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  • Writer's pictureRandy Weekes

Resilience in the time of COVID-19

Let me begin by thanking CANADEM deployees and all other international workers who are working on the front lines or remotely, in your home offices.

You are doing very important work in what are challenging circumstances at the best of times.

And now, on top of it all, we have the COVID-19 pandemic. How can we best cope with this additional source of risk and stress?

We are all anxious

Me too. Being strong within ourselves and in our work begins with acknowledging that we are feeling this way. Then we can choose what to do with the feelings.

As CANADEM’s Duty of Care Director, I have been in physical isolation for many weeks and we may be asked to remain so for months longer. My Dad, 96 years old, is on his own. It hurts that I can’t be with him or have him here. My kids are far away. I am with you in worrying about our families, our clients, our communities… and ourselves.

What we are feeling is normal… and recognizing our feelings is the beginning point of being strong.

Being less anxious begins with knowing the facts

There is a universe of information out there about the virus and how to stay as safe as possible. Some of it is misleading. Read what the UN authorities, WHO, the CDC and others are saying. Ignore the rest.

We must start with accepting that the threat is real and must be taken very seriously. Then we do what we can, within our control.

As for me, behaviourally, I have just a few basic practices:

- Wash my hands. A lot. Every time I have contact with the outside world I wash my hands. With soap. Soap and twenty seconds of hand washing breaks down the fat bonds that are part of the virus and destroy it.

- I picture that anyone with the virus (and we can’t know who has it, given the length of time before symptoms appear), is leaving imaginary mud on every surface they touch. Hours after they have touched a door knob or a railing, there is still ‘mud’ on the railing, and if I touch it I need to wash my hands again.

- Isolate. Where this hasn’t happened, the disease has spread very quickly. When we do isolate, the ‘curve flattens’, allowing the medical systems that exist to respond more effectively than if everyone gets sick at once.

Managing our anxiety is our first personal and professional responsibility

Nature gave us fear for a good reason. It helps us survive. When I feel a threat from a snake or an angry person or a storm, dozens of biochemical reactions take place in my body. I am ready for ‘flight or fight’. Adrenaline rushes. Energy shifts. The properties of my blood change. My vigilance spikes. Thank you! What a great design.

A problem arises, however, if I don’t get past that alarm state. If I remain in a condition of fear and worry those same biochemical reactions turn against me.

Over time I actually become weaker instead of stronger. My immune system wears down. My amygdala, the part of the brain that is like my threat signaller, gets bigger and stronger and a bad cycle begins in which my anxiety continues to grow and I become ever less effective in coping with the threats and with potential illness.

When I don’t find a way to release the threat response energy that is inside me, I unconsciously look for ways to release it externally. I may find myself being angry with others. I may rush out to hoard toilet paper. I may clean obsessively. I may use alcohol, drugs, tobacco, risky behaviours more than usual. All of these behaviours are natural (and unhelpful) responses to the genuine need to calm the biological impacts of fear and anxiety.

(Anxiety fatigue is one of the reasons that we sometimes return from intense field missions deeply exhausted and perhaps ill. Our bodies’ protective and restorative systems have gotten overwhelmed by our allowing our alarm systems to work non-stop, without being tuned down, for too long.)

If we don’t have a way to work with our anxiety as a key part of our tool kit, it can lead to long term burnout. In our business that can be a career ender.

The way to overcome this challenge – the way to remain healthy and strong – the way to stay professionally effective in a challenging work environment – is to work effectively with our own anxiety.

Strategies for dealing with anxiety and uncertainty

We are not powerless

A lot of things are beyond our control. We cannot change the tide of COVID-19 that is upon us or the limited resources available. We can’t fix everything and protect everyone. What we can and must do is ask ourselves, every day, “What IS in my realm of influence? What CAN I do today that will make me better and that will let me help others, even if it is in a small way?”

If we let ourselves get caught in a vortex of despair or sadness we are in trouble and we won’t be helping anyone else.

A good starting point is resisting the vortex. For instance, we do need to stay informed by checking the news and maybe social media. However, doing it many times a day is going to feed our natural concern with the alarm of everyone else. Anxiety will start to grow uncontrollably within us. Check the news occasionally, then turn it off. Ask yourself instead “What can I do right now, within what I control, to make things better?”

Three legs on a resilience stool: The first is communication

It begins with communicating honestly with myself J I know that from experience. Many years ago, beginning my international career, I was in an isolated environment for many months, tackling a job I wasn’t really prepared for. I was massively stressed – and wouldn’t admit it to myself. I was there to save the world! (teaching English in a remote community.) I started to get physically ill – and wouldn’t admit it. Eventually I was evacuated and hospitalized.

The doctors couldn’t find the physical cause for my dramatic symptoms. I now know that it was stress and learned the important lesson that being honest with and listening to myself comes first in taking care of me and others.

