Loneliness over the Holidays

The holiday season has always brought its own challenges and stressors but with COVID-19 limiting travel, recommending separation from friends and family and altering/cancelling annual traditions, it might not only be stressful- it also might feel quite lonely. 

Student Health and Wellness Counsellors Trudy and Holly share their own experiences with dealing with loneliness and offer advice on how to cope over the holidays. 

Here are some more suggestions to help manage the holiday blues this season.

  • Have realistic expectations. Extravagant holiday parties and family dinners are out of the picture this year. Being realistic with yourself and understanding that this is the case for almost everyone will help you handle the emotions that might come with missing these events.
  • Be nice to yourself. To compensate for the lack of parties and gatherings, you might feel the need to compensate by buying bigger gifts for loved ones or going all out on Christmas decorations. Cut yourself some slack instead, trying to make the holidays special by making everything perfect is not a fair standard to set for yourself.
  • Get cooking. Finding ways to incorporate recipes that remind you of your loved ones into your holiday celebration can help when you're feeling lonely and craving grandma's cooking. Maybe someone will finally be willing to pass you that top secret family recipe you enjoy every year. You can create a tradition in which you share the recipe and cook it together on the phone.
  • Volunteer. Some of us might not have family and friends to depend on this holiday season. That's OK. When you're feeling alone, volunteering can help you feel a sense of community you might be lacking.
  • Make a list of things you can do when you are feeling lonely. Before the holidays roll around, make a list of fun activities you can turn to when you're feeling your loneliest. It can be helpful to have a list to turn to in the moments you are feeling low.
  • Practice self-care. This year, it's critical to find "me time" and practise self-care to avoid the physical and mental exhaustion this year's celebrations (or lack thereof) might cause. Sign up for the Winter WellU Wishlist to receive daily self-care and mindfulness activities over the break.
  • Remember that this is temporary. It might seem like we have been physically distancing forever but focus on the fact that what we're experiencing now is not permanent. Hopefully next year, we can get back to the celebrations we’re used to having,

 

How can I cope with loneliness over the holidays?

Shifting from Negative Self-Talk to Positive

We all have an inner monologue but if your self-talk skews negative, it can take its toll on your self-esteem and performance heading into finals. By extending yourself the same encouragement you would a friend or classmate, you can redirect your inner voice towards positivity. It might seem silly, but using positive self-talk before and during exams can help reduce anxiety, build confidence and improve performance.

Here are some strategies on how to replace negative self-talk with positive:

Focus on the Solution. Dwelling on a problem instead of a solution is the essence of negative self-talk. “I don’t know how to do this problem. I’ll never pass the exam.” Instead: Most problems have solutions. Ask yourself, “How can I make this situation better?” or think “I will work through this problem until I can understand it.”

Expect the Best. “What if I don’t pass the exam?” “What if I don't get the job?” Expecting the worst creates anxiety and causes us to behave ineffectively. Instead: Ask questions that give positive outcomes. “How can I prepare for the exam?” or “How can I make a good impression?”

A Case of the Shoulds. Words like “should” or “must” suggest rules and standards for our behaviour that do not exist in reality. These words imply there is a consequence for non-compliance, which can evoke feelings of guilt. “I should go to the gym but I don't have enough time.” Instead: Replace with the word “could” and realize that you do have choices. “I could go to the gym after class or on my lunch break.”

Realistic Thinking. We distort reality by thinking only in extremes and this makes our efforts either total failures or complete successes, with nothing in between. “I’ll never pass this exam because I always draw a blank.” Instead: Be realistic. Replace those exaggerated words with ones that more accurately reflect reality and give yourself options. “I haven’t actually ever failed an exam. I’m going to relax and I’ll do fine.”

Catastrophizing. Every bad thing that happens is a horrible disaster. “I missed the beginning of today's class and it Is the most important.” Instead: Be realistic and stop scaring yourself. Bad things do happen, yet most are not necessarily tragedies or disasters, but rather inconveniences and mistakes. “I can always talk to my professor afterwards and get any information I missed.” 

