COVID-19 Information for Veterans and their Families Report

Taking care of your basic needs

Periods of high stress can be extremely hard on your mental and physical health. When that stress is accompanied by tight restrictions on where you can go and what you can do — as it is during the COVID-19 crisis — it can be even harder to manage because many of your usual outlets are not available. But there are ways to adapt the strategies that have worked for you in the past.

The following is a collection of suggestions to help you manage stress by taking care of your physical health and mental health, and practising mindfulness. Feel free to adapt them to suit your circumstances. Pay attention to how they make you feel so you can do more of what works for you and less of what doesn’t.

Remember, you don’t have to handle it all on your own. If you feel overwhelmed, reach out to friends, family, professional support, or other resources.

Take care of your physical health

Get plenty of exercise

Physical activity is a great way to reduce stress and anxiety and improve your mood and overall health. If you are self-isolating, find safe ways to exercise in your home. If you have health conditions that prevent you from being active, ask your doctor for appropriate alternatives.

The following websites offer a variety of free online fitness programs you can do in your home:

  • DFIT is offering free online fitness classes for Veterans and their families.
  • The YMCA is offering free classes including bootcamp, barre, yoga and more.
  • CorePower Yoga is providing free access to a limited collection of online classes available weekly.
  • Fitness Blender features more than 600 workouts. You can filter by length, difficulty, training type, calories burned, and muscle group.

Get proper sleep

Sleep can help you manage current stress and prepare to handle it in the future. Here are some strategies to help you get a good night’s sleep:

  • Keep a consistent sleep schedule. That means going to bed and getting up at the same time each day (including weekends).
  • Practise relaxation or meditation before bedtime.
  • Schedule physical activity for earlier in the day. Exercising too close to bedtime can interfere with your ability to fall asleep.
  • Reserve your bedroom for sleeping only. Keep it dark and cool, and leave electronics in another room. Avoid reading, watching TV, or using your phone in the bedroom.
  • Don’t lie awake for too long. If you don’t fall asleep within 15 to 30 minutes, get out of bed and do something soothing until you feel tired enough to return to bed.
  • If you drink caffeine or alcohol, avoid them late in the day, and avoid eating food that might keep you awake.
  • Avoid naps during the day if these interrupt your sleep at night.

Talk to your doctor if these don’t work as there may be other issues affecting your sleep.

Eat well

Following a healthy diet is one of the most basic things you can do to enhance your physical and mental health. It’s tempting to choose convenient comfort foods in stressful times, but these are often not very healthy. As much as possible, stick to a diet that includes a variety of fruits and vegetables, and stay hydrated.

Reduce or avoid substance use

Substance use is a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon that encompasses a continuum of behaviours from severe use to total abstinence. It is accepted that some people use substances (alcohol, cigarettes, cannabis, etc.) to cope with stress, anxiety, and depression, and/or for pleasure. Yet, these can have short- and long-term effects: your brain and body may develop tolerances so that you require more and more to get the same effect. That can lead to additional harms, including addiction, relapse, and increased stress. If you are in recovery and experiencing stress, reach out for help as soon as possible.

In general:

  • Take prescription medications as prescribed.
  • Reduce or stop using non-prescribed substances if you can do so safely (always follow your doctor’s recommendations).
  • Seek professional help if you cannot do it alone.
  • As recommended by Health Canada, Canadians should speak with a medical or public health professional if they are interested in more information on cannabis use and how it can affect their health.

Take care of your mental health

Take breaks

You can’t work continuously, so permit yourself to take short breaks. If you are working on the front lines, you may feel the urge to skip short breaks because taking off your personal protective equipment and putting it back on may not seem worthwhile. Try your best to resist this urge, and take a short break. It helps to schedule short breaks into your work shifts, ensuring you always have time to slow down and relax.

If possible, you should also take breaks from electronic devices, including phones, tablets, and computers. Constant notifications of messages that need responses and a steady stream of news and social media updates can worsen stress and anxiety. Setting aside some time to unplug can make a big difference — and adding it to your schedule can help make sure it happens.

Try to use your unplugged time to do something fun and healthy for yourself: reading, exercising, or calling a loved one. Unplugging may be challenging because your workplace may require you to monitor your devices more closely during the pandemic, but the rewards are worth the effort.

Use your vacation days

Working for an extensive number of weeks and months without time off can lead to high levels of stress, fatigue, and eventually burnout. Such stress can negatively affect your physical and mental health. If you have vacation days available to you this year, instead of saving or banking them, try to take them. Using your vacation days will allow you to take a mental break from work to rest and recharge.

Avoid making significant life decisions

High levels of anxiety and stress affect parts of our brains that are essential to decision-making. As a result, high levels of anxiety and stress may skew your ability to make rational decisions. If possible, avoid making significant life or financial decisions during times of high stress. However, it is possible that this may be unavoidable during these times; in such cases, it is suggested to seek guidance from trusted supports or professionals.

Challenge your thoughts

High levels of anxiety and stress are often linked with negative thought patterns, which can leave you doubting yourself, feeling helpless, and dealing with even more stress. Thoughts like these can become so strongly entrenched that you start to think of them as objectively true, even if they’re not. If you find yourself thinking you’re not doing enough, there’s nothing you can do to keep from getting sick, or you won’t be able to cope, try to remember that these are just beliefs you’ve gotten used to, not true facts.

