When the government, news, and community are urging us to stay home and a large number of us have been laid off, it’s easy to get stuck in a funk of Netflix and junk food. What people may not realize is the effect this can have on our mental health and overall wellbeing. This is the time when we need to take advantage of having some time at home, and shift our focus on taking care of ourselves both physically and mentally.
Maintain a sense of normalcy
Every morning, take the time to adhere to your normal routine. Get up at your regular time, take a shower, brush your teeth, cook breakfast for yourself or your family, and then plan your day from there. Try to eat your meals at the same time you normally would, and continue (or start) your exercise routine from home. Many gyms are offering home workout videos on social media, and there are hundreds of tutorials you can follow on sites such as Youtube for free. Keeping our routines as normal as possible can help keep us on track and assist us in feeling like we have more control over our lives as things unfold.
Limit social media “news”
At this point, news surrounding COVID-19 is everywhere you look on social networking sites. Social media can be great in terms of having communication with our community, but it’s no secret that incorrect information can be shared very quickly through sites like Facebook or Twitter. Try to limit your time surfing these sites and make sure you obtain your information from reputable sources such as the Government of Canada website or the World Health Organization.
Reach out to loved ones
Right now, a lot of us may be starting to feel lonely and isolated, but it doesn’t need to be this way. Pick up the phone and call, text or FaceTime your loved ones. A simple hello can make someone’s day, especially if they are feeling alone. Don’t forget about any elderly relatives or friends you may have that could need some extra help in times like this. Offer to pick up and deliver some groceries to their door, if you are able. Just remember to practice social distancing to keep yourself and your loved ones safe.
Take this as an opportunity to do what you’ve been putting off
We almost always have the excuse, “I don’t have time to do X, Y & Z right now.” Well, now is as good a time as ever to break out that new book you’ve been wanting to read, or that canvas you’ve been wanting to paint. Being creative is a great way to raise your spirits in this rather upsetting time. Now is also a great time to get caught up on any chores around the house you’ve been putting off. Clean out your closet, deep clean your kitchen, or rearrange your living room. We aren’t sure how long this is going to last, so we may as well try to use the time we have away from work and the outside world in a positive way.
We had a comment on one of our posts recently from someone who has chosen to start some free online classes with their time off of work. This is a great way to spend your time in a productive way- doing something that we normally wouldn’t have time to do. Websites such as Coursera or edX offer college and university classes for free. There are lots of unconventional ways to learn online as well; Skillshare offers online learning classes for a wide variety of categories, and sites such as GeoGuessr allow you to see the world from the comfort of your own home. Many museums also offer virtual tours that you can take for free, which is a great and educational activity for the whole family.
The reality of the world at the moment is not great, but it is really important that we try to look for the positives in every situation. If things are really hard for you right now, reach out to someone. Our need for a sense of community right now is heightened, and resources have been put in place to meet with mental health professionals from home in order to follow social distancing guidelines. If you do not have a therapist, reach out to a friend or family member, or the crisis line (Ottawa 613-722-6914, outside of Ottawa 1-866-996-0991) We’re all in this together.
In our recent wellness survey, 9% of participants stated that the most important aspect of
maintaining an overall healthy well-being is alone time. Time on our own can be used to do a
variety of things, but there are some activities that are more beneficial than sitting down and
Meditation is a great way to reconnect with ourselves, recharge after a long day, or prepare for
the day ahead. It can take as little or as much time as we need to clear our minds. For
beginners, there are many resources available to help you get started; apps such as Headspace
or The Mindfulness App are great ways to introduce yourself to meditation. Benefits of
meditation include lower levels of anxiety and stress, and lower blood cortisol levels (1) which
can improve sleeping patterns.