Take Responsibility. We sometimes resort to assigning guilt instead of solving a problem. “My roommate took my study spot and now I can’t concentrate.” Blaming others can make us feel vindicated in a wrong-doing and allow us to avoid responsibility. Instead: Focus on what you can do to find a solution to the problem and take responsibility. “There are plenty of other study spots in the house available.”

Study Tips from Peer Wellness Educators

Finding ways to cope with exam stress has always been imperative to taking care of one’s self as they navigate through their academic journey. As we all head into exam season during this pandemic, the need to support your wellbeing has never been more important. Your Peer Wellness Educator team has compiled a list of their best academic and wellness tips to help you cope with stress and avoid the chance of burnout.

ACADEMIC TIPS

1) Plan ahead! A key part of reducing stress during exam season is to make a plan and to make the plan early. We recommend printing off a blank calendar and writing down all of the readings and assignments you need to complete on the schedule. Space out the assignments based on how much time you will need to complete each task and give yourself plenty of time to complete each task before the due date.
2) Connect with your peers! There’s nobody better than your peers to help you through a tricky assignment or a complex reading. By putting your knowledge together, you can help each other succeed and hold each other accountable. Zoom is a great platform to hold study sessions. Remember: Meeting with your peers doesn’t always have to be strictly about academics! Take the time to destress and talk to your peers about how you have been feeling and develop friendships.
3) Reach out to your professors early! Is there something you have not been understanding as well as you would like to? Reach out to your professor through email or ask to set up a zoom meeting. Your best bet is to start the conversation early because exam season is when questions will start flooding into the professor’s inboxes and you want to get your opportunity for one-on-one help before it’s too late.

WELLNESS TIPS

1) Fuel your body and your mind! We know that when studying the days can fly by and you can go hours without realizing you have not stopped to eat. Make sure to keep a schedule that allows you to eat healthily and gives you the opportunity to try your hand at cooking. Baking and cooking are a great way to take a break from your studies and destress by engaging in a fun and satisfying activity. Remember: Make healthy choices that will help fuel you and keep your mind sharp.
2) Take time for yourself! While it may feel that every moment you possibly have should be spent studying, this is not true. While studying is important, it is just as important to continue doing things that bring you peace and joy. No matter what, schedule some time into your day to do something you enjoy. This could be as simple as watching a tv show, having a relaxing bath or practicing a new hobby! We are not robots and cannot study 24 hours a day, nor should we! Take some time to be at peace and enjoy life around you. While exams can be overwhelming, remember it is okay to take time and relax and feel grounded. This will help you study and focus better!
3) Do not over caffeinate! While many of us love coffee, consuming too much caffeine can worsen the stress we already encounter from exams. Caffeine is a stimulant and increases your body’s stress levels. If you feel you need those cups of coffee to stay up and finish studying, listen to your body instead and get some sleep. You will feel more refreshed and will retain more information once you properly take care of your body. Try swapping out your coffee for herbal tea or water while you are studying!

We’d love to hear from you! If you have any exam stress tips that you think we should share, message us on Instagram @lupeerwellness

-Ashley Warburton and Samantha Sawyer, Peer Wellness Educators

Note book, coffee cup and pen

Sleep During Exam Season

End of term and exam season might have you burning the candle at both ends but if you are thinking about pulling some all-nighters along the way, think again.

Sleep plays a critical role in brain function and is well-known to help consolidate memories- research has shown that you remember information better if you sleep after studying than if you studied and stayed awake the same amount of time. A lack of good quality sleep can make it harder to focus and think clearly and can cause increased fatigue, irritability, and anxiety during the day.  All of which can cause your academic performance to suffer. 

It is not only the number of hours of sleep that matters but other factors such as quality of sleep are important. A common belief is that lost sleep from a late night of studying can be recovered by “sleeping in” another day or taking naps. However, both of these methods disrupt the body’s circadian rhythms and may deprive the body of deeper sleep stages. It is important to respond, whenever possible, to the body’s natural signals of sleepiness.

To make sure that sleep is benefitting your performance rather than hindering it, take the following steps.

