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How to Neutralize Negative COVID-19 Thoughts

A psychiatrist's guide to busting up bad thought patterns

By Anna Holtby

April 09, 2020 •

The COVID-19 crisis has turned our lives upside down, and with the drastic disruption comes a wave of new mental health challenges.

Many people are struggling with isolation and loneliness. Some are dealing with the disappointment of cancelling major milestones like weddings and graduations. Millions of Canadians are suffering job losses, while others are watching the value of their retirement savings drop. These concerns are piled on top of fear of the virus and grief for those who are sick and dying.

It's essential to counteract these negative feelings and find new ways to protect our mental health, says Vincent Agyapong, a clinical professor at the Faculty of Medicine &Dentistry's Department of Psychiatry

Tip 1: Disrupt negative thoughts

While it's normal to feel unsettled in a situation like this, those feelings can quickly turn into negative thought patterns that preoccupy all our time, says Agyapong, who is also an Alberta Health Services community mental health practitioner and section chief.

That's why he collaborated with AHS to develop Text4Hope, a free service that sends subscribers a daily text with a short message of encouragement. Based on an existing tool Agyapong developed, Text4Hope is resonating with users during COVID-19 isolation.

"When you have that hopeful message delivered, it momentarily disrupts your negative thought pattern," he says. He says often we worry over things we can't control, and that we should identify tangible, positive things in our lives and be grateful for them - that much is in our control.

That's where the Text4Hope reminders come in. "The more of those messages you get on a daily basis, the more positive things you have to think about. That helps you build resilience." One of the daily texts, for example, reads, "Set goals for today, even if they are small. Goals should be 'SMART': Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely." The text also links to an article with tips for goal-setting.

Agyapong says more than 39,000 people have subscribed to the service since Alberta's chief medical officer of health,Deena Hinshaw, '97 BSc, '04 MD, '08 MPH, spoke about the initiative on March 23

"This free program is an additional resource to help us find encouragement and strength as we navigate the day-to-day challenges of a new normal," Hinshaw said at the public announcement. To subscribe, text COVID19HOPE to 393939.

Tip 2: Share your journey

When you're in a more positive mindset, talk about what you've been feeling, whether that's through a conversation with family or a post on Facebook. Encourage others by sharing some of the coping strategies you've found helpful.

"If you have anxiety, share it with others. First, it's an avenue to heal yourself, and secondly, there may be other people who can take lessons or cues from you. This could help them deal with their own situations," says Agyapong.

While social media has been used to spread rumours and misinformation about the virus, it can also be a channel for genuine connection, adds Agyapong. "Go on social media and write some words of encouragement for your followers. You can actually translate a very unfortunate situation that's causing you anxiety into something positive."

Tip 3: Check on family and friends

In case you needed one more reminder to call your mom, there's actually research that supports just how strong the connection is between human interaction and mental health.

After the Fort McMurray wildfires in 2016, Agyapong conducted a study with fellow U of A psychiatry professor Peter Silverstone to research the effects of the disaster on mental health, particularly among children. According to Agyapong, the study found that, overwhelmingly, those with support from family and friends fared the best, coming out of the situation with less anxiety, PTSD or depressive disorders. With that research in mind, he emphasizes the importance of reaching out to loved ones.

"Call the people that you know and check on them. They may be in isolation - feeling very unsure, feeling very depressed. Speak some words of positivity and offer some reassurance that it's all going to pass. Help them to live one day at a time."

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