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Reclaiming Wellness

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Shopgym Crop
Locals Madisson Stott, Elizabeth Stott, and Aurelie Kilsdonk training at Shopgym, which is open again at 25 percent capacity. Crystal Stott

This past month marked—certainly not celebrated—a major milestone: the arrival of COVID-19 in North America. The pandemic has changed our daily routines in many ways, or at very least has impacted the way we see the world and how we operate in it. Many of us are still spending more time at home than ever before, which has produced new challenges to our overall physical and mental health.

Although these personal sacrifices have helped bend the curve, they’ve also led in many cases to destructive habits. For example, social distancing and self-isolation has led to a rise in the use of alcohol and junk food to self-soothe.

Physical fitness was already tough to prioritize before COVID, but embracing a sedentary lifestyle has taken a toll. Now that so many of us work, eat meals, socialize, and entertain ourselves exclusively at home, whether by requirement or choice, our step counts are down. And so may be our moods.

This month, we’ve asked a few local health practitioners to paint a picture of how we’re doing as we head into the second year of dealing with COVID. Think of it as a metaphorical peek into the medicine cabinet of your neighbours, helping to normalize and inform how we’re cobbling together our respective coping strategies.

How Are We Doing?

Crystal Stott of Niverville’s ShopGym Inc. says that the number one thing people are struggling with is their mental health.

“I think most people have felt anxious, depressed, or just blah at some point in the past year,” Stott says. “The isolation, lack of routine, and limited or no access to normal stress relievers have really taken its toll on people. I have spoken with numerous people who have mentioned that initially not having winter sports season for their children to participate in was disheartening.”

As a functional strength coach and a nutrition coach, Stott has a special focus on hormone health. She says that she’s noticed many people are lacking sleep.

“When your routine is disrupted for extended periods of time, it is very difficult to stay on track with the things that help you stay mentally healthy,” she continues. “Sleep and nutrition top the list when we’re discussing wellness. Sleep is vital for recovery, so practicing good sleep hygiene is number one. People who follow a regular sleep routine typically handle stress better.”

As the shock and newness of living with pandemic restrictions has worn off, Stott points out that some positive mental health outcomes have already started re-emerging for people in our little corner of the world.

“For a lot of people who were working long hours, stressed out, commuting, running their family members to activities, this year has given people ‘permission’ to step back, spend more time with loved ones, perhaps consume less materially, and just breathe,” says Stott. “So many people have started new hobbies or learned new things that add value to their life in more ways than monetarily and that mind shift is one positive thing I hope will stay with us.”

Heather McLeod is a chiropractor at Niverville Family Chiropractic, which has served the community for 14 years. She agrees that the mental and emotional stress of the pandemic remains evident. In her office, she sees the main challenge is the new work-from-home restrictions.

“Not having an ergonomically configured workspace—such as an adjustable office desk, computer, and chair—is starting to create chronic pain challenges for some patients,” says McLeod.

McLeod has also observed the consequences of people who obey the restrictions to the point of being leery about making necessary health-related appointments.

“I think there is a portion of the population who are very stressed about catching COVID or struggling with economic concerns,” she adds. “There are several folks I have not seen for over a year and I am concerned about how it is mentally affecting them. We encourage people to follow the public health guidelines to keep themselves and loved ones safe, but we also encourage them to take responsibility for their health.”

Lisa Desaulniers has been a licensed massage therapist with FOGAmotion in Niverville for the past eight years and she agrees with McLeod about seeing a recent uptick in neck, shoulder, and back pain due to poor ergonomics in makeshift home offices.

Desaulniers also says she’s seen recurring headaches, which could be related to the necessary of wearing masks for long periods of time.

“First, I’m seeing more jaw dysfunction,” says Desaulniers. “If the mask isn’t fitted properly, we tend to push it away from our mouth with our bottom jaw. This causes jaw tension to increase, as we don’t normally do this action. Second, when we’re talking a lot, the mask will suck onto the mouth, creating a vacuum effect. This sudden pressure increase on the lungs and neck, as well as sinuses and face, can lead to headaches. So be sure to wear a mask that’s properly fitted to your face.”

Besides physical struggles, Desaulniers adds her voice to those who are expressing concern about our local mental health.

“I’ve heard numerous complaints about rising depression and anxiety in children, and growing concerns about increasing suicide rates,” she adds. “We knew these things were a problem before, but they seem to be getting worse with isolation.”

What Can We Be Doing?

The evidence is clear that proper nutrition and adequate exercise will provide benefits for both physical and mental health, which are intrinsically linked. Brain chemicals play an important part in regulating your mood and nutrient-dense foods provide us with everything we need to deal with stress by keeping the hormones in balance and allowing the body to function optimally. While this is going on, physical activity stimulates the release of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, thus improving one’s mental health.

