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Feeling Good in Challenging Times

Feeling Good in Challenging Times

I wrote my blog for this week yesterday, saving it to my computer at 5:00 and turning the news on as I moved from work-from-home to leisure-at-home. My blog was called “Feeling Good in Bad Times” and it was about simple activities for building well-being when continuous bad news was wearing us down. As if being in the midst of a pandemic in winter wasn’t enough, we were hearing concerns about vaccine shortages and our neighbour to the south experiencing an armed insurrection.

But there was a glimmer of good news being announced—reopening of personal care businesses and permission to have outdoor gatherings of up to 10 people (observing social distancing and wearing masks)! I jumped on the roller coaster of excitement, knowing that this was not going to be a smooth journey to the end of the pandemic. This ride will have plummets of despair and soaring passages of joy. Pessimists will say that we shouldn’t get our hopes up because we are only going to be disappointed, but whether we are pessimists or optimists, we all can all benefit from taking basic steps to well-being.

And I reopened my laptop and began re-writing. Let’s talk about being well in challenging and changing times!

January is always a tough month—it is cold, it is dark and it feels long, and the pandemic just increases our feelings of isolation. I have a rule for myself that I don’t watch 24/7 news channels because those shows marinate me in angst, but last Wednesday when I learned about the mob storming the US Capitol, I tuned into CBC Newsworld, but all it did was whet my appetite for something harder core and by Thursday I was fully immersed in CNN. These are historic times, I justified—I was watching some of the most significant events in the western world that would have repercussions for many years. It was just soooo interesting. And, not surprisingly, I wasn’t sleeping well and felt on-edge.

The violent occupation of a centre of democracy is frightening in and of itself, but my sister lives in in the US and I have 20 year old twin nephews who are of draft age. You can see the path I was on—and I was internally making arrangements to bring them here and figuring out how they could quarantine.

And the local news didn’t help—we were learning of potential interruptions in the vaccine supply chain and the issue was being politicized. I was steeping in bad news.

Is it just me, or do media outlets seem to focus more on scary and negative stories? There’s an old expression that good news doesn’t sell newspapers—and there is research that backs this up. Research conducted at McGill University revealed that the concentration on bad news stories is not due to journalist’s own cynicism; it is that we, as consumers of news, tend to choose news stories with negative impacts, i.e., we are the ones with the  negativity bias.  Researchers speculate that this may be part of our instinct to identify and scope out danger. We know that when we perceive danger, our physiological stress mechanisms ratchet up to enable the flight or fight response, but we also know that human beings were not designed to be in a chronic state of stress.

Many of us feel compelled to immerse ourselves in unsettling news stories—like looking at accident scenes or watching horror movies. But while these stories may be monumental, they concern events that are beyond our control. Indeed, we have almost no control over issues like gaps in our vaccine supply chain or the discord in the US. I stepped back from media coverage and resolved to limit my CNN consumption to one hour (cumulative) per day and I am starting to breathe more easily.

I view being informed about current events as being part of good citizenship, but at what cost? I realized that I had to take a step away for my own well-being.

There are other things we can do to stay well in the face of negativity and uncertainty—simple strategies that may take 15 minutes a day (but can be more if you like them!)

The British New Economics Foundation developed Five Steps to Mental Well-Being based on a review of over 400 research studies. This was pre-COVID, and was actually in response to financial issues (the credit crunch and economic uncertainty) as well as concerns about climate change.  This review indicated that well-being was not dependent on consumerism and spending money. Rather, well-being was linked to:
  • Having strong social relationships
  • Being physically active
  • Continuing to learn
  • Giving to others
  • Being in the present (mindfulness).
The 5 Steps have been incorporated into programs across the western world, but my favourite iteration is the Legal Profession Mental Health Toolkit created by Resilience@Law and Black Dog Institute** in Australia.

Many resources support the 5 steps to well-being with simple actions we can take in our personal and work lives.  Unfortunately, not all of the actions work well in our socially-distanced COVID reality, so here is my take on the 5 steps and supporting activities for Alberta lawyers, articling students and law students during our current circumstances: 
  • Connect We know that having strong social relationships is linked to well-being, and that while interacting with family, friends and colleagues is tricky due to restrictions on gathering, it is more important than ever.
    • Personal: January has been unseasonably warm so far, which made the ban on outdoor gatherings sting even more. When the weather is reasonable, let’s seize the opportunity to gather outdoors with up to 10 people (with social distancing and masks.) And while Zoom and telephone calls aren’t the same as seeing people in person, keeping in touch via technology is better than not connecting at all. Connecting around positivity is helpful—can you share photos and happy memories with the people you can’t see in person? If you have someone in your circle who is prone to negativity, consider having a  “Good, Bad and Interesting Conversation” where everyone has to identify at least one good thing that happened that day as well as something bad and interesting.
    • Workplace: When you are on Zoom calls, consider taking a few extra minutes to ask people how they are doing and listen actively to their responses. It is easy for Zoom calls to depersonalize us, but we can consciously choose to reach out to people--if your group celebrates birthdays and workplace anniversaries during normal times, can you continue this practice (but without the cake