Feeling stress, anxiety, and depression as we move into the 2nd wave of the COVID-19 pandemic? You aren’t alone. Listen to the interview with Dr. Maneet Bhatia on CJAD 800 AM here or view the transcript below.
Orla: Welcome back. I’m Orla alongside Andrea. And thank you so much for spending part of your Sunday with us. Now, we know that rates of anxiety and depression have soared since the beginning of the pandemic, but now, as we enter our second wave, those stress levels and feelings of anxiety may be heightened for many. So, how can we cope? Dr. Maneet Bhatia is a clinical psychologist based in Toronto and joins us now. Good afternoon, doctor.
Dr. Maneet Bhatia: Nice to be with you both.
Orla: So, based on what you see clinically, how big of an impact has this pandemic had on people’s mental health?
Dr. Maneet Bhatia: That’s a very important question. I think it’s clearly had a negative impact on people’s mental health, rather. And I would say clinically definitely have seen significant increases in anxiety and depression in patients we’re seeing. It’s led to a heightened state of anxiety and depression in many of my patients. And I would even just speak, just in the regular population, even if I’m speaking to family, or friends, or colleagues, and I’m sure both of you would agree with this. There’s nobody, really, who has not been impacted mentally. Right?
Dr. Maneet Bhatia: You would literally have to be living in a vacuum essentially. Right?
Dr. Maneet Bhatia: So, I mean, clearly there’s been an increase. And I think what’s happened is one way to frame this is, we’re in a stage of grief. Right? If you think of the pandemic, if you step back, it’s a loss. Right? It’s a tragedy. It’s a traumatic event, so to speak. And there’s a significant loss we’ve all experienced since this lockdown began in March. And the difference between this grief and, let’s say, grief when you lose somebody, so to speak, there’s continual reminders and markers, and it continues to change and evolve daily. So, we’re constantly living and having to negotiate the reality of a pandemic, the reality of the lockdowns, the restrictions, the impacts, the unfortunate deaths, the suffering. And it’s literally daily. And none of us can kind of avoid that. So, we’re in a constant state of negotiating that. We’re in a constant state of grief.
Dr. Maneet Bhatia: And we’re coming to a stage in the beginning of the initial shock and the initial processing. And then, in the summertime, things started to kind of change. The numbers went down. And then, the negotiation became about how do I go back into the world. And the summertime allowed us to have a little bit of distraction, some, I’m using air quotes here, sense of normalcy, to some extent where you could be around people, a little more people, do more activities in the summer weather.
Dr. Maneet Bhatia: But now, we’re heading into a second wave. And what I’m finding now, clinically, is it’s hitting people harder. It’s created even a deeper sense of grief and gloom and doom and uncertainty about the future. And that is also exacerbated by the fact that clinically we know that the fall and winter are very challenging for individuals who suffer from mental health issues. We talk about winter blues and depression anxiety. So, there’s a cascading effect too. A lot of different things are converging at once to leave us in a very vulnerable state psychologically at this time.
Andrea: So true though. I mean, anecdotally, I’d say, within the last few weeks, I feel like everybody I talk to is just on the brink of losing it.
Dr. Maneet Bhatia: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Andrea: I mean, people’s fuses are short. Everybody seems tense.
Dr. Maneet Bhatia: Yes.
Andrea: And I think collectively maybe we’re becoming more aware that everyone is kind of dealing with something right now. But I want to go back to what you just said about the winter blues and the seasonal depression because this is a reality for so many people. I mean, especially living in a colder climate where the days are getting shorter, how can we protect ourselves from these feelings of stress and anxiety and the double punch sort of that’s coming with seasonal affective disorder creeping up on us?
Dr. Maneet Bhatia: No. It’s a really good question. And so, I think the first thing to do is to be aware. And I know people might be hearing this and saying, “Well, that’s kind of cliche.” Right? But I think there’s something extraordinarily important about psychological pain, and it’s a paradox. We have to go through it to get past it. Right? So, what do I mean by that? Humans are programmed or wired, however you want to frame it, to try to avoid any sort of pain. It makes sense evolutionarily. Right? We want to get away from pain. But, psychologically speaking, when it comes to things like stress and anxiety, as you asked, we don’t want to get into that tendency to deny it, to avoid it, to minimize it. We have to kind of accept it.
