Renewal and Recovery- Dr.Megan McElheran

September is often considered a month of renewal.  The seasons are changing, kids are returning to school, summer holidays are coming to an end.  We acknowledge many days of remembrance in September as well; National Suicide Awareness Day on September 10, the anniversary of 9/11 (and the cascade of impacts it had on the world) on September 11, and we have just announced September 30 as a day to honour truth and reconciliation with Indigenous Canadians.  As September begins, let’s pause to take stock of what we have already overcome, and how we can continue to grow and evolve with what we have learned through the adversities we have faced already this year.

It is important to acknowledge that as a global community, we are not yet through the significant hardships we have faced due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  In fact, recent statistics released regarding the continued impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our collective mental health has highlighted that almost half of all Canadians (40%) are now reporting new or worsening mental health symptoms.  We must validate for ourselves and for each other that the toll we have faced through the pandemic has been significant; if you have been struggling, know that you are not alone.

Acknowledging the struggles we have faced does not have to mean getting stuck in the negative.  I often hear from people their reluctance to acknowledge or engage in the difficult thoughts and feelings they have, for fear that if they were to do so, that they would be unable to function, or that they would become overwhelmed by sadness and pain.  I would suggest that we continue to challenge that idea.  Part of how we maintain our mental health is by acknowledging that which is, free from distortion or denial, and in so doing we allow ourselves the opportunity to consider how we want to proceed through whatever the difficulty is that we are facing.  In that sense, the pain, or difficult emotion we feel, becomes the data we need to move through the challenges we face.  The more we can stay connected to our pain and explore it for what it means about our values and our needs, the more potential we have to stay true to ourselves as we continue to face the adversities life brings our way. 

The question I often am asked, though, is how do I do that?  While there is not a specific set of instructions, there are some guiding principles that can help us.

  1. Know what you stand for!  We feel like we are being true to ourselves, and know ourselves, when we have a good understanding of the values that are most important to us.  There are many values-based exercises out there that can help us to explore what are the values that are most important, which allows us to stay connected to how we are, or are not, manifesting those values in our daily lives.  For example, if I have a value related to being close to my family, I am going to feel in sync with that value if I deliberately make time for family connection every day.  I will feel out of sync if days and weeks go by without a focus on that connection.  In this sense, knowing that family connection is a primary value helps me to live in greater harmony with what is most important to me, and helps me to focus on what I need to create more of in my daily life.  This can help us with motivation as well; if I know why I am wanting to do something, and if it is connected to a greater sense of meaning and purpose for me, I am more likely to pursue engagement with it, even during those times when I am not feeling like engaging in the activity.
  • Develop a growth mindset.  When we face challenges and prolonged adversities, it is perfectly natural to feel discouraged and to believe that things are never going to change.  Over time this can become the default way we assess and interpret situations, which can lead us to limit our willingness to continue to try, or to believe that things might be different.  This is a slippery slope and one that can absolutely impact our mood and contribute to the onset or worsening of depression and other mental health conditions.  Though it may feel difficult, it is essential that we continue to seek opportunities to interpret the challenges we face from the perspective of growth and challenge.  As an example, if another round of COVID-19 restrictions is imposed, it would be natural to automatically feel as though things are hopeless and that they will never change, with predictable negative impact on our mood and outlook.  If we can work to face a potential next round of restrictions as another set of challenges to overcome and if we can remind ourselves that we are not through the challenges we are facing, yet, we give ourselves room to grow.  The simple addition of “yet” automatically places us in a growth mindset, which can help us find the motivation and strength to continue moving forward.
  • Turn worry into hope.  As with many things in life, this is easier said than done!  When things are unpredictable, and we feel a loss of control, fear and anxiety often emerge.  Left unchecked we are at higher vulnerability to develop persistent problems with anxiety if we don’t find ways to intervene.  One way to check in on the anxieties we are experiencing and to work with them differently is to see if there is a way to find a hoped-for outcome versus the catastrophic negative outcome we often assume will occur.  For example, if I am worried about my ability to cope with another round of COVID-19 restrictions, I might easily fall into a pattern of telling myself that “I can’t handle it” or “I will fall apart”.  Those types of interpretations naturally increase the fear we experience as we are telling ourselves that the worst is going to happen.  We can try instead to look for things to hope for, and while it requires a degree of awareness and diligence on our parts, it doesn’t cost more than that.  I could face the same circumstance with a more comforting, hopeful message to myself.  As an example, rather than telling myself that I won’t be able to handle another set of restrictions, I can instead remind myself that I have overcome many challenges in the past and I can hope that “this too shall pass”.

An important takeaway is that the process of renewal and recovery is just that, a process.  And when we feel scared and out of control, our ability to tolerate more uncertainty and process becomes even more challenged.  If we can work to cultivate willingness to accept the process and to focus on that which we can control, like our attitude and reactions to things, versus trying to control that which is beyond our ability, we may find that the process becomes easier to bear.  As Winston Churchill once advised, “when you’re going through hell, keep going” and trust that this too shall pass.