COVID-19 Information for Veterans and their Families Report

How to identify and manage stress

What is mental health?

According to the World Health Organization, being mentally healthy means being able to realize your own potential, cope with normal stresses of life, work productively, and contribute to your community. Many factors can affect your mental health, moving you along a continuum that ranges from “healthy” to “ill,” as shown below:

Mental Health Continuum Model

Mental Health Continuum Model

Mental Health Continuum Model – Text version

This diagram describes the range of mental health—healthy, reacting, injured and ill—and lists the behaviours associated with each part of this range.

Healthy behaviours include normal mood fluctuations, calmness and the ability to take things in stride, a good sense of humour, good performance, being in control, normal sleep patterns, few sleep difficulties, being physically well, having a good energy level, being physically and socially active, and limited or no alcohol use or gambling.

Reacting behaviours include being irritable or impatient, being nervous, being sad or overwhelmed, expressing displaced sarcasm, procrastination, forgetfulness, having trouble sleeping, having intrusive thoughts, having nightmares, having muscle tension or headaches, having low energy, decreased activity or socializing, and regular but controlled alcohol use or gambling.

Injured behaviours include anger, anxiety, pervasive sadness or hopelessness, a negative attitude, poor performance or workaholic behaviour, poor concentration or decisions, restless or disturbed sleep, recurrent images or nightmares, increased aches and pains, increased fatigue, avoidance, withdrawal, and increased alcohol use or hard-to-control gambling.

Ill behaviours include angry outbursts or aggression; excessive anxiety or panic attacks; depression or suicidal thoughts; overt insubordination; an inability to perform duties, control behaviour or concentrate; an inability to fall asleep or stay asleep; sleeping too much or too little; physical illnesses; constant fatigue; not going out or not answering phone; and an alcohol or gambling addiction or other addictions.

This continuum forms the basis for the Canadian Armed Forces’ Road to Mental Readiness (R2MR) mental health resiliency program. It has been adapted for use in many settings, including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), U.S. Navy SEALs, and the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

It uses an easy-to-read continuum that can help you gauge your current mental health, recognize changes in your mental health, and identify actions you can take to move back toward the “healthy” end. A key skill in managing your stress is being able to identify where you lie across the continuum. As you move back and forth along the continuum, you may see differences in the way you act, think and feel. Sometimes, people that we trust notice these differences in our actions first. If people that you trust notice a difference in your actions that concern them, believe them.

It is important to note that under stressful conditions, it is normal to fall within the ‘Reacting’ and ‘Injured’ points of the continuum. If you fall within the “Reacting,” “Injured,” or “Ill” points, remember that you don’t have to handle it all on your own. If you feel overwhelmed or your anxiety is interfering with your life, reach out to friends, family, professional support or other resources. Receiving support can reduce the severity of your injury or illness. Receiving support can also reduce the likelihood that your injury or illness will become persistent or chronic.

How does stress affect mental health?

Stress is a normal part of life. It is the pressure to respond to a variety of situations — and can help you meet deadlines, be productive, and try your best. But when stress is ongoing with no break, it can become chronic or cumulative. At that point, stress can provoke a number of physical and psychological symptoms, especially when events appear to be dangerous or threatening.

The COVID-19 pandemic may be an especially stressful time for you, especially if you are an essential worker, you are experiencing pre-existing mental health conditions, and/or you are experiencing vulnerable social and economic circumstances. If you are an essential worker, the occupational demands of your job may require you to act against the safety recommendations of public health officials. This places you at greater risk and may leave you worried about bringing the virus home to your family or being asked questions about the pandemic you can’t answer.

Added and prolonged stress can affect your thinking, emotions, behaviour, and body. Its specific effect on you depends on many factors, including pre-existing mental health conditions, the availability of resources, past experiences, and social and economic circumstances.

Common reactions to stress include changes to your arousal level or your level of engagement with the world around you. Hyperarousal (the fight-or-flight response) puts your body on high alert and ready for action, leaving you with muscle tension and making you more irritable and impulsive. Hypoarousal produces the opposite effect, leaving you emotionally detached and feeling unable to move or do anything.