  • Try to stick to your normal sleep schedule during exam season. Go to bed at night and wake up at the same time as you normally would. Make a study plan that includes your sleep schedule to make it possible.

  • Avoid caffeinated beverages for 4-6 hours before bedtime.

  • Stop using electronic devices an hour before you want to go to sleep. If you want to continue to study, use physical notes or flashcards.

  • If you can’t fall asleep, don’t stay in bed. Get up and do quiet relaxing activities, like reading or listening to a podcast until you feel tired enough to fall asleep.

  • If intrusive thoughts are keeping you awake, keep a pad and paper beside your bed and write them down.

For more information and resources to get a good night's rest, check out Student Health and Wellness' section about sleep.

Practicing Self-Compassion During A Pandemic

If you are struggling right now-physically, mentally, socially, academically-  you are not failing. A pandemic is not the ideal situation for anyone and this is not how you thought the year was going to go. Being kind to yourself and practicing self-compassion can help. 

Self-compassion is a key part of being resilient (a word you have surely heard many times over the past 8 months). If you aren’t sure what self-compassion means or where to start, just treat and talk to yourself like you would a good friend. We tend to be kinder to others than we are to ourselves. 

For more information about self-compassion, look to Dr. Kristen Neff, a pioneer in the field of self-compassion research. She describes three elements of self-compassion:

1. Self-kindness vs. Self-judgment.
Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or being self-critical. Self-compassionate people recognize that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals. People cannot always be or get exactly what they want. When this reality is denied or fought against suffering increases in the form of stress, frustration and self-criticism. When this reality is accepted with sympathy and kindness, greater emotional equanimity is experienced.

2. Common humanity vs. Isolation.
Frustration at not having things exactly as we want is often accompanied by an irrational but pervasive sense of isolation – as if “I” were the only person suffering or making mistakes. All humans suffer, however. The very definition of being “human” means that one is mortal, vulnerable and imperfect. Therefore, self-compassion involves recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience – something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone.

3. Mindfulness vs. Over-identification.
Self-compassion also requires taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated. This equilibrated stance stems from the process of relating personal experiences to those of others who are also suffering, thus putting our own situation into a larger perspective. It also stems from the willingness to observe our negative thoughts and emotions with openness and clarity, so that they are held in mindful awareness. Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time. At the same time, mindfulness requires that we not be “over-identified” with thoughts and feelings, so that we are caught up and swept away by negative reactivity.

Visit her website for self-compassion guided meditations and exercises you can try to build up this skill. 

The stress of these “unprecedented times” is not going to magically disappear as a result of practicing self-compassion but your response to unpredictability and uncertainty in your environment can and will change. 

Meal Prepping During Exam Season

As we get towards the end of the semester, your schedule might be full of final assignments, essays and studying, leaving little time to cook proper meals. 

You don’t have to settle for boxed macaroni and cheese and late-night pizza to get you through the next month.  Try batch cooking or meal prepping., it takes a little bit of time on the front end but you can reap the benefits for days after (weeks if you have the freezer space). It is also a practical way to make sure your meals are nutritious and budget-friendly.

Before you get cooking you have to make a couple of decisions, first- do you want to make individual meals, batch cook or just prep all the ingredients? All of these have their pros and cons but consider if you get sick of eating the same thing multiple days in a row? Will having prepped ingredients be enough to outweigh the convenience of Skip the Dishes?

Next up, you have to decide what you are going to make. This depends on personal preference as much as anything else but consider the following: 

  • How much time you want to spend in the kitchen, some recipes are more demanding than others
  • Produce that is in season can be cheaper and more flavourful.
  • Don't be afraid of frozen vegetables, they are flash-frozen at peak ripeness so you don't have to sacrifice quality for price.
  • Meal prepping isn't just for dinner- you can prep breakfast and lunch just as easily. 
  • If you are making a couple different recipes, try to get ingredients to overlap for budgeting and bulk prepping. 

Once you have decided on your menu, check what you have in your cupboards and then make a list for the rest. Then it is time to get to work in the kitchen.

