5 Ways to Cope With Pandemic Tension


With areas of Canada opening in stages and new rules emerging surrounding COVID-19 protocol everywhere from airports to subways, psychologist Christine Purdon offers 5 tips for coping with pandemic tension. Photo: Leonardo Fernandez Viloria/Getty Images

In Canada’s continuing fight against COVID-19, it’s a varied picture of new rules and relaxing restrictions. Although Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced last week that, in addition to masks, temperature checks will now be mandatory for domestic air travel, there are still parts of the country to which we just can’t go.

Newfoundland and Labrador, P.E.I., New Brunswick and all three territories are officially closed to non-essential travel with the remaining provinces advising the same — and even against regional travel within.

The battle lines have been drawn with border bans but also, quite literally on store floors and in public parks — not to mention on public transit. In Toronto, the city announced that face masks will be mandatory on all buses, streetcars and subways beginning July 2.  It’s all in an effort to fight an invisible foe — but the uncertainty of not knowing exactly where and when we cross paths with the enemy may be leaving us overly defensive.

Why We Fight


“So if you go into your backyard and there’s a bear, your anxiety response is going to help you a lot,” says Christine Purdon, a professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo. “But when the threat is vague and uncertain, it activates your anxiety but you’ve got no target.”

So, we go looking for one. And Purdon believes that could explain actions like lockdown protests with governments becoming a target to mobilize against.

But we can also find ourselves snipping at strangers standing just a little too close at the grocery store.

Keep Calm and Empathy On


As Purdon explains, threat-induced anxiety is part of the fight-or-flight response. And in context of the pandemic, she believes it’s the fight instinct being triggered. But again, without a tangible target that energy can get misdirected.

It’s more important than ever to act with compassion and use our manners, she says. “We need to check ourselves. Is it that fight response? We are totally entitled to step back and say ‘I’m not comfortable.’ But lashing out isn’t fine.” And it puts us more at risk for an altercation and physical contact, she points out.

Errand Exhaustion


Of course, just going to the grocery store right now can amp us up. Being hyper-vigilant refreshes anxiety and so we need to recognize that activities that used to be fun or relaxing can now be stressful.

So, treat it like a trip to the dentist, Purdon recommends. “I need to expect that it isn’t going to be particularly fun and I need to recover when I get back.”

And when we get back? Because the anxiety response focuses our attention on threat-relevant information, don’t sit idle thinking about danger, she warns. Distract yourself.

“We need to enjoy our gardens. We need to enjoy our children. We need to enjoy our pets. We need to enjoy music. More than ever, we need things that take us out of the here and now. In fact, it’s essential.”

Rule of Three


A chat with friends can also help. But be mindful that moods are contagious. With a glut of COVID news to discuss, it’s easy for it to dominate the conversation and refresh the very anxiety we’re trying to escape.

So, coach the conversation through a three-part play, Purdon suggests.

Part 1: The Debrief

“You share what’s vexing about the situation, whether it’s unemployment or whatever. You share your story.”

Part 2: Offer Solutions

“Share constructive solutions to the dilemmas you have. What new games are you giving your kids to do while you’re trying to work.”

Part 3: Diversion Tactics

“This part is 100 per cent not coronavirus-related. Talk about what brought you together before all of this. Just move off COVID and talk about something positive.”

Stay in Your Lane


Quick to criticize friends or family for not being as safe as you? (Guilty.) Although we have a legitimate concern, Purdon posits that the finger-wagging may be another target for discharging our own anxiety. Instead of looking for what others are doing wrong, focus on what you’re doing right.

“So much of this is not in our control. What we can do is focus on what is,” she says. “We can try to find ways — whether it’s cooking a nice meal or reading a good book — of managing in a positive way the environment that we have control over.”

That includes keeping up with what Public Health recommends to reduce spread of the virus, including wearing a mask or face covering, practising physical distancing and good hygiene, disinfecting surfaces and objects and limiting non-essential travel. But, as Purdon points out, “It’s not a reasonable expectation that everyone is going to understand things and do things the way you do.”

In fact, for some people ignoring the threat (and the rules) is a way of coping — “if it isn’t real, I don’t have to be scared,” she explains. And others may just be experiencing caution fatigue, they are figuratively and literally tired of the hyper-vigilance.

Shut It Down


Then there’s what seems like an inexhaustible supply of information about the novel coronavirus from which it isn’t hard to be overwhelmed — and bewildered as we enter each new phase of reopening and the rules change, again.

“My biggest piece of advice to people right now is really limit the amount of time you spend on it,” Purdon says.

“So, you know, get your update in the morning from three authoritative news sources — not Karen or Kevin on Facebook — and then walk away from it.”