In our province, there are many resources available to address mental health, but Stott emphasizes that it’s the everyday things that are most important in maintaining wellness.

“Keeping to a routine in general helps maintain balance,” Stott says. “Getting outside for a walk to soak up the sunshine is an instant mood improver. Eating nutrient-dense foods 80 percent of the time sets you up for physical wellness, but still allows room to treat yourself. I also find that encouraging people to do something for others—volunteering, random acts of kindness, etc.—goes a long way to help boost spirits. Adding 15 minutes of quiet time to your day in devotions, meditation, breathing, or reflection can keep you centred and help counteract stress naturally.”

McLeod advises anyone struggling with chronic pain related to increased screen use to take frequent breaks and make the conscious decision to reduce unnecessary screen time.

“Going offline by spending less time on your devices, especially social media, is helpful,” says McLeod.

The spine specialist also supports reducing pain and boosting your immune system through diet and exercise.

“Physical and mental health are very entwined,” McLeod adds. “It’s impossible to separate them. The healthier your immune system is, the stronger you would be if you happen to catch any virus. Doing things like getting enough rest, exercising regularly, minimizing or eliminating alcohol, and smoking, eating healthy, and having tools in place to deal with mental and emotional stress are all important.”

She agrees with Stott about adding meditation and also suggests intentionally reaching out to mental health professionals when it becomes necessary.

“Although mental health is not a professional area of specialty for me, some basic suggestions I have to improve mental health are meditation, prayer, or developing a breathing exercise routine,” she says. “Spending quiet time, looking inward, and working on becoming grounded can help. If you’re suffering with mental health challenges, speaking to your support system—doctor, church, family, whatever it might look like for you—is very important!”

Desaulniers often focuses on the importance of taking positive steps to improve one’s outlook on life.

“Personal growth makes life easier,” Desaulniers says. “Most people spend their energy worrying or being angry about things, rather than discovering new ways to approach them. There are tons of resources out there that will give you tools to use and inspire you to change. There are no rules on where to start. It just takes an open mind and a desire to learn and grow.”

Desaulniers adds that in March she will be starting a book club for anyone interested in starting a wellness journey. And when restrictions allow, she would suggest that people look into group classes that have discussions to increase our interpersonal connections.

How Will We Start Thriving Again?

While checking in with families whose children were missing out on extracurriculars and sports, Stott discovered that they reported spending increased family time together. She noted that this was change goes deep. In other words, it’s about more than just finding convenient ways to spend time with the people closest to us in proximity.

“Yes, the natural pivot was to spend more time as a family doing indoor and outdoor activities, and they have made so many memories this year that they will cherish,” says Stott. “But it is in trying to find the positives in a situation that goes a long way toward building resilience.”

Stott urges us to reflect on history, which shows us how resilient human beings are. We have adapted throughout history, and we continue to adapt.

“COVID-19 has been the biggest challenge a lot of people have faced in their lifetime, and we’re learning new things about ourselves daily,” she says. “Eating well and exercising daily will definitely help people manage the stress this situation brings. It brings some sense of having control in a situation that is beyond our control. By looking after ourselves physically and being conscious of our mindset daily, we are building resilience both physically and mentally.”

McLeod says that positive thinking and maintaining healthy habits pay off in the form of confidence.

“You see that you are strong and you can do what you set your mind to,” McLeod says. “These are definitely challenging times for everyone. What you do to support yourself and your circle of family and friends really matters. As for resiliency with regards to our health and wellness, I believe that when you are successful at maintaining healthy habits that support you, it breeds confidence in yourself.”

As for Desaulniers, she points out the benefits of simple exercise, like taking a daily walk, and making healthier food choices, taking it one day at a time.

“To change our health, we have to be willing to change who we are,” she says. “Realize that things and people can’t make us happy. They only contribute to momentary happiness. The good news is you don’t have to wait. You can start that journey now by exploring what you already know about personal growth, and keeping an open mind. Have discussions and follow your own path from there. There’s no right or wrong way, and it’s a great way to stimulate positive energy flow for healing.”

Of course, it doesn’t take a pandemic to give human beings something to complain about. Desaulniers says you can actually train your body to be resilient to disease by maintaining a healthy lifestyle while still finding something to complain about even in the best of times.

“Gratitude builds resilience by bringing you back to the present moment. It softens your perspective of current life struggles,” says Desaulniers. “And look to the future optimistically. If you find that difficult, stay in the present moment and be grateful for what you do have. Of course we all miss seeing friends and family, but technology has been a blessing with video communication, and now we have the options to connect outside. This winter has been especially gorgeous, too. A couple of cold weeks is nothing to complain about, and spring is on the way.”

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