Self care for mental health in a pandemic

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about looking after your mental health and well being during the pandemic. Since I work a lot in the area of mental health wellness and policy, I try to live the practices I learn about to manage everyday stress.

One of the things I have been sharing with friends is the need to grieve the loss. Our way of life has changed, and most likely, permanently. What happens in the next few months and after that is anyone’s guess. Some people may find Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — a useful way to process all the feelings.  Also, regardless of how I have listed them here, it’s not a linear process.


The pandemic, though, is not everyday stress even if we are feeling it every day. I thought you might be interested in some of the things government agencies in Canada and elsewhere are offering to help. I’m quite glad to see the variety of material as we have had to deal with a lot of stigma when it comes to mental health and illness.

The relative openness about mental well being is a positive thing we should recognize and is an important part of the WHO’s recent updates. Their focus these days is on emphasizing that physical distancing does not mean social isolation. They also recognize the importance of building psychological resilience. I hope some of the links that follow are helpful to you.

The public health system in England has come up with 14 things you can use to protect your mental health.  Here’s a super-condensed version:

  • Consider how to connect with others
  • Help and support others
  • Talk about your worries
  • Look after your physical wellbeing
  • Try to manage difficult feelings
  • Manage your media and information intake
  • Get the facts
  • Think about your new daily routine
  • Do things you enjoy
  • Set goals
  • Keep your mind active
  • Take time to relax and focus on the present

For the science-minded among the readers, here’s an interesting article looking at what we have learned from past epidemics. The authors focus on what we can do better going forward and why we need to also apply psychological first aid when working with people in our communities during this time. The article considers the impact on providers as well as people in the community. They write:

The outbreak of pandemics has a potential impact on the existing illnesses, causes distress among caretakers, and affected persons and leads to an onset of mental symptoms among the young or old, which is possibly related to the interplay of mental disorders and immunity. In order to avoid the mental health effects of the COVID-19 infection, people need to avoid excessive exposure to COVID-19 media coverages, maintain a healthy diet and positive lifestyle, and reach out to others for comfort and consolation that the situation will soon be contained. Everyone should maintain a sense of positive thinking and hope and take personal or group time to unwind and remind the self that the intense feelings of fear, panic, and anxiety will fade. Additionally, seek information from reputable government sources for information and avoid the spread of erroneous information on the internet.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada has put together a website offering evidence-based information and links from across the country. Their focus is on providing information you can trust: “In times of high anxiety and stress, it’s more important than ever to safeguard your mental wellness. That includes stemming the tide of non-essential information (my emphasis) and paring down your news consumption.”

Another Canadian site comes from the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health. They offer a variety of coping strategies to deal with the stress and anxiety you and others may be feeling. What I liked about the site was their recognition that not all tools will work for everyone equally: “Some might apply to you and some might not – or they may need to be adapted to suit you personally, your personality, where and with whom you live, or your culture. Please be creative and experiment with these ideas and strategies.” CAMH also recognizes that a key factor driving ur fear, anxiety and stress is the uncertainty that underpins our lives today with respect to the virus.

I hope you find the material in the selected links helpful. Remember to connect to people you care about, to look after yourself, to take time to focus on the good in your life and to wash your hands and take appropriate precautions. Be well, stay well.

MarthaFitat55 lives and works in St. John’s Newfoundland and Labrador.


Prioritizing your mental fitness

Almost 20 years ago, I attended a workshop on self-care for front line workers. It was not long after 9/11, an event in which I spent a lot of time helping people stay calm in the face of great uncertainty.

The workshop leader gave us all a great piece of advice. She said, remember the airplane directions: always put your own mask on first before helping others.

In these days of great social change, when upheaval is the new currency, when the lack of a routine or the imposition of a new one with working from home or coping with job loss seems like a burden you cannot attempt to carry, or when the social distance required for public safety has started to unravel the threads in your personal safety net, it can be really easy to forget your own needs.

I have struggled with making physical fitness a priority in the past. I found making a schedule, committing to training, and blocking out the time as fixed were strategies that helped me make it happen.

Part of that was fear that I couldn’t keep up, that I was too unfit or incapable of actually doing the moves required. Part of it was also the expendability of women’s time when there are already so many demands from other sources: child and/or pet care, home care, elder care, work priorities, community responsibilities etc.

It came home to me a couple of days ago that the impact of keeping away from people generally and minimizing social contact when carrying out essential errands also required me to focus on maintaining mental fitness.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the news in our communities, or from places around the world where we have family, friends and colleagues also facing similar fears, concerns and challenges. Over the past week, I have talked with friends and colleagues about managing the stress created by meeting the guidelines for protecting ourselves, our loved ones and our community from COVID-19.

