UTSC psychology professor launches free online course to help deal with COVID-19 anxiety

Steve Joordens’ three-hour Coursera walkthrough recommends structure, social connection, limited news consumption
. MIA CARNEVALE/THE VARSITY
. MIA CARNEVALE/THE VARSITY

Dr. Steve Joordens, a psychology professor at UTSC, has launched a free course called Mind Control: Managing Your Mental Health During COVID-19 on Coursera, an online learning platform.

The looming feelings of uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in immense anxiety for many people. An April study commissioned by the Angus Reid Institute has found that half of Canadians’ mental health has worsened. 

The course takes less than three hours to complete. In the first part, Joordens talks about controlling the “machinery” behind anxiety. 

Joordens himself reports feeling anxious, but he attests that his knowledge of psychology helps him manage his mental health. During an explanation of the biological basis of anxiety, he emphasizes the idea of two states of being: one caused by the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which directs the body’s response to acute stressors, and another linked to the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps the body relax. An overactive sympathetic nervous system can result in excessive feelings of anxiety. 

Since the chronic threat of COVID-19 is inescapable, it’s crucial to manage these two states to avoid spending too much time feeling anxious, which can lead to issues with sleep, emotional regulation, and relationships. Joordens adds that chronic stress can also result in decreased immunity function.

In the second part of the course, he explains how the environment you are in affects your mental health. He suggests that the news can be addictive, just like casino slot machines. 

A lot of times when you watch the news, you’re just hearing stuff you already know,” Joordens said. However, the media shares new, relevant pieces of information every now and then. Since you can’t predict when it’ll come, you might feel that it’s worthwhile to check the news all the time so that you can ‘catch’ that piece of information when it comes out. But forming this addiction-like behaviour can be harmful because the news constantly reminds you of the threat of COVID-19, which activates the sympathetic nervous system, “[re-energizing] your anxious state.” 

He emphasizes that you don’t have to stay on top of the news all the time and recommends designating a couple of specific times to check the news — possibly in the morning and early evening — but not within two hours of going to bed, to avoid activating the feelings of anxiety.

Furthermore, Joordens emphasizes the importance of social connections during this trying time. “What we want to do is physically distance, but socially connect, and restrengthen, reconnect, restrengthen, connect, [and so on],” he said. “Our social world is really important to our ability to cope.” 

When Joordens discusses the effects of prolonged stays indoors on individuals, he draws parallels between them and better-studied phenomena, including solitary confinement in prisons and being socially isolated or ostracized. Both of these can result in social anxiety and depression. “So it’s like snowballs. The longer you allow yourself to be socially isolated, the harder it is to reconnect again,” Joordens adds. 

To manage isolation, he recommends structuring and scheduling your day — including waking up, going to bed, and having meals at roughly the same times every day — eating healthy food, starting your day with a walk or a jog while maintaining the appropriate physical distance from others, and reaching out to your social network.

To “turn off” the anxiety “humming along in the background all the time,” Joordens recommends a technique called guided relaxation, which involves progressively clenching your muscles to the point of pain and then relaxing them. “You can’t be anxious and relaxed at the same time,” he said. In order to easily induce this relaxed state, one must know it really well — thus, frequent practice is crucial. 

Joordens also suggests specific activities and distractions that can tip your brain chemistry in your favour, like singing, dancing, laughing — possibly while watching comedies — and aerobic exercise.

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