“Opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the columnist and not necessarily those of The Laker News Inc.”

By Marybeth Fleming, OT Health

Beginning on March 22, 2020, when the provincial government instituted its state of emergency and subsequent lock down, we as Nova Scotians have had several sources of stress.

Nanos Research poll, conducted on behalf of the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), has found that many people in Canada had seen their stress levels double since the onset of COVID-19. 

For Nova Scotians, we have had our fair share and then some when it comes to stressors.  Nova Scotia has a “bucket” filled with stressors which may be overflowing for some. 

The question put to me by readers for my next article was: “How do we manage these stress levels and how do we exit this time of distress, boost resiliency and protect both our mental and physical health from further harm while facilitating recovery?” Or in other words, limit the contents of our stress bucket and grow the size of our already over-flowing buckets to assist with recovering our mental wellness.

The first step in addressing stress is to understand it. Lately, stress is has become a word too commonly used to describe a host of events, feelings, and events.

Stress can come in a variety of forms.  It can manifest itself as a noun or affect us as a verb. Stress (noun) can be considered a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances. However, stressing (verb) can cause mental or emotional strain or tension. 

Medically speaking, stress can also be considered a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension. According to the American Psychological Association, stress is a normal reaction to everyday pressures but can become unhealthy when it upsets your day-to-day functioning. Stress can initiate the “fight or flight” response, a complex reaction of neurologic and endocrinologic systems. Stress preps our bodies to react.  Stress is simply the body’s response to changes that create taxing demands. Sounding too familiar for Nova Scotians.

It is safe to say that eliminating stress in our lives is an impossible feat. It is also safe to say that if stress is forever present, then how we chose to react to these stressors will give rise to differing outcomes.  Now all is not lost with stress, as there are positive stressors and negative stressors.

Eustress is positive stress; it is healthful, improves your well-being, and results in satisfaction. Its counterpart is distress; distress affects all the negative symptoms of stress we hear about like physical and mental illness. Eustress motivates, focuses energy short term, is seen as a coping strategy, feels exciting and improves performance. 

An example of eustress could include but is not limited to taking a vacation, changing jobs, receiving a promotion, buying a home, learning new skills and the holiday seasons. In contrast, distress can evoke a feeling of anxiety or concern, can be short or long term, is perceived as outside our coping strategies, feels unpleasant and can lead to decreased performance and mental and or physical considerations.

An example of a distress or negative stress may include unemployment, financial problems, illness, a child’s problems at school, and death. Again sounding all too familiar for Nova Scotians.

So, if exposure to distress is inevitable, how do we limit our exposure to distress and grow our resiliency to handle the rest? I have no magical cures for limiting the amount of distress in our bucket, nor growing our capacity to handle it. 

However, as an Occupational Therapist who supports clients to engage in meaningful occupations despite the limitations of an illness or injury, I am perpetually having to consider the mental and physical health limitations of my clients.  Thus, I have developed some stress-management strategies that have proven themselves effective during “normal times”.

These strategies are not an exhaustive list and I remind readers that everyone’s reaction to stressors are uniquely their own. Recovery may therefore look different. It begins with admitting that It is OK not be OK – a sign of strength is to ask for assistance. 

First, it is important when managing the impact of stress to engage is self care practices. Some self care practices could include practicing mindfulness, meditation, and deep breathing.  These strategies enable our bodies and minds to escape the physiological reaction of stress, hence relieving some of the negative symptoms of the stressor.  These strategies act like valves on our stress bucket, releasing some of those stressors so we do not overflow.

Another strategy to reduce impact of stress includes continuing to eat healthy meals, access exercise, and get plenty of sleep and properly hydrate.  Trying to control and focus on the positive aspects of your life and things you can control can lead to decrease the impact of stress.

Exercise is one of the most important strategies to combat the impact of stress. It might seem contradictory, however putting physical stress on your body through exercise can relieve the negative impacts of mental stress.  Exercise lowers the body’s stress and it helps to release endorphins, chemicals that improve your mood and act as natural painkillers. Exercise can also improve sleep which often is negatively impacted by stress.

One final way to reduce the impact of stress which continues to fill our stress buckets is to write things down, i.e. journaling. 

While recording what you are stressed about is one approach and may assist you in identifying aspects of your life in which you may affect positive change, another equally beneficial practice is jotting down what you are grateful for. Documenting daily gratitude’s may help relieve stress and anxiety by focusing your thoughts on what is positive in your life.

Asking for assistance when you feel it is needed is equally important for all struggling though this challenging time for Nova Scotians  On the eve of so many stressful and unfathomable events, know that you are not alone in your need and know that there is hope.

Some resources can include the following: Kids Help Phone: 1800-668-6868, Crisis Services Canada: 1-833-456. Nova Scotia Crisis Line 888-429-8167, online mental health services in NS: ICAN, Mindwell U, Therapy Assistance online.

Stress is ever present, and each person responds differently to stress.  Nova Scotia has been inundated with stressors over the past 55 days.  There are people and strategies to help us manage the impact of stress.

Reach out, stay true to yourself, love yourself and know there is hope and support around you to help you cope with stress. 

Keep Going –Remain “Nova Scotia Strong.”