We are not alone in this. In case though, you find asking for help challenging, especially when it comes to building up your mental wellness and fitness, I took a look to see what is out there to help.

The WHO has prepared a comprehensive document you can use to develop your own mental fitness plan. It outlines issues and options by category, from health workers on the front line and those in isolation to caregivers of people with dementia and elders. It has a list of guidelines for the general population:

  • Acknowledge the global scope and be empathetic to those directly affected
  • Minimize watching, reading or listening to news that causes you to feel anxious or distressed (set a specific time of time day to gather information so you can avoid a constant stream of data;
  • Seek information only from trusted sources to take practical steps to prepare your plans and protect yourself and loved ones
  • Protect yourself and be supportive of others. Assisting others in their time of need can benefit the person receiving support as well as the helper.
  • Find opportunities to amplify positive and hopeful stories and positive images
  • Acknowledge the role frontline carers play to save lives and keep your loved ones safe.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has shared specific strategies to help maintain mental wellness (slightly edited here for length and repetition):

  1. Separate what is in your control from what is not. There are things you can do, and it’s helpful to focus on those.  Wash your hands.  Remind others to wash theirs. Take your vitamins. Limit your consumption of news.
  2. Do what helps you feel a sense of safety. This will be different for everyone, and it’s important not to compare yourself to others. Make sure you separate when you are isolating based on potential for sickness versus isolating because it’s part of depression.
  3. Get outside in nature–even if you are avoiding crowds. Take a walk. (My note: Or if you don’t want to go far, sitting outside your door or next to an open window so you can feel the fresh air on your face and see sky, trees etc are always helpful.) Exercise also helps both your physical and mental health.
  4. Challenge yourself to stay in the present. When you find yourself worrying about something that hasn’t happened, gently bring yourself back to the present moment.  Notice the sights, sounds, tastes and other sensory experiences in your immediate moment and name them. Engaging in mindfulness activities is one way to help stay grounded when things feel beyond your control.
  5. Stay connected and reach out if you need more support. Talk to trusted friends about what you are feeling. If you are feeling particularly anxious or if you are struggling with your mental health, it’s ok to reach out to a mental health professional for support.  You don’t have to be alone with your worry and it can be comforting to share what you are experiencing with those trained to help.

This image offers some great things you can do as a reminder.

Image shows a poster with a number of coping strategies. Created by Carie Stephens Art,

Some things I am doing now include:

  • jotting down key accomplishments in my diary (can be whatever it means to you — for some that could be getting washed and dressed; for others, it can be walking their dog; remember you do you)
  • checking in regularly with my circle of friends
  • setting aside a chunk of time to do something that makes you happy (I’ve been watching cute baby — human and animal — videos before bedtime)
  • creating an asset map of things I have in my life
  • normalizing my routines (some are the same and some are new, like handwashing as soon as I get in the door of my house after a grocery run and wiping down all surfaces)

This website offers a great collection of strategies: from meditations and music to journaling and mindfulness activities. How about you? What are the things that you are doing to look after your mental fitness? Be well, stay well.

— MarthaFitat55 lives in Newfoundland, getting her physical and mental fitness on in multiple ways.


Motivation to rest

I have been attending a yin yoga class for seven weeks now, and it’s been a very productive approach to managing my hip issues. Each week the yogi picks a theme we reflect on as we engage in the poses.

Image shows an older white woman sitting on a mat with her legs crossed and her arms clasped together. Photo by Keren Perez on Unsplash

Last week the theme was motivation. Exercise-reluctant me went “great, another way to engage with feeling fit and well.” Given the volume of snow that has fallen in the region, being motivated to do anything can be a struggle.

As we started in our first pose, the Butterfly, my mind mimicked the moves of the namesake insect. My thoughts went flitting from one flower to another, thinking briefly on the myriad of things I have to do in the run of a day and also my week.

As we shifted into the next pose, I realized the yogi had also shifted her focus. This whole class was about motivating ourselves to respect rest, to be motivated to embrace its power to heal and energize.

I’ve been looking at sleep and rest for a while now. I’ve written about it here with respect to tracking tools. There’s also some solid research looking at the links between sleep deprivation and increased rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and depression.

But I had never really thought about motivating myself to rest. In this class, I came up against some of my resistance to rest especially when ill, or over extended. There is a tendency to expect women to push through whatever ails them.

