends, few family members and I had to put down my companion of 18 years-my dog Honey in September. All these losses triggered a profound sadness and depression. I let my manager know about the situation and reached out to seek help from a professional therapist. In my case, these losses triggered loss of my parents in 2012 and 2013. We are not able to grieve the loss of our loved ones and close friends in the same way as before. I learned during times like these past traumas or losses can create tsunami of emotions and it is better to seek help.

Honey

8. Learning: Since there is no place to go either during the evenings and weekends, I chose this time to obtain few certifications. This gave me a sense of accomplishments and sense of creating certainty. I learnt there is a beginning (excitement of finding a course and enrolling) the middle (the process of learning) and an ending (writing an exam and obtaining a certification). This practice helped me to learn, unlearn and relearn new subjects and concepts. Lastly, a sense of achievement and accomplishment!

9. Hobbies: I love nature photography and during my walks / runs in the morning and evening I take photos regularly to create new memories and cataloging the changes happening in nature.

Natures reflection in stillness

10. Sketching I rediscovered and reconnected with my childhood passion of drawing pencil sketches. This has helped me to connect with my inner child and

11. Volunteering: I have been a mentor with TRIEC (Toronto Regional Immigration and Employment Council) over a decade. Since last year I was able to guide two of my mentees and their respective spouses’ jobs in their chosen field. Volunteering helped me to get out of own self and learn about other people, their dreams, struggles and aspiration.

12. Gardening: I found working in the garden and connecting with the soil very grounding and nurturing. We grew vegetables throughout the summer and enjoyed our harvest last year. I am looking forward to growing my vegetables this year again.

13. Cooking: I find cooking very therapeutic. When I am cooking, I am completely disconnected, unplugged and enjoy the process of creating. Once again, cooking starts with an idea-a beginning, the process of cooking-the middle and ends with eating with family members or sometimes we share food with few neighbors. Of course, who can forget the washing of dishes, which once again helps me to ground.

14. Journaling/ Writing: The mere act of writing something down is releasing. I learned, I need not hold on to things, emotions and feelings. Once I started writing, my ability to deal with my profound sadness started lessening and I did not feel overwhelmed. There are days I write for an hour or more and then once I feel light, either I shred it or put the written paper in water and watch what I have written dissolve in water. This has taught me a very important lesson, “This shall to pass, nothing is permanent”.

15. Disconnecting from Television or online streaming devices: I have made a conscious choice not to watch or read news daily. This includes television and online. This has not only helped me to regain some time but also put an end to all the negativity streaming inside my home. I have realized, I have no control over any kind of events outside me, but I have a choice what happens within me especially, in the most valuable real estate in the world- “space between my ears”.

These are some of the practices, that grounds me, keeps me connected and brings certainty. It is my hope some of the practices I am sharing with you, resonates with you and you can complement with other practices which are unique to you. I would love to hear your experiences on how you are coping during the past year. Thank you for taking the time to read.

References

Ogden, P., Minton, K., and Pain, C. (2006). Trauma and the body: A sensorimotor approach to psychotherapy. New York: Norton.

Siegel, D.J. (1999). The developing mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are. New York; Guilford Press.

Segal, Z. V., Williams, J. M. G., & Teasdale, J. D. (2013). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression: A new approach to preventing relapse. 2nd Edition

--

--