Ottawa

How to mentally prepare for the pandemic's 3rd wave

From avoiding forced positivity to keeping one's eye on the COVID-19 vaccine, psychologists offer up their advice for getting through what they hope will be the pandemic's final stretch.

Avoid forced positivity and keep your eye on the vaccine, say psychologists

A person taking advantage of the sun in Ottawa on March 9, doing a yoga pose with the sun above. (Brian Morris/CBC)

As Steve Joordens puts it, entering the red zone amid yet another wave of the COVID-19 pandemic might be a bit of a "gut punch."

That's why Joordens and other psychologists are sharing tips to mentally prepare for what they call the pandemic's last stretch.

"[During] the second wave, I know a lot of people just felt a sort of helplessness," said Joordens, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough. 

"I used to predict that should we hit a third wave, [it would be] even worse of a gut punch."

Ottawa entered the red "control" zone under the province's colour-coded pandemic scale Friday. Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches said Thursday it was necessary as the rise in the city's COVID-19 levels was "getting out of control."

An expert group advising the Ontario government on its pandemic response has also said the province has entered a third wave fuelled by variants of concern.

To explain what may be happening to people's psyches, Joordens shared an example of the "learned helplessness" theory — in which animals facing barriers eventually accept their powerlessness and stop trying to overcome difficult situations.

"[It's] started to feel like nothing [we] could do would change the negative bad stuff from happening," he said. "Every time we try to climb out of this virus thing through behaving well and then fail — it's kind of like we can't get over that barrier. And at some point, the worry is that people will stop trying."

[The vaccine] will give us the mental strength to endure the third wave.- Steve Joordens, U of T professor of psychology

What's different with the third wave, Joordens said, is the COVID-19 vaccine — and that's what people should keep their eyes on during the dark moments.

It also means if people engage in good public health behaviours now, it will prevent the "last few people from dying in the shadow of the vaccine."

"It changes everything," Joordens said. "It's an alternative escape route ... that will give us the mental strength to endure the third wave."

Don't always look on the bright side

Peter Liu, a clinical psychologist based in Ottawa, is warning of people of "toxic positivity," which can lead to serious depression and severe anxiety.

"Seeing the bright side of things is healthy, usually ... but some people go too far with it," he said. 

You are not alone.- Cheryl Harasymchuk, Carleton University associate professor

When people start dismissing negative emotions in a relentless pursuit of maintaining a happy state, that's when positive thinking becomes toxic, he explained.

Examples include responding to others' complaints or struggles by trying to solve their problems, always talking about a silver lining, and smiling constantly.

There's also the tendency to shut down talk of negative emotions, Liu said — something akin to not taking out the compost.

A person walking downtown, enjoying an early spring day in the capital on March 10, during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Brian Morris/CBC)

"It starts stinking," he said. "It starts affecting more and more of your life."

Comparing your suffering to people with bigger challenges and downplaying your own experience is just as harmful, Liu said.

"You're judging yourself," he said. "That's problematic because over time, you can lose touch with your actual feelings."

Social networks can carry you through

Carleton University relationship scientist Cheryl Harasymchuk suggests using your social network to help you get through the next wave.

She suggests shifting the focus to what you can do for others — like composing a song, a joke, or artwork for family members and friends.

"Adjust your expectations and prepare yourself for some new challenges," she said in an email to CBC.

"Remind yourself that others in your social network are going through similar experiences ... you are not alone."

With files from Olivia Robinson

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