Part of my issue is that I often see sleep or naps (as much as I love them!) as time lost, as time away from getting the things that matter done, instead of seeing rest as something that is really important, in and of itself.

It’s a distinction that we need to make. When I look back at the last seven weeks, I realize that the yin yoga practice has become a way to give myself permission to rest, to make a space in my week where restoration is actively pursued.

We sink into poses, we rest in the slight movements or changes of position we need to achieve the tension required to support the stretch, the lengthening of ligaments, the relaxation of the fascia.

In this practice we end the session with shavasana, or corpse pose. Its purpose is to remove any tiredness resulting from the effort of getting in, stretching, and getting out of each pose and to rest in the space where our minds are calm and we no longer flit about from topic to issue, from need to crisis.

How we get into that pose is deliberate, focused on ensuring we have what we need to rest actively instead of passively. Do we have blocks to support our knees? Shall we use bolsters on which we can rest our legs? Are our heads comfortable and our necks supported appropriately? Are we warm enough?

Making rest a priority, through sleep, through naps, and even through yoga, matters not just for health but also fitness. My trainer says sleep is the best way to heal. If I want to perform better in the gym as well as in my daily life and work, rest has to become one of my big rocks.

What about you? Do you need motivation to rest? How do you achieve peace and relaxation in addition to good sleep? Tell us more in the comments.

MarthatFitat55 lives, works, plays and rests in St. John’s.





Getting in the groove of personal challenges

Last fall I participated in a work place challenge with a team. I had a lot of fun and I wrote about it here.

Young female in blue polka dot dress twirls in a living room with a piano and couch in the background. Photo by Laura Fuhrman on Unsplash

Over the holidays, I thought about the things I wanted to do this year from a fitness POV. Coincidentally, I saw a post about from blog co founder SamB talking about being part of the 219 workouts in 2019 group.

Hmm, I said to myself, that sounds like fun. So I joined the group for 2020 and the goal is to make 220 workouts this year.

I’m at 20 which averages 10 a month for me to date (and February is not over yet!). There are lots of people in the group who have double, triple and even quadruple that number, but it doesn’t bother me. Maybe it’s because there are others like me, just finding ways to keep moving, especially during the dreary days of winter.

What I love about this activity, and I’m not much of a tracker, is that it’s a gentle nudge to keep moving because daily I see all the fun things people are doing to move.

There’s been walking, skiing, biking, yoga, skating, hiking, swimming, running, cross fit, weightlifting, zumba – the usual. But there’s also been playing with toddlers, wandering in the woods with dogs, laundry, housecleaning, bellydancing, shoveling, stretching, aerial hooping, tennis, roller derby practice, and a whole variety of movement classes and personal routines with handweights.

I had long understood housecleaning as exercise because there is lots of movement, but how much movement? Could I quantify it in some way?

The next time I set to do the laundry – the sorting, the washing, the hanging up, the folding, the putting away – I tracked my steps. In the first hour, I logged more than 3000 steps and I realized that in spite of momentary pauses when setting the washer or dryer, I was non-stop. I was up and downstairs, I was lifting and setting down baskets, I was bending, stretching, walking, and in some cases jogging from one place to another.

Laundry won’t replace my yoga, swimming and lifting sessions but I am more conscious about how often I sit in the run of a day and how often ordinary activities related to daily living can add movement.

I’ve also been inspired to see what else is available in my community. I may not try aerial hooping, but there may be a whole bunch of other things I can try. I won’t know unless I look.

What about you, our readers? What things have you tried that bring fun and movement to your life every day?

— MarthaFitat55 lives in St. John’s.


Staying upright …

hanged pair of white leather figure skates
Image shows two white figure skates hanging by their laces. Photo by Thomas Laukat on

By MarthaFitAt55

We have had a lot of snow these days followed by rain which was followed by ice. As the kids say, lather, rinse, repeat.

It has made walking and navigating the city challenging. My partner broke his leg last week when he slipped on some black ice lurking on a salted walk way.

It got me thinking about prevention and protection. While a pair of skates might seem more fitting, we don’t always need them. Some days you might need hip rubbers, some days skis, and maybe the skates, all in the same day. 

Image shows a pair of legs dressed in black pants and wearing bright red boots by Olang.

These are my favourite wet and icy weather boots. They have built in crampons and they are bright red.

I’m lucky I can afford a couple of pairs of boots. To be honest, there are lots of things I don’t buy so I can have good boots.

But even with good footwear, stuff happens. I have learned how to walk like a penguin to keep my balance and my centre of gravity aligned. I’ve learned to creep slowly and steadily, taking my time and looking ahead.

