May 4th, 2020

Coping With COVID-19 Anxiety: Frequently Asked Questions

Men’s Health Researcher John Oliffe on maintaining mental wellness during COVID-19.
Mental Health

This article has been written by Dr. John Oliffe, founder and lead investigator of the University of British Columbia’s Men’s Health Research program and Movember affiliated researcher. Dr. Oliffe’s work focuses on masculinities as it influences men’s health behaviors and illness management, and its impact on partners, families and overall life quality.

Is it normal to feel anxious during this period of physical distancing? How can men best cope with the uncertainty of this situation?

It’s completely normal to feel anxious in these circumstances. In fact, as a society, it’s important for us to acknowledge that these increased feelings and levels of anxiety are something many and most people are dealing with right now. Uncertainty can be unnerving for anyone. 

Learning to establish a routine and controlling what you can is one way to help yourself. A lot of men (even if they won’t admit it) thrive on routine and purpose. In these particularly unusual circumstances, it’s important to acknowledge that we probably can’t tick off as many boxes in the ‘to do’ list as we could previously – and, more importantly, we need to recognize that’s ok.

There are new struggles and distractions working from home that many of us have never had to deal with, and it’s becoming harder to find the boundary between where work ends and where reimagined lockdown leisure begins. Try and find yourself a new routine that works for you and don’t forget to adapt your expectations of what is and isn’t realistic.  Now isn’t the time to under-promise and over-deliver. If you need time to breathe, take it.

For men who might not be working right now or are waiting to hear when they’ll be allowed to return to work, look for other opportunities to keep your mind active. There may be options to volunteer or opportunities for at-home education to upskill that might interest you.

Oh, and another thing - try not to worry too much about when this will all end and give yourself permission to deal with it in the moment. Find strategies that are going to enhance your ability to cope, routine is just one example of this.

What are some healthy ways to manage conflict when you’re in the same space as your friends/family/partner?
Well, disclaimer: I am not a relationship expert. But it's really interesting being in a confined space with someone else right now, whether it's a roommate, partner, or family member.
I strongly believe that you need to be able to create structure, boundaries and it’s important to separate the different parts of your life. If you’re both working from home, try and find a balance between family time and work time. Get creative about the ways you can divide your home and carve out different areas that can become your ‘working space’ (and no, in front of the TV in the living room probably doesn’t count). And know it’s ok to take some time to yourself.  It can be challenging  to be in such close quarters with someone for such an extended period of time, so if you need to, take a break. Go out for a run or walk on your own. Don’t be afraid to take time for yourself. I think it’s important to acknowledge that.
There will be times when it’s not blissful and you’re not getting along. But recognizing that is key - work through it and forgive it. It’s hard being in a confined space, so it’s human nature to get under each other’s skin. Guys can be especially good at looking out for others – provider and protector roles are familiar to lots of men. In this regard it might be helpful to tap those strengths to thoughtfully consider how significant others are being challenged – and by extension how you might help. It’s to be expected and at some level there needs to be some leeway, compromise – but above all compassion.

How can we not talk about COVID-19 when it seems to be the only thing on everyone’s mind?
I think it’s worthwhile having some time away from it. I’m not suggesting that men should avoid the news completely or difficult conversations, but I do think a little bit of distraction is a good thing and it’s important to focus on other things. I’m actually enjoying having the time to connect with my friends and family and having the opportunity to  catch up on some Netflix offerings.  Find a balance that works for you.

What is your advice for getting past the fear and awkwardness of starting a conversation with someone you think might be going through a tricky time?

Some of the blockers that men face when they are trying to have conversations with other men, is quite frankly, we’re used to being shut down. If you go into a conversation expecting that you won’t get a lot of chat out of that person, you probably won’t. However, if you go into that conversation with the attitude that you’re expecting the guy to talk and in turn, giving them permission to talk, then I think you can get depth in terms of what is spoken about.
Often times, it’s as simple as going in with open-ended questions as opposed to typical questions that yield a yes or no answer. For example:

  • “How are you?”
  • “What  things that are working for you right now?”
  • “How long have you felt that way?”

Questions like these can draw men in and give them permission  to open up.
And of course, when you are going into a conversation with a friend or family member you’re concerned might be struggling, it’s important to follow-up. Often times, men might be leaving that conversation feeling like they’ve broken a so-called “masculine code” by opening up or might feeling uncomfortable over what they’ve disclosed. The follow-up to your conversation is really key. It shows you listened, care and that you’re open to  consistently connecting with some depth for what is talked about.
One of the mistakes we tend to make when trying to have deeper conversations is that men often try to solve people’s problems. We don’t need to have all the answers. Our job is to listen and affirm and to help that guy work through his  experiences and challenges. Men like to be  active in their decisions and don’t want to feel preached to. They just often want to know that you are there for them and that balance is really key.

For simple steps to important conversations, check out the ALEC conversation model (ask, listen, encourage action, check in).

What do you imagine a post-COVID-19 world to look like?  

There is certainly some fear around the aftermath. We know from previous literature and periods in history that there’s a close relationship between economic hardship and job loss, and men’s mental illness and suicide. And we know that these changes can have a profound impact on men and their families. I think we need to be especially vigilant now and in the months following to check-in with the guys who are in our lives.

I think we’ve come a long way and I believe we have an opportunity take the key learnings from Covid-19 forward to further improve men’s talk and connectedness.  I hope that that men will continue to feel empowered to speak about their vulnerabilities, norming this as a strength rather than as a sign of weakness.

If you're feeling low or overwhelmed, don't hesitate to reach out for support using these local support resources.