One of my favourite meal prep's is bahn mi bowls adapted from Pinch of Yum's recipe:

quick pickled carrots

  • 1/2 cup rice vinegar
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 6–8 carrots, peeled into ribbons
  • 1 jalapenon, sliced thin

meatballs

  • 1 lb. ground pork
  • 1–2 tablespoons chopped lemongrass 
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon Sriracha
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon salt

bowls:

  • brown rice
  • sliced cucumber
  • herbs: cilantro, basil, mint, green onions
  • crushed peanuts
  • spicy mayo (just mayo with a hit of sriracha)

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Quick Pickled Carrots: Whisk the rice vinegar, brown sugar, sesame oil, and salt together. Soak the carrots and jalapenos in the mixture for one hour.
  2. Meatballs: Mix all ingredients. Roll into small meatballs with your hands (they might feel wet and heavy – pop them in the fridge or freezer for a few minutes to get them to hold their shape a bit better). Heat a little bit of olive oil over medium high heat. Add the meatballs and fry until golden brown on the outside and fully cooked (not pink) inside.
  3. Bowls: Layer the carrots and meatballs over rice. Top with herbs, peanuts, sesame seeds, and/or spicy mayo. 

For meal prep, I put rice and meatballs into individual containers and store all the topping in their own containers, so I can heat the rice and meat balls and keep the toppings cool. 

Looking for more meal prep suggestions? Here a couple of websites to get you started:

 

-Lindsey Wachter, R.Kin

Health & Wellness Promoter

COVID-19 Fatigue

As the pandemic continues, you might be finding it harder to follow public health recommendations to protect yourself and others from COVID-19. This kind of fatigue is actually pretty common to any new health-related behaviour you might try to adopt, just think about how many new year’s resolutions don’t make it past February 1. But unlike your intention to hit the gym 5 times a week, not following COVID-19 mandates and recommended behaviour can have some pretty serious consequences for yourself and others.

If you are experiencing COVID fatigue, there are some things you can do to address it.

  • Make it personal: For some catching COVID-19 or spreading it to others seems like an abstract idea, but the reality is that the coronavirus can affect anyone. Read a story about someone who’s gone through COVID-19 so it becomes personal to you.

  • Talk to others: You are definitely not the only person experiencing fatigue- discussing your feeling with someone else can be therapeutic.

  • Think differently: Focussing on things you can’t control, like rising case numbers or the actions of other people, can make your own actions seem meaningless. Instead focus on the things you can control, like planning virtual events instead of in person or ordering take-out instead of eating at a restaurant. 

If you are looking for more resources, check out our physical distancing toolkit

 

COVID-19 and Substance Use

Over 20% of Canadians aged 18-54 report they are drinking more alcohol while at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Reasons for increased alcohol consumption include feelings of stress and anxiety, loss of routine, social isolation, and having more alcohol in the home due to stockpiling.

Consuming alcohol or cannabis or both on occasion can provide temporary relief of stress and anxiety but studies show that using these substances on a regular basis can increase the risk of developing alcohol use disorder (AUD) or cannabis use disorder (CUD), especially when alcohol and cannabis are used to deal with symptoms of anxiety and depression, or with life challenges. Both substances also have the ability to weaken your immune system in the short and long term. 

If you find yourself turning to alcohol or cannabis as a means to deal with stress, try some of the following coping strategies and see if that helps: 

  • Stay active and keep yourself busy with activities you enjoy.
  • Stay connected with friends and family, while still practicing physical distancing.
  • Find balance by staying informed but knowing when to take a break from COVID-19 news.
  • Be kind to yourself. This is a difficult time and you’re doing your best to manage a challenging
  • situation.
  • Take care of your body by eating and sleeping well, exercising and meditating.

If you choose to drink, pay attention to why and how frequently you are doing so. You can also try the following to keep your drinking in check: 

Get more tips on SHW's safe substance use page

If you have concerns about the changes in your drinking habits during the pandemic, the Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse offers a self-help guide called Knowing Your Limits with Alcohol: A Practical Guide to Assessing Your Drinking. This resource can be used independently to track alcohol consumption and set goals to reduce intake to lower-risk levels. 