Next we need to remain active members of a community. Back then, long before internet or even telephones in that district, there were only letters and travel. Every six weeks I took an eight-hour bus ride to hang out with friends in the closest big city. That was incredibly important for me.

Now we have more choices. Cell phones and the internet let us stay in touch with family and friends around the city and the world. We are fortunate. In our own determined isolation in Canada we are having intimate Zoom dinners with friends from all over, playing internet scrabble with our far flung family members, and having virtual staff meetings which include the kind of joking and personal connections that we had when we walked in our now abandoned office.

The second leg: Self Care

This leg has three sections: physical, psychological/emotional and spiritual.

There is abundant information about physical care that is specific to COVID-19. Wash your hands (often, with soap, for 20 seconds.) Avoid contact with others. Etc. Reliable advice can be found on the site of the Centres for Disease Control

There are also things we can do physically that I link with the psychological/emotional joint of this leg.

The goal is to use our bodies to get our biochemical anxiety responses to return to “base level”.

Get in touch with your body

If you already practice yoga, meditation, deep breathing or other forms of mindfulness, you are ahead of the game. Science confirms that these practices have a huge impact on our well being. If you don’t yet have one of these practices this is the perfect time to start. There are lots of resources online to help.

Work with your body

Sleep! In our busy-ness we sometimes forget how important sleep is. Bad sleep weakens our immune systems and injures our ability to cope and problem solve. Bad sleep is both a personal and a professional crippler. Good sleep makes us stronger on both fronts. Set a firm schedule. At the same time every night shut down computers and cell phones. Do that at least an hour before you want to nod off, because the light emitted from screens stimulates the brain to wakefulness in the same way that the rising sun does. Have a getting-ready-for-sleep routine as thoughtful as the preparation you make for a field trip. Stretch. Listen to music you love. Read something you love. Meditate or pray. Gradually dim the lights. Calcium and magnesium supplements may also help improve sleep.

Exercise. The deep breathing that comes with a good workout helps pump good chemistry through our hearts and brains and supports anxiety control. If we are in confined spaces, there are lots of online resources for exercise regimes. Workshops for Yoga, Pilates – even the good old fashioned 5BX exercise regime from the last century can be found with a quick search. If you have kids at home, model working out and inspire them to join you. That will help make your work-at-home life easier, as well J

Eat healthily and stay hydrated. When we are anxious or sad we want to find a way to release endorphins – the body’s ‘feel good’ chemicals. The ‘cheap’ way to do that is with sugary, salty, fatty treats or with alcohol or coffee or with the rush that comes with some kinds of risky behaviours. All of these strategies feel good in the short run but hurt us in the longer run. The food pleasure rushes, for instance, lead quickly to energy crashes and the impulse to have yet another soft drink and cookie. Sad to say – this is the time to be really mindful about good nutrition. (I confess, this is an area where I have to be particularly vigilant.)

Be in touch with nature. A funny meme was circulating on Facebook this week. “I had a conversation with a spider today. He was nice. He is a web designer.” Studies have shown that anything that connects us with the natural world helps to ground us. If you can’t go outside but do have a house plant, develop a relationship with it. If a house plant isn’t sufficient, download a sound track of the ocean waves or birds singing and play it often. Find a natural scene that makes you feel calm for a screen saver on your computer.

Be creative. When we are feeling down it helps to do something we are already good at and that will reward us with a feeling of success. It could be cooking, baking, sewing, making music, writing, crafting, painting, juggling, programming – whatever brings a smile to our face when we do it. It is also a time to learn something new, that we aren’t yet good at. We often say “if I only had time…”. In this period of self-isolation, we MUST NOT fill our time by working even more hours of the day, seven days a week. We MUST have activities that turn off the mental and emotional work wheels so that they will be stronger when we return to them. We do have the time for creativity in our isolation now, for a few hours every day. This the gift of an opportunity to learn a new skill, language, new music, art… whatever our imagination leads us to. If we have kids at home it is a chance to be creative with them as well and help them deal with their own pressures in isolation. (At the same time, don’t be hard on yourself if you don’t achieve quick success. We are all experiencing some weariness and challenges in retaining focus in this unusual time.)

Engage with your spirit

We are but one small piece of creation. We are healthiest when we engage with that which is greater than ourselves, whether through prayer, meditation or another form of connection and reflection. Make it a priority.

The third leg: problem solving

As professionals we want to go here first. However, if our minds and bodies are still filled with anxiety we won’t do our best at problem solving. Work first with that anxiety and then we will recognize and create the best opportunities to solve the problems with which we are presented in this challenging time.

Remember to be kind to yourself and your colleagues. In these circumstances it is hard to be as productive as normal. Celebrate each task advanced or completed, even if it is a small one.

Stay safe, stay strong. If you are with CANADEM on assignment, stay in touch!

With best wishes,

Randy Weekes and the rest of the CANADEM team

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