How to manage your mental health if you have COVID-19
Feelings of guilt, fear and loneliness can come up when you have COVID-19, but there are ways to manage it
Michelle Loughery caught COVID-19 on Boxing Day. She describes her physical symptoms as feeling like her lungs were "paralyzed," and she was lethargic.
But her mental health also took a toll — she was scared of the unknown surrounding the virus, and became depressed thinking of the possibilities.
Loughery, who lives in B.C.'s Okanagan region, said having COVID felt like having a "dirty little secret."
"I never expected to feel guilty," she said.
"I felt guilty for potentially risking my grandkids."
She also felt totally alone: her husband was away for work, and she had to isolate as per public health guidelines.
Those feelings of loneliness, anxiety and guilt are completely natural, according to registered psychologist Dr. Carla Fry.
"There's probably no one that I've spoken to that is in the middle of COVID illness or or has just recovered that hasn't expressed these things to me," she said.
Fry says that while everyone experiences illness differently, they will likely face some challenges with their mental health while infected with the virus.
Though it's not possible to completely wipe that stress away, there are tools to manage it.
"The goal is not zero discomfort in terms of mood or anxiety or upset," Fry said.
"The goal is to do something, anything, consistently in fits and starts to make it one per cent better, five per cent better, four per cent better, on a really good day hopefully it's 10 or 15 per cent better in terms of mental health, but anything counts. The goal isn't to be 100 per cent free of anxiety, worry, sadness, loneliness."
Ruminate, but don't dwell
It's important to spend 60 seconds intentionally thinking about the guilt you may feel when you have COVID, says Fry.
Thoughts like "why wasn't I more careful?" or worry around infecting others are normal, but not something to dwell on.
"For those of us who are very conscientious and socially minded, feeling responsible for the health of others is fair and normal," Fry said.
"[But] it's not healthy [for people] to spend 20 minutes, two hours or two days ... berating themselves."
It can be hard to let those thoughts go, so Fry also recommends active distraction — which isn't to bury your feelings, but to find something engaging to focus on for a while instead.
These include reading a book, watching a TV show or listening to a podcast, for example.
"Active distraction is a healthy and positive mental health strategy," Fry said.
She also recommends pausing in between for self-care. If anxiety or depression seeps into your thoughts, return to active distraction, she says.
Cut out comparison
During the road to recovery, it's natural to want to understand how the virus is affecting others, but Fry advises against that.
"When any of us are sick, COVID or otherwise, we're more vulnerable to bad news," she said.
Instead, focus on your own illness and care.
For some, that might mean tuning out daily COVID-19 news or social media, something Loughery employed while she was sick.
"I started to watch art videos. I watched anything that was happy," Loughery said.
If you test positive for COVID-19 or experience COVID-19 symptoms, you need to isolate — which can make life quite lonely. Reaching out to loved ones for support is an important way to manage that loneliness.
Fry suggests those feeling physically well enough to ask a friend to have a tea virtually, or to watch TV a show with a colleague and text back and forth about it.
"Actually saying, 'hey, I need some help here,' it's not an easy thing," Fry said.
"The loneliness is real and there's no way to perfectly mitigate it, but no one's going to know how lonely you feel unless you actually share that. People aren't very good at mind reading."
Fry says it's a reciprocal situation, as once you feel better, you can offer the same support to others.
Fry says taking things slowly is the best way to recover both physically and mentally. This includes not overworking yourself if you continue to work from home, not overdoing it with chores, and not pushing yourself if you're feeling tired or weak.
Although it may seem obvious, she said, many people are used to working through discomfort.
"It's not the time for that," Fry said.
"It's not the time to show or prove to yourself or other people that you're a superhero because the likelihood of extending the sickness is higher."
If you or someone you know is struggling, click here for a list of resources to get help in B.C. You can also call 8-1-1 any time of day, any day of the year to be connected to mental health services.