In either case, your body may use significant energy resources to deal with stress, diverting them away from essential bodily functions like rest, digestion, and immune function. Other symptoms of excessive stress may include:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Interference with daily tasks
  • Restlessness
  • Changes in appetite and sleep patterns
  • Decreased motivation and energy
  • Persistent negative thoughts
  • Muscle tension

How much stress is too much?

Although it’s normal to feel a bit anxious, stressed, or overwhelmed during this time, it’s important to recognize when those feelings start to negatively affect your life so you can develop coping strategies to stay balanced. If you find yourself so consumed by the need for information about the virus that you can’t concentrate on anything else or feel like you’re shutting down, these may be signs that your usual coping strategies aren’t enough. Other signs could include having more extreme physical or emotional reactions, or just not feeling like yourself. In these cases, it may be time to seek additional support.

Try reaching out to a friend, trusted colleague, or family member. Talking to your supports lets you express how you’re feeling and validate the impact of what you’re going through, and they may be able to suggest new coping strategies. If informal support from your network doesn’t improve how you’re feeling, seek out formal supports and services such as mental health professionals, formal peer support programs, chaplains, or employee assistance programs.

Where to get help

If you don’t already have access to support, the resources below can assist and provide information on what is available locally.

  • Crisis Services Canada
    Crisis Services for All Canadians
    Call 1-833-456-4566 (available 24/ 7)
    Text 45645 (available 4 p.m. to midnight, EST )
    Local Resources and Supports (by region)
  • Veteran Affairs Canada and Canadian Forces
    Member Assistance Program and Assistance Services for Families
    Call 1-800-268-7708 | TDD/TTY 1-800-567-5803 (available 24/7)
  • Canadian Forces Morale and Welfare Services
    Family Information Line
    Call 1-800-866-4546 (available 24/7)
  • The Royal Canadian Legion
    Help for Veterans Experiencing Homelessness
    Call 1-877-534-4666
  • Canadian Forces Morale and Welfare Services, powered by Kids Help Phone
    Crisis Text Line for Kids
    Text CAFKIDS to 686868 (available 24/7)
  • VETS Canada
    Veteran Emergency Transition Services
    Call 1-888-228-3871
  • Veteran Affairs Canada
    Financial Crisis or Emergency
    Call 1-866-522-2122 | TDD/TTY 1-833-921-0071 (Monday to Friday, 8:30-4:30, local time)
  • Support Our Troops
    Emergency Financial Assistance
    Call 1-877-445-6444

Medavie Blue Cross
If you qualify for the Treatment Benefits program from Veteran Affairs Canada, find a registered mental health care provider near you. A registered provider can bill Veteran Affairs Canada directly, so you do not need to pay out of pocket.

Operational Stress Injury Clinics
Operational Stress Injury clinics provide assessment, treatment, prevention and support to serving Canadian Armed Forces members, Veterans, and RCMP members and former members.

Canadian Psychological Association
Find a psychologist near you.

VETS Canada Community Outreach Centres
Community outreach centres in Edmonton, Ottawa and Dartmouth are a safe place to find support, conversation, and a community of others who care and understand.

MissionVAV is a web-based health promotion program designed to improve the wellbeing of Canadian Veterans and their families.

Veteran Transition Network Support Program
The program is co-led by psychologists and counsellors who’ve received specialized training in military issues, and graduates who are Veterans themselves. The program aims to support Veterans as they transition to the civilian world.

Royal Canadian Legion
Founded by Veterans and for Veterans, the Legion supports Veterans, including serving military and RCMP members and their families.

Wellness Together
Wellness Together allows you to choose from a variety of free resources to motivate and support your wellness journey.

Daily mindfulness sessions with psychiatrists

You can join a free online mindfulness session every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday at 8:00 p.m. EST. Drop in and learn short mindfulness practices to help you find calm during this challenging time. Optional discussion will follow each session. Contact the day’s facilitator for more information or just join the Zoom meeting using the links below. (Note: This is not treatment or therapy.)

Other resources to support mental health during COVID-19