For some individuals, journaling is their main way to de-stress. It is an outlet that allows you to
release your inner thoughts and feelings through writing or drawing. Journaling can help with
managing anxiety, coping with depression, and reducing stress. It allows you to recognize your
triggers, and to identify any negative behaviors you may not otherwise be aware of. (2)
Exercising has many benefits to your mental health. Instead of sitting on the couch and
watching television for an hour, get your body moving and increase your heart rate by going for
a walk or a swim. Activities such as yoga will also improve your sleep and your ability to
Try replacing your usual Sunday afternoon or evening activities with preparing healthy lunches
for the week ahead. Make sure you include lots of dark leafy greens and complex carbohydrates
to fuel your brain. A meal prep short cut; purchase a rotisserie chicken and use it in salads,
sandwiches, and wraps which makes for a quick and healthy alternative to take out.
Go to Bed Early
It is no secret that most of us do not get the recommended amount of sleep every night. Studies
have shown that sleep problems may contribute to the development or prolongation of mental
illness by making it more difficult to cope with daily stresses. (3) Give yourself the night off and
retire early to catch up on the sleep you may be missing. Remove your phone and any other
screens that may be a distraction to you and let yourself recharge.
No one is perfect, and let’s face it - sometimes we just want to lay on the couch and watch
television, and that’s okay… some of the time. However, if we pay more attention to making the
most of our alone time, it can have significant benefits to our mental health and overall well-
being. For more ideas on how to improve the quality of your alone time, speak to a mental
health professional for suggestions of activities that you can incorporate into your own personal
1. Meditation 101: Techniques, Benefits and a Beginners How To by: Inner IDEA
2. Journaling for Mental Health University of Rochester Medical Center
3. Mental Illness and Sleep Disorders, Tuck Sleep, June 12, 2018
From a young age we are taught to connect the food we eat with our physical health; think of how often you heard “you are what you eat” growing up. We may not be what we eat, but we are what we absorb. What many of us do not put together is the direct impact the food we consume has on our mental health, and the nutrients we absorb can lead to both digestive issues and our mental health. In addition to consistent exercise and adequate sleep, proper nutrition is one of the fundamental elements of overall personal well-being and growth. Everything from genetics to the changes in our diets, to prenatal nutrition can affect our mental health in both positive and negative ways.
What to Eat:
It goes without saying that maintaining a healthy diet (and therefore better mental health) has to include plenty of fruits and vegetables and few to no processed foods on a regular basis. A good way to maintain this is to make it a priority to cook meals at home rather than going out to eat or ordering deliveries. When we cook meals at home, we know exactly what ingredients are going into the meals, and we can substitute simple carbs and processed foods with nutrient rich alternatives. There are a few foods in particular that you should make the extra effort to incorporate into your diet:
Dark Leafy Greens- Spinach, collard greens and kale are rich in iron and folic acid. Iron and folic acids have been shown to reduce fatigue and ward off symptoms of depression. Individuals who ate a diet rich in dark, leafy greens had less symptoms of cognitive decline than those who did not. An easy way to get your recommended leafy greens in is to substitute one meal a day with a salad with lots of vegetables.
Whole Grains- The brain’s primary source of energy is glucose. The glucose found in whole grains such as bulgar, oats, wild rice and barley are much better than those found in other, more processed products. Whole grains are full of complex carbs which release glucose slowly, providing a steady stream of fuel for the brain rather than the fast burning glucose found in sugar-filled white bread or rice.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids are often missing from diets- they can be found in foods such as wild cold water fish, seaweed, avocado, nuts and some chicken (if it was fed on flaxseed and walnuts). Our brain is made up of 60% fat, so it makes sense that we need to be eating (the right kind of) fats to maintain our brain health. Omega 3s affect the production of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin which boost learning and memory, as well as helps to maintain normal cognitive functioning. Diets that incorporate fatty acids have also been shown to reduce the symptoms of schizophrenia, depression and ADHD.
B-Vitamins are incredibly important to our mental health as well. Stress turns to our B-vitamins first and burns through them quickly which can lead to adrenal fatigue. B-vitamins are found in dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds, legumes, eggs and dairy products, meat and whole grains.
