Cross Country Checkup

Accountability calendars and empathy exchanges: How 2 Canadians are coping with COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on the mental health of many Canadians. Two Cross Country Checkup callers share the ways that they've been able to lessen the pandemic's burden.

Callers shared their tips during a Cross Country Checkup program on mental health and resilience

Chris Harper, pictured left with his 'co-worker' Murphy, has developed an accountability calendar as a way of staying grounded during the pandemic. (Submitted by Chris Harper)

Every time Chris Harper walks into his bedroom, he's faced with his daily goals.

On a whiteboard he bought last March, the Calgary business consultant keeps track of his exercise, accomplishments and alcohol consumption on what he calls his "accountability calendar" in an effort to cope with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and working from home.

"I had apps and I had my boxing classes ... that really helped me maintain that structure. But without that, I needed an accountability tool," he told Cross Country Checkup.

"It kept a certain structure to every day and rather than focusing on how long things were and how things had changed, I could focus on what I could control."

Harper sets his daily intentions a month at a time, marking each day with a number of circles that correspond with his goals. The aim? Colour in every circle, every day — but he doesn't punish himself for missing one.

He shared his coping tips on Sunday during a Checkup call-in show on mental health and resilience in the face of the pandemic. Callers shared the challenges they've faced as a result of COVID-19 and what has helped lessen the burden.

For Harper, anxiety and worry over job losses and his family's health has been present throughout the pandemic. The whiteboard helps keep him grounded — though he wasn't always certain of its benefit.

"At first I was like, what a waste of 25 bucks on a whiteboard calendar," he said. "Eleven months later, I think, what a great investment."

In addition to his daily goals, Harper says he has made an effort to conduct his work meetings while on an outdoor walk.

Practising empathy

For the past month, Loretta Iris has had a simple mantra: "My mental health matters to me."

In addition to many of the pandemic's common stressors, Iris is grieving the loss of a family member who died by suicide early on in the pandemic.

So like many others, the Saskatoon-based artist has turned to Zoom as a way of connecting and sharing with others. But she's not just socializing, she's practising empathy.

Thanks to empathy practice circles, Loretta Iris says she was inspired to create an art project around the variable ways people express empathy. (Submitted by Loretta Iris)

"Part of what I do, [even] before the pandemic, [is] a way of connecting through what's called non-violent communication," she told Checkup

"When all of this happened so abruptly … the pandemic, the closures, our family having this death to experience, I needed a place to practise."

With a Google search, Iris discovered dozens of empathy practice circles around the world that meet virtually. Now, she regularly connects with groups of 15-25 people who, in pairs, take part in what's called an empathy exchange.

For 10 minutes, Iris will "have empathy" for whatever's on her mind. That might involve exploring the feelings she's experiencing with her partner or simply sitting in silence with her emotions. Then, the partners switch. 

She says the practice has not only made her more compassionate toward others, it has influenced her work.

"This process repeatedly, three times a week if I need it, has inspired me to create art," she said, including a piece that has been approved for a grant by the Saskatchewan Arts Board.

Moved by news of the COVID-19 variants of concern, that project will centre on painted, drawn and sculpted portraits of her Zoom connections and explore the "variable ways we can have empathy."

You can hear more from Cross Country Checkup about how Canadians are coping with their mental health and finding resilience during the pandemic on CBC Listen.

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