I see a lot of clients in the high-school-or-close-to-it age bracket, who I tend to think are getting hit worse than anyone right now by this pandemic. Teens, this article is for you. Some of you love that you spend less time in school now, others hate it; some of you are going insane being cooped up inside, and some of you relish not having to deal with people quite as much. Whatever the case, a lot of us want tools (this is probably the thing I am asked most commonly for). While I love talking to people, if it’s just tools you want (and most commonly it isn’t), here are some of my best pandemic tips for teens!
Your Brain and Your Emotions Play Tricks on You
In the 13-22 or so age range, you feel feelings more intensely than your 25+ year old counterparts. It’s just how the brain works. This has both advantages and disadvantages: your lows are lower, and your highs are higher. Your lows will suck, and it’s likely that the adults in your life will struggle to relate to that, try as they might.
What To Do With The Lows
Unfortunately, we are a culture that tends to discourage negative feelings, especially strong ones. Many teens I see believe that there is something wrong with them, or that they are mentally unwell, both which are quite often untrue. While it is taboo to say, a good many of our minds will travel to a place that says we would be better off dead, and the world would be better off not having us. I really hope you’re not there, but if you are sometimes, come talk to us about it. Or to someone else – anyone you trust. It’s surprisingly normal. Please trust me when I say that difficult feelings are important, and worth experiencing (though they are best experienced alongside someone we trust). If you want someone to talk to but don’t want anyone else to know about it, send us an email and we will see if we can help, or point you to someone that can.
Managing Your Highs
Since your highs will be higher, that’s a good thing to take advantage of. You can enjoy a movie or YouTube clip way more than most of us can, you can get more joy from spending time with friends (please do this), you can laugh harder and longer, your runner’s highs will be higher. You can feel closer to your pet than we can, which I’m a little jealous of – pets are awesome (at the risk of making a few enemies, especially dogs). Use that – when you’re up, relish it and use the energy it brings.
If there was a pill that would cost nothing, that you could take that would help you sleep better, improve your mood, boost your immune system, help your brain and memory function better, reduce anxiety and depression, reduce stress, and generally make you feel better about yourself, would you take it? I think everyone probably would. Surprise, there is. Bet you didn’t see that coming in an article on the best pandemic tips for teens, did you?
The Magic Pill That’s Free
There is indeed a mysterious, free pill. Most people get really excited about this until they hear what it is. It’s exercise. I know that trickery was the last thing you probably wanted to hear, but exercise is literally one of the best things anyone can do for themselves, period. Doesn’t matter what it is, just get moving, and if you can, get your heart rate up. It might be hard at first, but the more of it you do, the better you’ll feel. I should also tell you that you should be sleeping more, but you know that already, and you probably aren’t going to. If you want help in that department, talk to your doctor. In addition to exercise, you can also try cutting out screens in favour of books in the couple hours before bed, or at the very least get yourself a pair of extremely trendy blue light blocking glasses.
You Already Have Skills That You Don’t Realize
Because you’re a human being, you have a whole bunch of adaptations the you’ve obtained over the course of a long life. These are great at getting you through tough times. One of my adaptations I used when I was younger was daydreaming, and another was making a joke out of everything. Some other common ones are overthinking/rationalizing, using alcohol or drugs, playing too many video games, or gluing oneself to TikTok.
Some of these are better than others, and they are mostly OK if used sparingly. Though we don’t want to overuse our adaptations, you have them for a reason – they’ve worked before, and they’ll work again. Don’t be too hard on yourself for using them, and I would probably recommend expanding your repertoire to include some more healthy ones.
Exercise (again), art, writing, music, hobbies, gardening, spelunking – the list goes on. If you’re feeling angry or stressed and are already not going to do your homework anyway, you could split your time between something mindless like video games, and something a little more mindful like going outside and collecting a bunch of bugs, or baking some cookies. If your parents hassle you about it, tell them a counsellor said you were allowed to. Probably do the bugs and cookies first – video games are hard to stop once you start. Healthier time-wasters will also give you a little mental boost in case you do decide you want to actually do some homework.