What to Avoid:
Alcohol- For many of us, alcohol is a substance that we consume from time to time, however what you may not know if that alcohol actually turns the fatty part of our brain rancid. Alcohol has also been linked to depression, memory loss and suicide. Try to limit your consumption of alcohol and offset any drinking with a healthy diet full of nutrients and vitamins.
Trans Fats- A recent study from the University of California showed that trans fats may have a negative effect on anger management. Another study showed that there was a 48% higher chance of depression in individuals who consumed high levels of trans fats. Trans fats can be found in dairy products and meats, any oils that can turn to solids (butter, margarine, etc), baked goods and fast food.
Soda and Sugary Drinks- Fruit juices and soda spike your blood sugar which provides energy spikes to your brain, but they do not give you any nutrients and you eventually crash. Soda is usually packed full of caffeine as well, which can cause disturbances in your sleeping patterns, worsening your mental health symptoms. If you are craving a fruit juice, try juicing your own to avoid all of the added ingredients, or simply eat a piece of fruit and drink water. If it’s soda that you’re craving, reach for sparkling water- you’ll still get the satisfying fizz but without the sugar and empty calories.
Simple Carbohydrates- Simple carbs such as white bread, rice or candy cause blood sugar spikes and crashes which can lead to mood swings. Sugar has also been attributed to ADHD, bipolar disorder and psychosis. Put in the effort to replace simple carbs with more complex ones (purchase seedy bread instead of white bread, and wild rice instead of white rice).
Changing your diet and lifestyle is not something that happens overnight for most people, it takes time and commitment to make the positive changes and stick with them. Make it a goal and a priority in your life to improve your nutrition, and you will see the changes it makes on your mental health. For optimal overall wellness, a balance of proper nutrition, adequate sleep and consistent exercise make the biggest impact.
7 Unusual Signs of Iron Deficiency by Ashley Welch
The Skinny on Brain Fats by Susan Reynolds
How Can the Brain be Both 60% Fat and 80% Water by Angela S. Bryant
Vitamin B: Best Sources and Signs of Deficiency by Teresa Cheong
Alcohol and Mental Health- Drinkaware
Say "No" to Trans Fats- Mental Health Food
Foods to Avoid if You Have Anxiety or Depression - Web MD
The Role of Nutrition in Mental Health Promotion and Prevention- Dietitians of Canada
Simple Carbohydrates- Medline Plus
Do Carbs Make You Crazy by Emily Deans M.D.
Malabsorption Syndrome- Healthline
Everyone knows that exercise has incredible benefits to our physical health, but it also has a positive effect on our mental health. Studies show that engaging in exercises that boost your heart rate can improve symptoms of both depression and anxiety disorders. Aerobic exercises (any type of exercise that increases your heart rate and gets you sweating) have been shown to have beneficial effects on the brain; these exercises release endorphins and enkephalins (the body’s ‘feel-good’ hormones). These hormones are responsible for feelings of joy and happiness. Regular exercise also builds self confidence in a person over time and alleviates stress, which also improves mental health.
The majority of mental health professionals recommend 45 minutes of moderate exercise 3 to 5 times per week; however even as little as one hour of exercise each week has shown to help improve mental health. The long-term effects of consistent exercise on mental health are still being researched, however studies have shown that overall, individuals who exercised regularly for 10-12 weeks had less symptoms of depression compared to those who did not.
Often times when we hear “exercise” we immediately think of going to the gym, but memberships can be expensive, and for some the idea of exercising in front of others can be anxiety inducing. Exercising from home is a great way to get started; there are plenty of videos on Youtube with workout routines for everyone from beginners to experts. Starting out with low intensity workouts such as walking or swimming are recommended if your current activity level is low. Activities such as running, hot yoga, swimming, Pilates, HIIT (high intensity interval training), dance and cycling are all great ways to increase your heart rate.