Dr. Maneet Bhatia: And when I say accept, it doesn’t mean we like it. It doesn’t mean we throw in the white towel and say, “This is it.” It means to be aware, to be educated that this is a time in life, this is a time in the season of the year where we’re going to be, like you said, more irritable, perhaps some more side, more anxious. And, instead of trying to push it away, we need to kind of understand with compassion, “Okay. What am I feeling right now?” And pay attention and scan. So, “How is my mood today? Am I a little more down? Am I noticing I have a little less energy? Am I more lethargic? Am I not talking to my partner, my friend, my family members like I used to?” And it’s really doing a self-scan and it’s paying attention to our mood and to our behaviors, whether it’s like I talked about with work, or with friends, or socially. And also the thought patterns. “Am I having more negative thoughts?” Am I being more critical, more pessimistic, more fearful?” And those are all signs that I’m struggling.
Dr. Maneet Bhatia: And if you are struggling, it’s important at that point to understand, reaching out for help would be useful. But what you could do, even in terms of self-help, would be to try to reach out to a family member, to socialize a bit more, perhaps tuning into your sleep patterns and trying to sleep at an earlier time, not taking on too much. If you’re noticing you’re getting more irritable or upset, try to find limits and create limits in your daily activities and your daily life. Set healthier boundaries and try to kind of find activities and hobbies that are more self-care and provide you with a bit of relaxation and some grounding.
Dr. Maneet Bhatia: So, for example, patients… and we talk about getting out in nature. 20, 30 minutes a day, just being in the fresh air. I know the weather in Toronto and also Montreal gets a bit colder in the winter.
Orla: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Dr. Maneet Bhatia: The winter wind really knocks you, but to get out there and just to get some fresh air. Engaging in physical activities can be very helpful, exercising and the like, within your capacity, within your limits. Other things could be like coloring books or hobbies. I mean, these are important steps that can kind of create buffers around these struggles.
Orla: Dr. Bhatia, for those people who already suffer from mental health issues, say, for example, bipolar disorder.
Dr. Maneet Bhatia: Yeah. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Orla: Is their anxiety and episodes heightened during a pandemic compared to just dealing with it throughout a normal year?
Dr. Maneet Bhatia:
That’s a good question. I think the perspective that I’m seeing and what happens clinically is usually the way I frame things would be to say this, there’s a higher likelihood of flare-ups, so to speak. Right? Because, when you’re dealing with high-stress situations, when there are variables and factors in your environment that are distressing, or unnerving or lead to kind of disruption, those are moments when you’re more likely to see kind of a re-emergence or an episode, so to speak, to kind of emerge.
Dr. Maneet Bhatia: So, right now in the middle of the pandemic, I mean, what we’re dealing with is a lot of people are losing their jobs there. They’re business owners. They’re worried about keeping the lights on.
Dr. Maneet Bhatia: They’re worried about their children and their schooling, if they have children. They’re not able to be around their social support networks, which then creates more isolation, more alienation, and perhaps more reliance on maladaptive coping strategies.
Dr. Maneet Bhatia: So, yes. Right. So, I would say, yes. I would say that there’s a higher… we’re removing those social buffers, those social markers that are typically socio-environmental markers that are usually helpful to kind of insulate and to provide some support against these tendencies.
Orla: Well, Dr. Bhatia, you have been amazing. And let’s all hope and pray that, over the next few months, the long, cold, depressing winter months, that we’re all going to get through it okay and come out this side happier.
Dr. Maneet Bhatia: Yes. No. I agree. And I would tell everybody out there, if you’re dealing with any sort of stress or anxiety, this is not a cliche, it’s the truth, you’re not alone. It’s okay. It’s normal to feel what you’re feeling. And I encourage you to reach out to… there are numerous resources out there to get help and to have the courage to do that. And it would be beneficial if you need it.
Orla: Thank you so much for joining us today, doctor.
Dr. Maneet Bhatia: Thank you for having me.
Orla: That’s Dr. Maneet Bhatia, a clinical psychologist based in Toronto.