The COVID-19 crisis has turned our personal and professional worlds upside down. We are all dealing with a new environment where we’re socially distant, self-isolated, either working from home or wondering how to find work in this unprecedented situation. Arrive reached out (from a distance) to Toronto-based therapist and social worker, Mihaela Anghel, to find out what newcomers can do to maintain mental wellness during these difficult times.
As an immigrant herself (coming from Romania in 2002), Mihaela knows first hand the stresses and anxieties newcomers face. As a therapist, she helps newcomers find effective strategies and coping methods to help deal with these issues and to stay positive. Her practice has changed during the pandemic, shifting to telephone and video calls, and she, like many other therapists, is offering a sliding scale of rates or pro bono work to newcomers experiencing distress and financial difficulty. Here are some key insights and a few tips from Mihaela.
The newcomer journey is stressful to begin with. Newcomers face a multitude of external factors, like the pressure to find work, the pressure to find an apartment, and the pressure to figure out the system. Then, on top of these, there are also many internal pressures.
Most immigrants feel an immense pressure to succeed very quickly because money is tight. And if that doesn’t happen or if it takes longer than expected, it is quite normal to feel depression, disappointment, and hopelessness, which can lead to shame and negative self-image. This becomes a vicious cycle because from then on, one can quite easily become discouraged and withdrawn. And we know that in order to achieve good things in our lives, we need to feel good about ourselves.
Newcomers also feel pressure to prove to their families back home that they made the right decision leaving everything behind to start a new life in Canada. They often find themselves between worlds – outliers: shedding their connections to the past while trying to make new connections in Canada. This can contribute to feelings of isolation and loneliness.
COVID isolation means extra stress in smaller spaces
Working from home, or just staying indoors for extended periods comes with its own set of challenges. Sharing the same space with the same people 24 hours a day, seven days a week, can definitely add extra stress. There is a lack of privacy and a sense of confinement as we all self-isolate. It’s important to get outside when you can.
The additional stress (kids are home from school with little to do, while parents are either trying to work from home or looking for work) can have negative effects on couples, especially if the relationship is already feeling the strain of external and internal pressures.
This new constricted family environment may place some women at increased risk of suffering domestic violence. The same is true for children who may be vulnerable in a home where physical, emotional and verbal abuse is present.
If you or someone you know is in a vulnerable situation, there are organizations that can help.
Blockades, bare shelves and heightened security may trigger past trauma
Recently, I spent two hours in line at a big box grocery store. I can understand how seeing the wooden pallets blocking entrances and exits, security guards controlling people’s movement, bare shelves in the toilet paper aisles and people with masks everywhere could cause anxiety and trigger past trauma for newcomers who have come to Canada to escape political upheaval, social unrest, or war.
In my circle of therapists, we talk a lot about the mental health crisis that many anticipate once this pandemic is over. We must remind ourselves that the current situation is temporary, and that we have the resources in Canada to overcome this.
Here is a list of things you can do at home to help reduce stress and put you in a positive frame of mind.
6 tips for mental wellness during COVID-19
1. Stick to a routine
For a lot of newcomers, who are either out of work or haven’t been able to find work yet, it is tempting to just not have a routine. However, in the absence of routine our minds have free rein to roam and worry and ruminate, which can further aggravate our anxiety. So sticking to a routine, especially during this time of uncertainty, is very helpful.
Try to wake up at the same time, try to go to bed at the same time, set time to work or do research, and balance that with some time for yourself.
2. Limit news intake and social media exposure
We are processing so much new information every single day. Some of this Information is alarming, and we don’t know how to categorize it. We don’t know how to make sense of what is going on. Therefore, our brains expend a huge amount of energy trying to process and understand the world as it currently stands. Worrying about the future without concrete evidence can take a toll.
Coupled with anxiety, depression and isolation, it’s no wonder that newcomers would be really tired from this; it can be mentally exhausting. I’ve heard many people in the past couple of weeks complaining of constant fatigue – even in the absence of regular work routines and day-to-day pre-pandemic pressures and stressors.
It is really important to rest and have a couple of practices that help release some of that psychological pressure.
3. Take some time to take care of yourself
It is crucial to develop some sort of self-care routine. Self-care might be a bit of an odd concept for some newcomers. Work and achieving goals take precedence over self. They may hold a gendered definition of self-care, associating it with things like bubble baths, manicures and pedicures.
As a mental health practitioner, when I talk about self-care, I talk about practices that will actually address anxiety and eliminate some of the psychological pressure. I’m talking about things like finding sources of joy or relaxation, even within the confines of our homes and the restrictions of our current society at large.
This is a time to consider lowering expectations. The idea that we have to continue as if life never changed is absurd because life has changed dramatically. So we cannot just carry on as we previously did. Many newcomers have worked two or three jobs or worked on the weekend or worked overtime and really didn’t have a good work-life balance.
At this time, it’s really important to give ourselves some space and take time to play with the kids, watch movies with them, and play games. Take up a hobby or explore an interest: Go out on the balcony, start some tomato plants or refinish that table in the basement. Try to bring a sense of normalcy to your day to day life.
4. Get some fresh air
While respecting the current social distancing protocol, it is important to get outside once a day or so for some fresh air and sunshine (vitamin D). If it gives you more peace of mind, go out later in the evening when there are fewer people on the streets. Fresh air actually has a significant impact on our mental health and wellness.
5. Move your body
Gyms and clubs are closed, which makes it difficult to maintain our exercise routine. But find some time to move every day. You don’t have to work out, just move your body. Even light exercise, like walking, can release beneficial hormones in your brain that contribute to better mental health – and you’ll just feel better.
6. Stay connected
As humans, we are wired to attach and to connect, and that need shouldn’t be ignored. In fact, one of the remedies for depression is connecting with other people – connecting with your support system. Reach out to others, every day if possible, whether it’s family or friends from back home, or people here.
Find like-minded people (not exclusively with your same background or language), from a similar profession or with similar interests. You can connect and share and learn from one another. This sense of community can help you feel supported through this challenging time. Arrive is a great resource for newcomers: You can connect with people who share common industry and interests, build your network, find resources and read newcomer stories on the Arrive blog.
It’s also important to support one another and be mindful of other people’s circumstances. Understand that everyone has their own challenges; they might be dealing with kids at home, health concerns, loneliness, job insecurity or financial concerns of their own. Remember to be kind and patient.
What we’re feeling right now is a sense of loss. But don’t panic.
A lot of what’s coming up for people right now is grief, a sense of loss. We’re grieving the loss of our lives as we knew them. Or, in the case of recent newcomers, the loss of the life they anticipated. People in pre-arrival, those planning to come to Canada, are now faced with an indefinite period of uncertainty that can be overwhelming. Some have had to quit jobs, sell homes and displace themselves. And now all of that is on hold. They are feeling a loss of control.
So I teach people skills like acceptance of emotions, self-compassion, tolerance – of even the most difficult emotions, and balancing thoughts if possible, so they don’t engage in cycles of rumination, worst-case scenarios and panic.
Shifting from a mindset that is so fixed and fairly negative has tremendous positive effects, not just on a person’s mental health, but also on their ability to connect with others, network, find work and find communities where they belong. We focus on gaining safety and connecting newcomers with others and to themselves. Let’s take it one day at a time.
The situation is stressful for everyone and it is normal to be anxious and worried. Across Canada, provincial and territorial health services offer information, resources and support for mental health and wellness. You can find them here: Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia, Nunavut, Ontario, Prince Edward island, Quebec, Saskatchewan, Yukon.
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