Make Good Use of Your Energy
Try to notice where your energy is going. Maybe you’re worrying a ton about your grades, and it’s exhausting. Maybe you don’t care at all about grades, but your parents do, and a lot of your energy goes to fighting with them. Maybe someone at school is really bothering you and it is eating you up inside. Maybe you’re in love and can’t think of anything else but that person you want so badly to be with. Maybe you’re putting everything you have into YouTube or Fortnite, hoping to make some money off streaming someday.
There is nothing wrong with any of these, but anything can be a drain on your mental and emotional resources. Make a list of the things that are the most draining: your biggest worries, the things you are committed to (sports, etc.), tough relationships. Divide this list into things you might be able to change, and those you can’t. The things you have a little more control over are great targets, and even the things you feel totally helpless about may not be as impossible as they seem. If you have a counsellor, talk to them about these things – it is likely you are burning more fuel in a given area than you have to be. These are also the things that can take you into dark places, or towards less healthy coping strategies.
Be Kind To Yourself
Above all, be kind to yourself. So far, I haven’t spent time with someone I didn’t end up liking, and this is because all of us are likeable. Seriously – I know that sounds stupid, but it’s true. You can’t be perfect, and you’re going to come out on the other side of this ok. As I’ve said already, come talk to us if you would like to – even if we can’t help, we can likely direct you to someone who can.
A Message From Our Director About Move For Freedom
Since opening in 2015, we’ve been committed to being more than a counselling office or mental health centre. We’ve been focused on providing high quality, evidence-based support for mental health, and we want our reach to be more. We’ve focused on our impact on the community around us locally, and beyond around the globe. To us, it’s about exponential impact; we want what we do to grow beyond our work to speak into the lives of others in a meaningful way. This is why we’ve partnered with Ally Global for their Move For Freedom event, and why we’re so grateful to have associates like John Bablitz on our team who share our vision and commitment, and go above and beyond to make an impact. I’ll let John tell you more about this initiative that we are so pleased to be a part of.
Move For Freedom
On August 15th, Alongside You is participating in an event called Move for Freedom, which will raise funds for a cause that is really close to our hearts. Alongside You is a corporate sponsor for the event, and I will be riding 150 km with a team of people for Ally Global, an organization that works to prevent human trafficking and restore survivors of abuse through local partners in places such as Nepal, Laos, and Cambodia. They provide safe homes, education and job training to help survivors find healing and work towards healthy, independent futures.
This fundraising event is open to anyone: anyone who would like to, can participate in any way they like: you could do a walk, run or ride with your family or a group of friends, organize an all day spike ball marathon, swim, climb – really anything that involves movement. If you’re interested, you can click here for more information. Mostly though, I’d like to talk about Ally, what they do and represent, and why that’s important to us. I’d like to start with a short story.
People Who Have Experienced Trauma Need Our Support
My grandfather, when he was in his eighties, noticed a problem: many folks were challenging themselves to go through addiction recovery and rehab, and so few had a place to land when they got out. This contributed to high relapse rates. Something as simple as work was hard to come by (and a job is only one of many things that a person in recovery might need). My grandfather took all his savings and bought a farm, with the dream of creating a place where those in recovery could come live and work after finishing their time in rehab. The farm would give these people safety, purpose, and connection: growing food for their communities through share programs, and connecting to the land and each other in a positive way. This story is meant to represent the importance of aftercare. We can help someone give up substances or rescue them from the horrible situation of human trafficking, but this is just the very tip of the iceberg.
Kids coming out of trafficking, like all kids, need safety. They need a place where their needs are taken care of, where they know they matter, and where they can grow and connect with others. The trauma these children experience is significant. I find it hard to imagine a situation where you might feel that you or your pain mattered less, or where you felt more unsafe, alone, and disconnected from people who cared about you. Kids – young kids – have every interaction at a crucial age with someone who wants to hurt them, uses them for personal gain, and does little beyond keeping them alive. I don’t think I need to explain the impact that can have on a child’s sense of self; this can be the only reality they know or remember. Being rescued from trafficking is one step, but where do children that often have no connection to family or caring support go next? Survivors are often shunned in their communities, not unlike someone who has just been released from prison in North America might be.