As an alternate or in addition to working out, simply try incorporating more activity into your daily routine. Take the stairs instead of the elevator at work, play sports with your kids instead of watching them from the sidelines, or put some music on and dance while you cook dinner. Any movement that increases your heart rate is going to help you hit your exercise goal for the week.
Taking our mental health as seriously as our physical health is very important and should be a priority. In addition to regular exercise, proper nutrition and adequate sleep, speaking to a loved one is often helpful for those suffering from mental illness. If symptoms of a mental health disorder are becoming concerning, contact a mental health professional.
If you haven’t experienced it first-hand, it may be difficult to connect sleep-related issues to mental health concerns. Studies show that about 40% of patients who seek out medical help for their sleeping problems have a psychiatric condition, and between 60-90% of people with depression have insomnia. Commonly, sleep disorders go hand in hand with mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Sleep problems present themselves in different ways depending on which disorder the patient suffers from; for example, patients with anxiety disorders such as PTSD and OCD tend to experience insomnia, nightmares and nocturnal panic attacks, and people suffering from depression tend to experience hypersomnia or sleep apnea.
Melatonin is the chemical in the body that is released from the pineal gland which modulates sleep patterns in both circadian and seasonal cycles; it is responsible for inducing sleep. Cortisol is the hormone released by the body in stressful situations, such as moments of worry or anxiety. Cortisol offsets the balance of melatonin, which can result in trouble falling or staying asleep. Depression has been linked to imbalances in the thyroid hormones which can also lead to sleep problems.
How Sleep Helps:
Sleep patterns typically cycle between two categories: Rapid Eye Movement (REM) and “quiet” sleep. “Quiet” sleep is when you are in a deeper sleep; during this time, your body temperature drops, your muscles relax and your breathing slows. This is the time that helps to boost your immune system. REM sleep is the part of sleep where people dream. During this time, your breathing, muscle tension, heart rate and temperature are similar to the levels present when you are awake. REM sleep is critical in enhancing learning, memory and emotional health.
Be Aware of Substance Intake
Caffeine is a substance that many of us consume daily - it is a stimulant that helps to keep us awake and alert. Try to cut out as much as possible, even if it is just one less cup a day. Alcohol is another common substance that many of us consume regularly, however not everyone is aware of the effect it has on our sleep; while alcohol initially depresses our nervous system, eventually the effects wear off which causes the sleepy feelings to fade and sleep to be disrupted. Nicotine is another commonly used substance. Nicotine is a stimulant, so consumption before bed should be avoided in order to obtain a good night’s rest.
Increase Physical Activity
Physical activity is always recommended for a healthy lifestyle and mental health, as well, physical activity has been proven to improve sleep quality. Make it a habit to include 30 minutes of aerobic activity into your daily routine. Activities such as yoga are also recommended before bed to help wind down after an eventful day.
Improve Your Sleep Environment
It is important that your brain associates your bedroom with sleep, so try to keep the area designated for just that. Having a television in your bedroom may be convenient, but it can hinder your ability to fall asleep easily. Try to avoid screens as much as possible leading up to falling asleep. Setting a schedule for yourself regarding wake up and bedtimes has also been shown to help improve sleep patterns.
Speak to Your Doctor About Medication
Currently, medication is available that helps with depression and irregular sleep, however the medication for one can often worsen the symptoms of the other. Speak to your doctor about the symptoms you have been experiencing, and work with your medical provider to find the medication that works best for you.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is recommended both for individuals who are having problems sleeping, and those suffering from mental health disorders. CBT helps to reframe negative thoughts that contribute to depression or anxiety and poor sleep. CBT-I is a specialization directly devoted to the treatment of insomnia. Ask your mental health professional if they have experience with CBT-I or if they know someone who does.
Dr. Diana Garcia
Dr. Diana Garcia has over 20 years of experience in the field of psychology. She has provided psychological and counseling services in Ontario, and the states of Pennsylvania, and Florida