Mental health coping strategies during global uncertainty
Posted October 25, 2023 6:49 pm.
During times of global uncertainty and turmoil, it becomes increasingly difficult to care for your mental health. While there aren’t any cure all tips and tricks or easy fixes, there are ways to build resiliency that can help you cope better.
Dr. Roger McIntyre, Professor of Psychiatry and Pharmacology at the University of Toronto says humans are evolutionarily predisposed to picking up on what’s wrong rather than what’s right.
“We as human beings are in fact more sensitive to stress and negative information than we are to positive information. It’s how we’re wired … we’re trying to protect ourselves and towards that aim, we are much more attentive to maybe sources of negativity,” he explains.
In the current global climate, with ongoing wars, wildfires, inflation and residual pandemic-related issues, McIntyre says people are being subjected to what’s called Chronic Uncontrollable Stress (CUS).
“What we’ve learned in stress research in the academic world is that when we as human beings are exposed to chronic — in other words, just over and over again — stress that’s unpredictable and we can’t control it, that is the most difficult stress to deal with. It leaves us feeling demoralized, anxious, worried, we can’t sleep. People start to drink more, use more drugs. People just feel very, very down and out,” he says.
How to take care of your mental health
McIntyre says grappling with something you can’t predict requires a broad approach which he frames as the principles of “leaning in, leaning out and connecting.”
“They are principles that have been shown, through good science, to work to build your resiliency and reduce maybe some of the unpleasant reactions you’re having,” he says.
Leaning in is an active process of creating structure and a somewhat controlled framework for your daily life.
McIntyre says that research shows that people who are passive in the face of CUS see more negative consequences to their overall wellbeing than those who “lean in” and take active steps to fight it.
“What I mean by ‘lean in’ is that when we get up in the morning time, it’s time to lean in to a scheduled day,” says McIntyre.
“I think nothing has been shown to be more effective at reversing the harm done by chronic, uncontrollable, unpredictable stress than taking action. And taking action might be something as simple as prescribing for yourself a structured day … I’m going to do some bit of exercise, I’m going to endeavor to eat a little better, try to reduce some of the low quality food, maybe reduce the alcohol a little bit.”
In addition he says it’s important to “prescribe yourself” activities that bring you pleasure and ensure you follow through with it as part of your daily schedule. These can include art, music, sports, reading or any other activity that you can fully immerse yourself in.
“Nothing is more resiliency enhancing than finding a hobby,” he says.
If possible, McIntyre also suggests volunteering with a cause you care about and adding that as a recurring activity in your routine.
“[People who] volunteer their time, they always report how wonderful this is … it really has a resonance, a positive effect on them and actually reduces their overall biological measures of stress,” he says.
“I think that type of humanitarian, empathic giving to your community is a wonderful way to a) live your life and b) help you be more resilient, more connected. And it’s a wonderful stress reliever.”
He adds that is important to be consistent with such activities, because consistency builds resiliency.
“It sounds a bit regimented because it is a little bit regimented, but it’s been shown to work,” says McIntyre.
Leaning out refers to stepping away from the non-stop barrage of information on social media and television.
“I’ve often said that the global population is suffering from what I call the three Ls — loneliness, languishing, and really lost. And social media has been a place for many people that’s very connecting, a place where they can really fit, feel a sense of interpersonal connection, a place of being understood,” he says.
“But there’s no question that it is actually very negative and very unhealthy for many people.”
He says in order to ensure you’re getting more of the positive effects of social media and reducing the negative ones is to consume it in bite sized chunks.
“We have to follow the news, we have to be informed, [but] moderation is key and moderation’s the key to most things. And this is not an exception to that. You have to be informed but be moderate in what your overall diet is of most things in life,” says McIntyre.
While the guilt of simply turning off the news while many others suffering don’t have that option, he says disengaging doesn’t mean not caring. It simply means stepping away to give yourself time to regroup and recoup.
“Cognitively and emotionally engage yourself in other activities … take a break,” says McIntyre.
McIntyre says connecting with people is protective to mental and physical health as well as overall social wellbeing.
“The best vaccine for your mental health is to connect with people. In other words, divide the labour. You want to in fact divide the stress,” he says.
“Relationships are like a vaccination against the bumps and bruises of life, and certainly some of the negativity that people are being exposed to right now.”
Like making time for exercise and hobbies, McIntyre says it is essential to “prescribe yourself” time with friends and schedule activities or even a phone call that makes you feel connected.
“Having an opportunity to socialize, feeling a sense of meaningfulness, a sense of safety — not only is this just good for our soul, good for our wellbeing, but it protects us. It builds a resiliency,” he says. “And this is not just a slogan. This has been shown through empirical research to really in fact, improve people’s adaptability in unbelievable, unthinkable circumstances.”
How to support loved ones
McIntyre says as social creatures, it is natural to want to demonstrate support for friends, colleagues or loved ones.
“We feel we need to offer them advice, we feel we need to be a counselor for them and give them tips on how to live their day-to-day lives,” he says.
But a large part of the support that you can offer and may even be more helpful is in fact non-verbal, says McIntyre.
“People often say to me, ‘you know, I don’t know what to say to my friend.’ My answer is, ‘you don’t need to say anything to that person.’ You just need to be there for the person.,” he says.
“Because the problem when we have chronic uncontrollable stress is — yes, it’s the stress — but it’s also the unpredictability of that. We as human beings react worse when our environment’s unpredictable.”
McIntyre says that research has proven that when an unpredictable environment is replaced with a predictable one, it significantly reduced the stress, demoralization and despondency of those inhabiting that space.
“When you are a friend to somebody and you are predictably available to them, nothing is more stress relieving. You don’t need to come up with any kind of tips or any kind of wonderful solutions. It’s the predictability of you being there for your friend.” says McIntyre.
“What we call the ‘active ingredient’ when you’re with persons vis-a-vis support is the consistency. And that is the antidote to this unpredictable, inconsistent time that we’re in.”