The Importance Of Aftercare
One thing I appreciate about Ally, and that also aligns with the values of Alongside You, is that they understand the importance of aftercare, and they are committed to quality over quantity. They provide children with the basics, like a bed, food, and shelter, but they do so much more: they help connect kids with a caring community. Kids have a “little sibling” and a “big sibling” that they are able to look up to, and be looked up to. They are connected with caring adults who know them and value them for who they are: teachers, counsellors, nurses and others (please take a minute to watch this video, as it brings what I’m saying to life). Especially cool about Ally is that the majority of their staff are “graduates” – many of them were rescued from human trafficking themselves, and might have gone on to get education, and devote themselves to giving back. These individuals have the unique ability to relate to and understand the kids they work with. The community takes the time to understand the impact these kids’ experiences have had on them, which in my experience as a therapist is one of the most vital steps to recovery. The body responds to trauma in ways designed to keep it alive under horrifying conditions, but it is a challenge to come back from that – even if you might come to logically believe you are safe, your body may not be willing to take any risks, and that can severely stunt your ability to be human: enjoying experiences, laughing, connecting, feeling safe. It takes patience, support, and time to process the impact of trauma, and Ally provides that, which I love. There is no fixed structure – when you leave from one of Ally’s warehouses, you are welcome back at any time, and Ally will continue to support your continued growth, perhaps through subsidizing an apartment with some of your peers, or assisting with educational opportunities.
I could say lots more about Ally, but I’ll just stick to one more thing: their system works. Industry standard is about a 60% rate of reintegration – this is considered good. Ally’s project in Nepal has a 92% success rate over 20 years. That’s incredible. They have helped over 600 children as young as 4 or as old as 20, who stay for an average of 10-12 years.
How You Can Help
On a celebratory note, this fundraiser has taken off. Initially we had just set a modest goal to support the needs of 13 children. The outpouring of support has been so great that Ally has begun the process of opening a new safe house in Cambodia that will house up to another 38 rescued children. I have done work with children who have experienced trauma, and working with just one of these children takes an incredible amount of energy and time, and it is deeply saddening to be with children who have not experienced a safe adult who believes in them and reflects back their worth. They survive – children are wonderfully resilient – but they have no ability to thrive. The thought of being able to help provide safety to more kids than I see in a year just by torturing myself for 9 hours on a bicycle (I’m by no means a seasoned rider) gives me a lot of joy.
Though financial donations have a big impact, they are not even the most significant way you can help. We would love to ask that you spread the word! Use your social media, host your own mini-fundraiser, tell even just one person you care about. Awareness is the greatest tool we have to combat human trafficking. You can also participate in other ways the day of the event; if you would like more information please contact me, I would be happy to chat more about this or anything else.
Thank you for taking the time to read this, and if you’re struggling with trauma in any way, we’re here with you. Let us know how we can help.
The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has affected everyone in some way – many of us are unable to work, unable to find access to child care or other important resources (one friend of mine has even been barred from doing laundry in his building). For some, like someone I know of who runs a milk delivery company, the pandemic is like an early Christmas present. Significantly and unfairly, the pandemic most adversely affects those who are most vulnerable: people living in or close to poverty who are out of work, people who are homeless, and those at highest risk to develop illnesses.
An important, but often overlooked group impacted by COVID-19 coronavirus are those who use substances. That includes those who rely on alcohol, cannabis or other drugs for medicinal or functional purposes (such as anxiety management), injecting drug users who rely on access to safe injection sites, and users of a variety of other substances for whom access has now dried up or become increasingly unreliable.
Imagine having to go device-free for a week, or longer – no phone, TV, computer, or other screen. For many of us this would involve literal symptoms of withdrawal, as we have become accustomed to using screens to cope with negative emotions, stress, anxiety, and to connect with others. I’m willing to bet you couldn’t, or wouldn’t, pull it off. A substance user’s drug of choice likely serves a similar function and is very likely quite painful to suddenly lose access to, without any sense of choice or control. My colleague very kindly reminded me of the difficulty some people will go through losing access to substances during a very uncertain and stressful time, and I feel sad to think of the number of us that will go through painful withdrawal symptoms (physical pain, uncontrollable anxiety or panic, and severe depression are just a few) and as a result will be forced to find other ways to cope.