When you find yourself in a negative thought spiral, try asking yourself some of the questions below (adapted from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health). They can help you reframe your thoughts and break free of the negativity.

  • How do I know this thought is true? What evidence do I have for believing this thought? What evidence can I use against believing this thought?
  • Have I ever been worried about specific things before, and they turned out okay? What actually happened? How did I cope, and what was the end result?
  • What does worrying do for me? Is worrying actually helping me solve a problem, or is it keeping me stuck and feeling anxious?

If you’re worried about a specific issue, it can help to determine whether or not it’s actually relevant to you and needs to be solved right away. If it’s not, try to let it go and acknowledge that it’s not your problem. That leaves you free to focus on problems that are relevant to you, so you can identify the concrete steps you can take to address each one and start with the simplest actions.

After working through these approaches, try to come up with a more balanced thought.

For example, instead of thinking, “I am working as an essential worker, so there is nothing I can do to keep from getting sick,” look at it like this: “I am taking all the recommended precautions, I have a good support network, and I am taking steps to stay healthy. I am extremely likely to get through this and be fine.”

Be kind to yourself

You show compassion to others every day. It’s just as important to extend the same compassion to yourself. It can take time for coping strategies to become routine and effective, so don’t be hard on yourself if you forget to use a coping strategy, fall into an old bad habit, or don’t feel better right away.

Try to talk yourself out of worst-case, what-if scenarios. Overestimating how bad a situation can get is often linked with underestimating your ability to cope. Tip the scales in your favour by reminding yourself that you are resilient and able to deal with the challenges that come your way.

Practise mindfulness

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is about paying attention to the present moment in an accepting, open, and non-judgmental way instead of running on “autopilot” and letting your mind wander while you carry out routine tasks. Doing things automatically can be useful, but research shows spending too much time in that mode can dampen your enjoyment of good moments and may lead to mental health difficulties.

Practising mindfulness in an ongoing way over time can improve your mood and overall mental wellbeing, sharpen your attention and focus when you need to apply them, help you sleep better, and can increase your sense of connection and belonging with others.

How to practise mindfulness

While the concept of mindfulness is simple — paying attention to the now no matter what the now may bring — putting it into action takes patience and practice. You can cultivate mindfulness by dedicating even short amounts of time from your day to sit in a quiet place and pay attention to present-moment experiences as they arise and pass.

There are many kinds of relaxation strategies you can try: starting a formal meditation practice (such as yoga or mindfulness meditation), taking an informal or self-help approach (such as books or online videos), doing simple deep breathing exercises, or something else. Start slowly and gradually work toward a regular practice. Choose something you enjoy to make it more likely that you’ll keep it up.

Get help if you need it

This is a unique period in human history. There is still much unknown about COVID-19, including how long it will last, how many people will be affected, and if any other restrictions will be put in place. All that uncertainty can be hard to process and make it difficult to plan for the future, so it’s completely normal to feel more anxious than usual.

If your anxiety is severe enough that it’s interfering with your life (for example, you have difficulty leaving your home for food or essentials, or you can’t concentrate on anything else) it may be time to seek the support of family, friends, colleagues, or a mental health professional. This can be especially difficult for Veterans, who have routinely put others’ needs before their own — but it’s critical in protecting your health.

Remember that practising physical distancing and self-isolation does not mean you should break off all contact from your social supports. Being alone can lead to spending too much time thinking about the situation, resulting in increased stress, anxiety and loneliness. Developing and maintaining a sense of connection to others, including fellow Veterans, can reduce feelings of loneliness. Fellow Veterans likely have a shared understanding of life in the military, life as a Veteran, and life as a Veteran in a global pandemic. Reaching out to your social supports through phone calls, video chats or text messaging can be helpful when you’re feeling stressed. At the same time, consider limiting your contact with people who are overly negative and generally increase your stress and anxiety.

Formal supports, either online or over the phone, can also help you during high-stress times. These supports include distress lines, online support groups, and community resources such as religious institutions. If you want to connect with a mental health professional, look for one who offers evidence-based approaches to your concerns.

Resources

The following resources from the Government of Canada can provide more information and guidance to help you take care of yourself during the COVID-19 crisis. For more tips, see How to identify and manage stress.

Sources

  • Starcke, K., & Brand, M. (2012). Decision making under stress: a selective review. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 36(4), 1228-1248.
  • Starcke, K., Wolf, O. T., Markowitsch, H. J., & Brand, M. (2008). Anticipatory stress influences decision making under explicit risk conditions. Behavioral neuroscience, 122(6), 1352.
  • Austin, G., Calvert, T., Fasi, N., Fuimaono, R., Galt, T., Jackson, S., … & Dockerty, J. (2020). Soldiering on only goes so far: How a qualitative study on Veteran loneliness in New Zealand influenced support during COVID-19 lockdown. Journal of Military, Veteran and Family Health, Author-s.

Content contributors

  • Dr. Brenda Key, Ph.D., C.Psych; Psychologist, St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton; Associate Professor, McMaster University Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neurosciences
  • Dr. Shadi Beshai, Ph.D., R.D.Psych.; Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Regina