Pandemic blues: How a local psychotherapist copes with burnout

By Natasha McKenty

Nicole Schiener has 20 years of experience as a mental health expert; the Registered Psychotherapist received a Woman of Distinction Award in 2020 for her specialized training in violence against women.

She admits that her own experience with chronic pain during the pandemic inspired her to open her private practice last fall. Her focus is to help combat “negativity bias,” hopelessness, and the overall “overwhelm of the pandemic.”

According to Schiener, what many of us are experiencing is pandemic burnout.

“As a mental health worker in a busy non-profit organization, mother and wife to someone working with a high-risk population, the pandemic has had a huge impact on my capacity and triggered my own anxiety,” she told CityNews.

Thanks to her background, Schiener could dip into her arsenal of tools to “soothe and calm” her nervous system. Walking, meditation and journaling are her “non-negotiables.”

And after almost two years of cancelled plans, it's clear that the after-effects of the pandemic have created a tsunami of misery.

So, as Blue Monday approaches (January 17, 2022), Schiener shared with CityNews what currently keeps her up at night and what (for the sake of our own sanity) we might need to let go of.

As a psychotherapist, how worried are you about the mental health repercussions of the pandemic?

I worry about everyone's mental health, but especially those suffering due to unrealistic expectations, specifically mothers, as well as those who face systemic barriers and discrimination. In addition, the social isolation, impossible demands, rising rate of hate crimes and financial stresses caused by the lockdowns; school closures exacerbated mental health struggles in these populations and children and youth.

What will the future look like for kids who've seen more of their bedroom walls than school corridors?

The lack of control, contact with friends, cherished activities and school routines, along with a greater vulnerability to witnessing or experiencing domestic violence, exploitation, or sexual abuse, negatively impact the mental health of children and youth, especially in single-parent families and those living in poverty.

Many young people are showing signs of anxiety, depression, eating disorders, suicidal attempts, and turning to substances to cope.

Is there a specific demographic that has been more affected?

Healthcare and other frontline workers have been significantly impacted by the increased threat to their safety, risk of infecting loved ones, gruelling work demands, and the vicarious trauma of what they witness in caring for the sick and traumatized.

This population, along with mothers and teachers, reports a high rate of burnout which can include depressive symptoms, exhaustion, difficulty focusing, dissatisfaction with work, apathy or indifference, physical pain, illness and even suicidal ideation and suicides.

How have domestic violence rates been impacted in the past two years?

Sadly, rates and severity of violence against women and children have risen since the first lockdown. Educating ourselves on warning signs and safety planning through programs like Neighbours, Friends and Families as part of the Domestic Assault Review Team (DART) is essential. Also, familiarize yourself with the Help Signal from the Canadian Women's Organization.

We need to keep checking in on one another, making sure women know that shelters are open and educating children on internet safety and abuse prevention. I have a list of 24 hour supports in Ontario on my website.”

Can we find a way to turn this into a “bright side” situation?

I do believe in post-traumatic growth, vicarious resilience, and finding possibilities for opportunity within this crisis, including:

• De-stigmatization and a greater recognition and support for mental health;

• Advocacy around affordable childcare and other issues facing caregivers and women trying to achieve work-life balance;

• Businesses, organizations and government agencies recognizing the importance of training and adopting a trauma-informed approach;

• Legislation to begin to protect work-life balance, and the great resignation, forcing companies to rethink how they treat employees;

• Many people, like myself, have embraced this time of uncertainty to move out of our comfort zone, either starting our own businesses or leaving toxic work environments where they didn't feel valued

How can movement help alleviate the severity of anxiety and depression?

• Movement helps to complete the stress response cycle. Without it, stress can accumulate, leading to physical pain or a weakened immune system;

• Walking releases endorphins that elevate mood and buffer against depression;

• Walking has been shown to improve creative thinking, prevent blood clots in your legs, promote blood flow and oxygen, bowel movements and relieves gas;

• For highly sensitive people (HSP) and empaths, getting out in nature and walking helps to release unwanted energy or emotions you may have picked up from other people

Schiener, who currently does not have a wait-list, added that “everyone's nervous system has been in a prolonged state of fight or flight sympathetic activation. We are all grieving and struggling to some degree.

“Trauma is not something we can just get over and can impact many areas of our life. But with professional support, we can integrate these experiences, rewire our brains to become more resilient.”

You can reach out to Nicole here.

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