People are incredibly resilient and will generally find ways to get through difficulties whatever the cost. I wanted to talk a little bit about the ways we can cope with difficulties, even in the face of withdrawal from something as mild as social isolation or as severe as substance addiction. Recovery from substance dependency involves building recovery capital, which is a blanket term referring to resources (both external and internal) that allow us to slowly build up capital – a wealth of other ways to cope. There are hundreds of examples, but some key themes are relationships with others, health (physical, mental, and emotional), strategies and tools, and a relationship with oneself.
Substances can be an effective tool in the short-term, but they have shortcomings: they don’t tend to last very long, they take a physical toll, and they can keep us away from some opportunities for the growth that comes from going through difficulty with the right support. Substances are considered part of passive coping, just like video games, junk food, and ignoring a problem. Passive coping is not bad, it is an important resource and we don’t want to overuse it. Active coping is also an important resource: exercise, diet, certain types of social support, therapy, learning, and other health behaviours fall into this category. Simply put, active coping is anything we do to directly cope with a difficulty, and passive coping tends to avoid the implications of a difficulty. The trick is striking a healthy balance between the two.
If you have recently lost access to substances or access to other important habits, I’m really sorry – you didn’t get to have a choice in the matter; an invisible and seemingly uncaring force made the decision for you. That really, really sucks, and now you’re stuck managing as best you can. Some that I have talked to will use tools such as exercise or meditation to achieve another type of “high,” and focus on emotional, spiritual, or intellectual pursuits when they have the energy to do so. When they don’t, they will use whatever means necessary to get through the really hard moments: sleeping a little more, indulging in TV or video games, venting to friends, or eating a little extra sugar.
You will find a sample list of different coping tools and a couple resource links at the bottom of this article. However, I’m not really here to give a bunch of advice, as everyone is different, and there aren’t any one-size-fits-all solutions. If you want help taking care of yourself right now and want to talk about creating a short-term plan, let me know and I can help with that. But you know yourself best, and you know what will get you through this better than anyone else does, and hopefully you know when you might need to seek support. Mostly, we just want to say that whatever your situation, we are thinking of you and rooting for you to get through it, because there is a lot of uncertainty and difficulty for a lot of us right now. Always feel free to reach out, and most of all, take care of yourself.
Tips for the “Green Zone” – when we have some energy or motivation:
Don’t overdo it – quality over quantity. Give yourself a realistic and short amount of quality time (say 15 minutes) to spend on something that your ideal version of yourself would do: go for a walk or a run, listen to some music, do yoga, spend some time reading, writing, singing, or drawing, complete a short work task, organize your cupboards – whatever. When you’re doing this, try to let all your focus rest on the activity at hand. Here’s a quick video tip from a children’s book I’m a fan of.
Try meditation. Focus for a few minutes on your breath, and spend some time being curious about yourself: how do I feel at this moment? What physical sensations do I notice? Do I feel anything towards myself or towards those sensations? Try to avoid positive or negative judgments during this time, and if they arise, just notice that they are there. The goal is just to be, to observe yourself internally at that moment.
Spend time cooking yourself a healthy meal from scratch, and eating it without any distractions, focusing on how good it tastes, and feeling good about yourself for putting the energy in to make it. If you can, even better to share it with someone.
Tips for the “Yellow Zone” – when our stress is present but manageable:
Notice what thoughts and feelings are coming up with as much compassion as possible. Imagine the things that are happening internally are happening to someone you really care about (real or imaginary). What would you tell them? How would you want to care for them? Try to identify a small way you could care for yourself in that moment. If all else fails, take some deep, slow, breaths.
Exercise. Get your blood pumping and get moving, this will give you an adrenaline spike to help you get through the next while. If you are tired later, you’ve earned a break! Take a nap.
Put on some music to match your mood, and paint, draw, or write along to it.