One winter, I knew four women who slipped and broke bones. I’ve learned falling on ice can be riskier for women because our bones can become more brittle as we age.

Moving to a place where there isn’t any snow and ice is not an option. So I have started to think about what else I need to do, not just to be safe outside but also how to strengthen my bones with exercise and thoughtful nutrition as I age.

Functional fitness helps with the everyday. I’m thinking now about what else I need to do to support aging with continuing strength.

What are some of things you do to increase bone strength?

MarthaFitat55 lives and writes in St. John’s.


A Meditation on Snow

We’ve had a lot of snow here in my part of the country called Canada. In 24 hours, we got more than 70 cms (about three feet) and we listened to winds upwards of 160 kms (about 90 plus miles an hour) blow all that snow. Imagine a hurricane, but instead of rain, we got snow.

The day after, when drifts filled the driveway and blocked the front door. Image shows a huge pile of snow in front of a red garage door.

As I write this we are still under a state of emergency (SoE) and that limits how we can move around the city while we dig out from underneath.

Truth be told, I don’t want to go anywhere; I don’t want to negotiate any slippery hills either as a driver or pedestrian; and I certainly don’t want to deal with the cold and the wet.

I have enjoyed my enforced break. I read two books. I planned meals carefully knowing we couldn’t go shopping for food if we ran out. We checked on senior neighbours in ur ‘hood and friends and family who weren’t nearby.

Then I worried about people without phone, computer, or even an entrance or exit to their homes because the snow barred them in. But I found a place where people were helping and that worry got redirected.

Mostly, I thought about resiliency and how we (I) moved through different stages. First wondering about the snow, the wind and the power — would it go? would the roof blow off? would we be trapped? Then thinking about solutions and how to solve each of the problems I encountered.

When I wasn’t thinking, I was trying a number of relaxation strategies both to calm and improve sleep. It seems silly to think about, but excepting for a couple of bed time tricks to get me to sleep, I hadn’t spent any time during my walking hours about applying calming strategies to help me function.

I know there are multiple approaches out there but they weren’t top of mind. When you can’t go anywhere (January 24 will be our seventh day under the SoE), you are willing to try anything to be more effective in your work, including relaxing.

My trainer says sleep is the best healer and I agree. I also have learned how to focus on the task at hand by running through the steps in my mind. This week, I realized I really like breaking things up into component parts and understanding what each piece does to lead to the successful execution of the whole action. I think that’s why I have come to enjoy yin yoga so much. Each pose has a specific purpose and effect.

I am not sure why it took me this long to figure out on a conscious level something I’ve been doing subconsciously for a very long time. However, it’s offered me lots of scope for reflection.

Our snowstorm may have been a huge inconvenience but in retrospect, it offered me a chunk of time to pause, even stop the relentless focus on outputs and review the beauty of the process.

— MarthaFitAt55 lives in St. John’s and is delighted at the possibility of snowshoeing once the SoE is lifted.


Intentional movement

By MarthaFitat55

Inspired by my experience with the workplace challenge last fall, I joined a virtual group dedicated to 220 workouts in 2020. While I have not worked out every day since January 1, I have been inspired by the other group members to do more every day.

jamie-street-d6ktmgxv6e-unsplashA workout is defined loosely but essentially means you do something intentional and makes you move your body consistently for a period of time. It can be anything you like from biking (real or virtual) to yoga and all points in between. Members post what they do (every day or not) and there’s lots of encouragement.

What I like about this process is the lack of pressure and the collegial nature of the group. People share sometimes an aspect of their workout and it’s been really interesting to see all the different ways you can move your body with purpose.

Thursday I decided I would track my steps while I did laundry — collecting, carrying, sorting, loading, unloading and folding. In a 45 minute period (it’s the aftermath of holidays!), I achieved a steady level of activity and took more than 3000 steps.

Given our winter days when it is often too slippery to go out safely for a long walk, I can still do something consistently to get my steps in and meet my goal for intentional movement every day.

I’m also back at the gym and have added a weekly yoga class; weekends will see me swimming now that the pool has been up and running again. I’ve chosen these external, structured activities to meet different goals — more focus to my weight training, greater attention to stretching and flexibility, and social time with my husband. While they will add to my total workouts for 2020, they also meet my personal goal of ensuring I keep putting my big rocks in first for my time.

How about your dear readers? Have you taken on a fitness challenge? What atypical fitness activities are you engaging in daily or weekly to get your fit on? Please share in the comments!