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Helping families with stress & mental health during the pandemic lockdown

As the entire province of Manitoba goes into the Critical/Red Level on the provincial pandemic response plan, many of us may start to see the stresses and strains of the lockdown, and the pandemic overall, affecting our families and want to do something to make that easier.

A bit like with real estate, there are three rules for maintaining our mental health and minimizing stress during the pandemic lockdown. Those rules are: connection, connection, connection. Connection with those closest to us, our immediate family and loved ones -as well as extended family, close friends, coworkers, others we’d usually see outside of pandemic times. Nothing is a greater threat to our mental health than social isolation, so in a time when we have to be much more physically isolated and disconnected from other people, we need to be intentional and creative about seeing the faces and hearing the voices, virtually, of those who matter but who we can’t see in person.

Feeling connected to connected to other people can be a source of laughter, joy, feeling grounded, or simply an antidote to loneliness. And while the exact amount of connection each person needs can vary, most of us need more of it than the conditions a COVID-19 pandemic lockdown easily allows. So we need to be creative and innovative about it, as many people were in the lockdown that came with the first wave of the pandemic in March, April and May of 2020.

There are two parts to this: making the most of the interactions with family members in your household, and making a point to connect with others via video chat or phone calls. Some of the ways you connect with each of those can apply to the other.

With family in your household, and with so much need to connect with the rest of the world using screens of some kind, I recommend finding ways to spend time that involve less electronics if possible, and making the time lighthearted and fun. It's an old saying, but has a lot of truth to it: the family that plays together stays together. Can you turn off the movies, video games and even smart phones and play cards or a board game? I know that may sound simple and old fashioned, but there's a reason people have done these things together for so long - they're fun, give us something to focus on together, and offer a chance to bond around the common activity. If you have little kids, build a fort with blankets and couch cushions - or maybe even do this with your bigger kids!

People don't laugh when I recommend reading to their younger kids - but I do get some funny looks when I recommend reading aloud to teenagers. But I'm serious about it - many of them will enjoy it! Lots will not show they are enjoying it, but that doesn't stop you from reading to them while they just sit there and pretend to be bored or to do something else. I really like this articles about reading aloud to your teens: If you can get them into it, even try getting them to take a turn reading aloud to you and their siblings, 5 pages each, or a chapter each, or however they'll do it.

Go outside together, even if it's cold - bundle up and walk the dog, walk the kid, walk the parent, walk each other! Piles of research tells us about the mental health benefits and stress reducing effects of spending time outside, even for a relatively short period of time.

Many of us are tired of video meetings on Zoom, Skype, FaceTime and the many other platforms out there, whether we've had too much of them through work or school. But taking a deep breath and making the effort to connect with family and friends this way has so many benefits. Try inviting your family members for dinner - you each cook in your own home, or if you live close enough you can do a physically distant drop off of dishes to share with each other - and plop the laptop or tablet on the table so you can eat "together" and share the togetherness and conversation you would otherwise have sharing a meal in person. Having lunch with a work colleague this way if you're both working from home can also be an innovative way to stay connected.

I'm also a big fan of what I call pro-active reconnection during the pandemic. Whether it's helping your kids make a phone or video date with a good friend who has moved away, calling up a cousin you haven't seen in ages, reaching out to that friend or colleague you've been saying for ages that you'd like to reconnect with - there has never been a better time than during a lockdown. Would it brighten your day to hear from someone like that? Imagine what a favour you might be doing both them and yourself by making the first move on that kind of reconnection. Not to mention making a point of phoning or video chatting with a relative or neighbour who is older, isolated, or both, to spend a bit of connecting time that would really brighten their day.

This may sound too obvious to be true, but routine can also be extraordinarily helpful for our mental health and reducing stress. You can’t make everything the same every day, and wouldn’t want to, but for some things, a consistent routine is really good for us: getting enough sleep with consistent going to bed and waking up times, regular meals with a balance of healthy foods, even better if you can eat together at the table with people in your household; regular exercise of some kind, and, as I’ve already reinforced, regular positive social contact with others.

Project and hobbies, big or small, are wonderful things to reduce stress. The run on yeast and flour for everyone baking bread during the first lockdown tells us something - taking on a task that yields and tangible result is really satisfying. Doing it together, and sharing the tangible results together, adds significantly to that satisfaction!

For those who are religious or spiritual, while in-person faith gatherings are suspended, staying connected to those in your faith community can be a wonderful source of support, as can maintain your own spiritual practices such as prayer and other rituals. For those who aren’t religious, meditation can be a very grounding practice, and lots of research shows how it can reduce stress and improve mental health. And there are lots of apps and videos and web sites with instructions on meditation.

Coming soon: Signs to watch for with stress and mental health with your family.

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