Call or chat with someone. Most of us have time on our hands – talk (or even vent) about what is stressing you, ask how they are doing and try really hard to listen well. When we share with others, or work hard to understand others, our relationships deepen and we feel closer and more comfortable. If you’re not up for a conversation, just play some online video games together. If you are struggling with something specific, try to find an online chat group that specializes in that type of thing. If substance use is your thing, there are tons of online chat groups full of people who have good advice and good support, all anonymous and for free.
If you have a therapist, an online session might be a good idea.
Tips for the “Red Zone” – When the bomb hits or is about to hit:
Breathe. Inhale for 3-5 seconds, hold for 2-3, and exhale slowly for 7-10, like you’re blowing on something to cool it.
Douse your head in cold water for a few seconds – this activates a survival “dive reflex” that calms the body. You can also try grabbing some ice cubes and squeezing them in your hands, focussing on that feeling and seeing how long you can go before having to let go. It’s pretty hard, and good at redirecting the brain.
Reach out to whoever feels safe to reach out to, in whatever way feels ok.
Feel free to use your favourite passive coping mechanism: watch a movie, eat something (preferably deliberately slowly), try to take a nap.
Imagine or daydream.
Write or draw – destroy some paper with whatever you’re feeling at the time.
There are countless other things you can do, and lots of online resources for meditation, emotional regulation, practical addiction support. Again, individuals vary wildly, so if you want help creating a specific plan for yourself, feel free to reach out to a mental health professional. We’re in this together, and we’re rooting for you here at Alongside You.
It probably doesn’t come as news that porn use is more widespread than ever, and is being introduced to increasingly younger consumers. This is partially due to increased accessibility and anonymity, a cultural shift towards more open attitudes about sex and pornography more generally, and increased technology use.
What Drives Porn Use
Another reason for this increased use may be that we have seen feelings of loneliness and disconnection rise to record levels. Pornography provides an effective, short-term solution for this that, at first glance, appears to have little risk: it gives us a free boost of the happy brain chemicals such as oxytocin, dopamine and opiates that we typically get in close relationships. Dopamine levels increase to an incredible 200 percent during orgasm. Oxytocin (the “connection” drug) plays a vital role in bonding, creating memories, empathy, trust, and relationship building. It spikes during sex, when we hug or kiss or snuggle, or even just have a good conversation. It also increases sensitivity to naturally occurring opiates in the brain, which makes it very effective for bonding and soothing physical and emotional pain.
Of course, there’s a catch. You can’t really build a “healthy” relationship with pornography. It is a one-way street: dopamine-centred and novelty-seeking, and while a porn-induced orgasm will provide oxytocin and soothe pain, it won’t provide any of those healthy relationship building functions, or make us any less lonely. In fact, it may make us more lonely. This is one reason many people call pornography an addiction: it can create compulsive use that comes at a cost. As it provides effective temporary relief from implicit negative feelings, the brain will learn to direct us towards it compulsively.
How Does Pornography Impact Us
I could spend this post bashing pornography, and rattling off scary stats about how it breaks up marriages and has long term physical implications for the brain (it does, and it does), but I’m more interested in the human factors. Sex is great for bonding, and when used well, it builds intimacy, vulnerability and connection – the opposite of loneliness. Porn, on the other hand, based on vast amounts of research, actually tends to do the opposite: it builds shame and secrecy. It is typically a private experience and taps into some deep-seated urges that can feel very shameful. It’s possible that couples could use pornography in a healthy way, but research tells us that this is far more likely to be the rare exception than the rule.
This post is mostly aimed at men, mainly because I only work with men around these issues. Anyone can struggle with porn use, because it is so, so easy to come to rely on or use it, especially (though certainly not only) when we are feeling disconnected, shamed, or lonely. It’s a brilliant solution, really, but it tends not to solve the problem for future us.
What Can I Do About My Porn Use
Alongside You is running a porn recovery group this fall, for men who would like to be able to talk openly about the role of porn in their life, past and present, and receive support. We aren’t there to judge ourselves but to recognize and talk about some of the things that affect all of us, and, hopefully, feel like we can begin to enter a period of recovery from those impacts. If you or someone you know might be interested in attending, it’s low pressure and low cost (as always, talk to us if money is an issue), and is a great way to feel some meaningful and healthy connection with great people.