If you choose to use cannabis, take these steps to reduce risks to your health and prevent the spread of COVID-19

  • Avoid sharing smoking supplies with others, to prevent the spread of illness

  • Wash your hands thoroughly before bringing a cannabis product to your mouth

  • Choose safer, not-smoking ways to use cannabis, that do not directly impact your lungs

  • Obtain your cannabis from legal sources

  • Following Canada’s Lower-Risk Cannabis Use Guidelines can also help to reduce your risk of harms.

Getting Help
If you are struggling with substance use, do not hesitate to reach out to book a counselling appointment with Student Health and Wellness, we are here to support you and connect you to appropriate services. You can also visit the links below:

  • Wellness Together Canada: Mental Health and Substance Use Support provides free online resources, tools, apps and connections to trained volunteers and qualified mental health professionals when needed
  • ConnexOntario provides free and confidential health service information for people experiencing problems with alcohol and drugs, mental illness and/or gambling via 24/7 telephone (1-866-531-2600), chat and email
Substance use during covid-19

Trying to Find Work-Life Balance as a Grad Student

 

Graduate students might have thought getting into their program was the hard part, only to find that trying to juggle academic requirements, research, teaching responsibilities, work and family feels impossible. 

Here are some tips and resources to thrive in graduate school:

Grow and maintain support networks. A strong support system can act as a buffer against stress and as a post-grad you are going to need to both prioritize your existing network of friends and family while also finding/creating a network with fellow grad students.  You will want both because having those outside the academic bubble can help put things in perspective, and those in the academic community will understand what you are going through and be able to share their own experiences. So set aside time to connect with your social network and try to fight the urge to cancel plans when deadlines come around.

If you aren’t sure where to connect with other grad students- check out the Lakehead University Graduate Students' Association (LUGSA) for upcoming events. 

Have a goal/project outside of academia. There are going to be times when you are frustrated with your work, or where it seems like you aren’t making any progress. Having something to work on or towards that doesn’t rely on anyone else can give you the chance to feel productive, boost your confidence and give you a sense of competency. This can be anything you enjoy but especially good are things that give you mental downtime and/or a change of scenery. Try to run your first 10k, take a pottery class or master the art of sourdough bread.

Set boundaries. This is especially important this year with most of the school and work being done from home. Try to set up a physical workspace in your home so that you can create a separation of work and leisure. It is also important to try to schedule business hours to help focus your time. Depending on your other responsibilities, these hours might not fall between 8:30 am -4:30 pm and that’s okay, just communicate your plan with your supervisor(s).

Don’t struggle in silence. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or stuck on something, it usually means you need to consult with a colleague or supervisor. Remind yourself that it is OK to ask for help; no one expects you to have all the answers or to know everything! If you have tried this and are still feeling the same- you can also reach out to a counsellor. Student Health and Wellness services are available to all grad students.

Expect to have some challenges in grad school. Some days it will seem like graduate school is impossible and you will question why you ever thought it was a good idea. It’s normal to feel that you don’t belong here sometimes but remember that you’re not alone; fellow graduate students and professors have had these feelings, too. There are also going to be times of the year that are hectic and stressful no matter what you have done to prepare- when this happens just do your best, try to take care of the basics of self-care (sleep, movement, healthy eating) and try to put it into perspective. 

 

-Lindsey Wachter, R.Kin, MSc Health and Wellness Promoter 

 

student in a lab

Developing a Tolerance for Uncertainty Workbook

None of us know what to expect in the coming weeks or months and experiencing anxiety related to all the unknowns is very normal. Humans like stability, routine, and a sense of control over our environments and experience tremendous stress when life becomes unpredictable. The current pandemic is an opportunity to learn new skills to accept your feelings, tolerate distress, and move forward with grace despite not knowing what lies ahead.

Download a "Tolerance for Uncertainty: A COVID-19 Workbook- a guide to accept your feelings, tolerate distress and thrive" developed by Dr. Nagasawa from Bay Psychology.

 

Developing Tolerance for Uncertainty

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