Montreal·Out of the Dark

How to cope with winter isolation during the pandemic

The pandemic is a difficult time for everyone, and experts say it's important to remember that there is a lot right now that is beyond our control. We've compiled some ways to help cope with winter isolation and to know when you should consider getting professional help.

It's important to accept that so much right now is out of our control, experts say

Experts say setting aside time for work, family and play is important to maintain a healthy balance. (Shutterstock)

The pandemic is a difficult time for everyone, and experts say it's important to remember that there is a lot right now that is beyond our control.

We've compiled some ways to help cope with winter isolation and to know when you should consider speaking with a professional. You'll find a list of resources at the bottom of this article.

If you are in crisis or know someone who is, here is where to get help:

  • Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (Phone) | 45645 (Text, 4 p.m. to midnight ET only) crisisservicescanada.ca
  • In Quebec (French): Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)
  • Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (Phone), Live Chat counselling at kidshelpphone.ca
  • Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre

Feelings are normal, situation is not

It's important to recognize that we are living through an exceptional time, and that it will, eventually, pass.

"For people in denial, reality will catch up with them," said Dr. Joe Flanders, a psychologist and founder of the Mindspace Wellbeing Centre in Montreal.

"Avoiding that reality sort of causes that problem to go underground and fester and create other problems."

What we are free to do has been severely limited and we are considering factors — like the risk of catching or transmitting a deadly virus — that most of us never have before.

Dr. Christine Grou, head of the Ordre des psychologues du Québec put it this way: "The feelings are normal, the situation is not."

With gatherings banned, and many either without work or having their workplace drastically changed, the social interactions many of us take for granted have disappeared over the last year.

Finding ways to battle that feeling of isolation is key, says Dr. Camillo Zacchia, a psychologist who specializes in anxiety and depression. That means finding a healthy balance of family time, work time and play time.

"We don't realize that when we go to work or when we go to school, we also socialize," he said.

Now, that level of socialization requires more effort — such as calling someone you would normally only see at gatherings with extended family.

But at the same time, it's important to recognize that it's impossible to have things feel the way they did before the pandemic, says Ella Amir, the executive director of AMI-Québec, an organization that supports those living with mental illness, their family and their caregivers.

"I think once you accept that and you accept that you have no control over some of these happenings, I think that it may be slightly easier to go with the flow," says Amir.

Know what you can control, and what you can't

Being locked down with family or roommates may also cause underlying issues to boil over, says Flanders.

"The sea level has risen across the board," he said, adding that winter is generally a time where there is an increase in mood-related problems as people move around less and the weather is dreary.

The experts we spoke with say to get outside, try new things and be sure to socialize (virtually or by phone) as much as possible.

"You really have to carve time for yourself. And maybe to compartmentalize different parts of your life and try to assign certain resources to each of these compartments," says Amir.

She says it's critical that people take care of themselves, for their own good but also for those who rely on them.

Zacchia says now is the time to invest in exploring your interests — he has gotten into woodworking, something he has had an interest in his whole life, but had never really tried.

For Grou, that means watching a good TV series and enjoying a nice meal at night.

She says it's important to look at things "one day, or one week," at a time.

When to seek help

Reaching out to friends and family is an important coping strategy, but if you are still having trouble, it's important to also consider professional help.

"Choose the people who are encouraging, rather than discouraging you," Amir said. "People who are going to help reduce your anxiety rather than people who are going to project on you their anxiety."

Support groups, like those offered by AMI-Québec, may be sufficient. But if you are experiencing high levels of anxiety, are in a depression or cannot complete your daily tasks, then you may want to consider speaking with your doctor or a mental health professional

"What we don't treat will get more complex," said Grou, adding that the mental health effects of isolation may last longer than the pandemic.

For those already living with mental illness, the pandemic can make things worse.

"For most other people, it's part of the universal experience right now," said Amir of feelings of helplessness and isolation. "And I think it's important to recognize it, to accept it as-is and to try to deal with it in a way without suggesting that this is really a medical condition."

This story is part of a special CBC Quebec project Out of the Dark: Real Talk on Mental Health. Here is a list of mental health resources that are either free or are included with a membership fee:

  • AMI-Québec is an organization that supports those living with mental illness, their family and their caregivers. They offer support groups, workshops and counselling for families. More information here.

  • AMI-Québec also provides a list of help lines within the province. Find that list here.

  • The Quebec government's website includes tips on protecting your well-being during the pandemic and includes many resources such as a self-management tool for emotional health and resources for parents, children, caregivers and more. Find it here.

  • The West Island Women's Centre (WIWC) is a non-profit community organization dedicated to improving the quality of life of women. The centre is offering an eight-week "Women in Isolation" virtual support group on Mondays from 1-3 p.m. Information here.

  • Head and Hands is offering a 12-week virtual yoga, breathwork and meditation workshop for youth ages 14-25 on Tuesdays from 6-7 p.m. Sign up here

  • Vent Over Tea is a free, confidential active listening service to all members of the local community to promote mental wellness and connection. All vent sessions are conducted over the phone or Skype.

  • Friends for Mental Health is a West Island-based non-profit organization that offers support and other resources to those close to a person with a mental health issue. There is an annual membership fee for access to counselling services, support groups and workshops, but they also offer free services such as webinars and respite activities such as Movie Nights. More information here.

  • Tel-jeunes: 1-800-263-2266

  • Tel-Aide: 514-935-1101

  • A list of call centres in Quebec by region.

With files from CBC Quebec's Radio Noon

now