If you have any questions, feel free to contact me directly here – I’m always happy to chat. If you would like support for yourself or a loved one, reach out to our reception, and they will help you find something that fits, whether it is at our offices or somewhere closer to home.
Writing these blog posts is one of the easiest parts of my job to put off until later. They require some unstructured thinking time (which is fertile ground for distraction), are unstructured themselves, and there always feels like there is something more important (read: easier and less personally exposing) I could be doing with that time.
Recently I read a fantastic article in the New York Times on exactly the process I’m describing. Most people call it procrastination. I really, really think you should read the article now because if you’re reading this one already, chances are you’re putting something else off.
If you don’t feel like doing that, the basic idea is that mainstream science has come to embrace an idea that makes intuitive sense to many of us: procrastination has much less to do with laziness, lack of self-control, and disorganization, and much more to do with emotions. For example, it is often the case that the task at hand will bring up a disquieting uncomfortable feeling that we often barely notice. Therefore, procrastination is about protection: we keep ourselves safe from feeling (for example) our own self-doubt or shame by doing something unrelated, whether it is productive or not. This has the effect of a short-term boost in good feelings (TV is fun!) but is often counterproductive in the long term. For example, these blog posts give me some anxiety, because I never know who is reading them and what I might be sending into the public eye that might not be good enough, or that I might even end up disagreeing with myself a year from now. So I often find something else to do.
Along these same lines, there is a much more complex system of underworkings at play in our decisions than we think. We in the mental health field love to talk about the brain (how its fear center causes us to react in response to stress, for example), but according to good recent research, there are mini “brains” around areas such as our heart and gut that make them function as powerfully as our heads at times. Daniel Siegel is a big proponent of this, and you can also read more about this at Heart Math here.
To return to the article (here’s a link to it again!), it encourages self-compassion, which we counsellors also love. Having grace and compassion for our own mistakes is one of the best tools out there. The article offers three other, very simple tips for when you find yourself the victim of procrastination:
Be curious. Take a breath and allow physical sensations, emotions, and mental processes to come and go, observing them like you were watching a new TV show. Notice what happens to the sensations, feelings and thoughts as you observe them. What are the feelings that might be bringing up unpleasant feelings?
Hypothetically imagine the next step: “If I were the version of myself that wasn’t procrastinating right now, what would be the next thing I would do?” Just thinking about this might make you more likely to take action despite your feelings. Many pros agree that motivation often comes while doing something, and not before, so you might need to kickstart things a touch.
Make temptations more inconvenient. Hide the TV remote, put a screen time blocker on your phone, etc., etc. This also increases the timeframe for you to become aware of what’s going on, and makes your reward for procrastinating less immediate.
I would add a few of my own tips as well:
When you feel temptations arise, take a deep breath and allow yourself to be tempted, noticing the temptation to do something gratifying at the moment. This is called many names, but I learned the name urge surfing: you are riding the wave of your temptation and letting it run its course without trying to push it away or make it less intense. This fits really well with tip #1 from the article (Be curious!). Often, the urge will go away in 10-12 minutes, if not much less.
If you must, try to give yourself more productive ways to procrastinate. For me, I take a few minutes and stretch. This often makes me feel a little better about myself physically, mentally, and emotionally, and makes me feel better equipped to take on the original task. You might also choose to journal about your inner experiences at the moment, which will help you understand and articulate them (this removes some of the power those impulses have).
Building on #2, you could also call a trusted friend and chat about the fact that you’re putting something off. This will help in a number of ways. It will give you a sounding board for your thoughts and feelings, normalize your experiences, and make you feel generally supported (little motivates us as well as reminding ourselves of our supportive relationships).
Lastly (as I say with most of these articles), you can always feel free to talk to a professional helper, as they are often equipped with specific skill sets that can help you tackle something like the above, or help get you in position to tackle it. These include professional counsellors like us at Alongside You, but can also be something like a pastor, priest, social worker, or support group. Investing time in caring for yourself the right way has the best interest rate of any investment (by a huge margin). If you have questions about this process, please call our office, and you can even email me directly through my profile by clicking here – I will take the time to respond as best and as soon as I can.
Good luck, and now that I’ve written this, I’m off to do something fun.