Managing Negative Thoughts During a Pandemic

Managing Negative Thoughts During a Pandemic

During the ongoing pandemic, you might have experienced negative thoughts and feelings about the world around you. Fears and worries about health, financial security, and social isolation have taken a toll on Canadians’ mental health, with 50% of Canadians reporting worsening mental health, 44% reporting feelings of worry, and 41% reporting feeling anxious since the pandemic began (CMHA, 2020).

Given the uncertainty of current times, managing our worries and negative thoughts has become even more important as we try to minimize the mental health effects of the pandemic.

What Makes This Pandemic So Stressful?

We have all experienced worry and stress before, but the pandemic has been a particularly stressful event because of the three main factors that strongly impact worry:

  1. Predictability: The unpredictable nature of COVID, including the impacts of the virus, the virus variants, and the health restrictions we’ve been placed under, has caused uncertainty about what our future looks like.
  2. Control: We cannot control the outcomes of the pandemic, including how the virus will spread and what activities we can and can’t do during public restrictions.
  3. Importance: The fact that our health, our ability to be socially connected, and our ability to engage in our valued activities are all very important to us means that there is a significant impact when we lose these things.

What Is Worry?

Recognizing worry is the first step we can take in navigating our new uncertainties. Dr. Matthew Whalley and Dr. Hardeep Kaur define worry as an excessive “thinking ahead” approach. Though this ability allows us to foresee problems and plan accordingly, it can also lead to catastrophizing and feelings of anxiety. Mentally, worrying might feel like not being able to cope, like being out of control, or like “a chain of thoughts and images” that leads to progressively unlikely scenarios. Physically, it might present itself in symptoms like fatigue, muscle pain, restlessness, and difficulty with concentration and sleeping.  

What Are Unhelpful Thinking Patterns?

Thoughts are not facts, yet they have a powerful impact on our emotions and reactions to perceived events. Our perceptions and negative thoughts can turn feelings of worry into an unhelpful pattern of thinking. Some unhelpful thinking patterns associated with worry include the following:

  • Jumping to conclusions: fortune telling (predicting the future) and mindreading (imagining we know what others are thinking)
  • All or nothing thinking: Sometimes called “black and white” thinking. E.g., either I do it right or not at all.
  • Mental filter: only paying attention to certain types of evidence. E.g, noticing our failures but not seeing our successes
  • Over generalizing: seeing a pattern based upon a single event or being overly broad in the conclusions we draw
  • Disqualifying the positive: discounting the good things that have happened or that you have done for some reason or another. E.g., That doesn’t count
  • Catastrophizing: blowing things out of proportion
  • Labelling: assigning labels to ourselves or other people. E.g., I’m a loser.
  • Emotional Reasoning: Assuming that because we feel a certain way, what we think must be true. E.g., I feel embarrassed so I must be an idiot.
  • Shoulds and musts: Using critical words like “should,” “must,” or “ought” can make us feel guilty or like we have already failed.
  • Personalization: Blaming yourself or taking responsibility for something that wasn’t completely your fault, or blaming others for something that was your fault.

What Can Employees Do?

Employees can work on reframing unhelpful thinking patterns by trying the following strategies:

  1. Write down the negative thought and situation or trigger that caused the thought.
  2. Identify if you are entertaining an unhelpful thinking pattern and label it (see above for examples).
  3. Ask yourself questions to help you balance the thought:
    • What is the evidence that the automatic thought is true? Not true? Could there be another perspective?
    • Is there an alternative explanation?
    • What’s the worst that could happen? Could I live through it? What’s the best that could happen? What’s the most realistic outcome?
    • What’s the effect of my believing the automatic thought? What could be the effect of changing my thinking?
    • What  is my best next step to help me move past this thought?
    • If (friend’s name) was in the situation and had this thought, what would I tell him/her?
  4. Write down an alternate, balanced thought – remember that reframing thoughts is not about making the negative into a positive. Times are tough and it’s important that we allow ourselves to acknowledge the difficulties while trying to also recognize other perspectives or options.
  5. Take note of the situation or trigger that caused the unhelpful thinking. Can you limit or avoid these? Examples might include watching too much media (being bombarded with concerning information) and having discussions with others regarding upsetting information.
  6. Be compassionate to yourself during this time. It is normal to worry and have unhelpful thoughts. Practice self-care to allow yourself to unwind from the stressors of this pandemic. Find things that help you to relax.

What Can Employers Do?

Employers can help employees manage their mental health by recognizing the issues, providing employees education, and giving employees access to a wide variety of tools and supports.

  1. Develop a strong psychological health and safety program.
  2. Listen to your employees with empathy, attention, and respect.
  3. Look for signs of distress. Your employees may not know how to ask for help.
  4. Give your team tools to develop resiliency.
  5. Check in regularly with your team to reduce isolation.
  6. Help employees come up with strategies for balancing home and work responsibilities.
  7. Implement education sessions on mental health for the whole team.
  8. Provide accommodations where possible.
  9. Encourage supports and access to resources like the EAP program.
  10. Make a referral here to get customized solutions for your team.

How Can Gowan Consulting Help?

Occupational Therapists are the ideal mental health professionals for supporting your employees. Their knowledge of the workplace allows them to help modify jobs and environments and give employees to tools to develop personal strategies. They are not just talk therapists—they are activity and strategy-based and they empower employees to take ownership of their function and productivity. They use strategies of work-focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which is an evidence-based approach to ensuring that employees can have better self-care and resiliency.

Gowan Consulting is a national organization with more than 150 Occupational Therapists across Canada. We provide Occupational Therapy coaching virtually and onsite. Ease of access and proactive onsite or virtual support ensures that employees can stay at or return to work.

We want to help your organization – make a referral here or contact us at to learn more.

Mental Health Training

  • Mindful May: FREE Mental Health Conversations Webinars – In May we are offering four free webinars on the topic of mental health. These 30-minute sessions will cover the topics of crisis fatigue, dealing with worry and uncertainty, mindfulness and self-care, and creating a psychologically healthy workplace. Sign up today to reserve your spot!
  • Implementing the CSA Work Disability Standards: This interactive virtual program includes three hours of virtual training and online modules to help employers understand the components of the Work Disability Management System Standards published in 2020.
  • Manager Mental Health Training is now running all year long! Our next session takes place on May 18, 2021. Get a full list of dates and more information on the sessions here.
  • Manager’s Toolkit and Webinar – Our FREE Manager’s Toolkit now comes with a webinar to help provide strategies and resources for employees’ return to work post-quarantine.

Works Cited

Mental Health in Canada: Covid-19 and Beyond, Canadian Mental Health Association, July 2020,—public-policy-submissions/covid-and-mh-policy-paper-pdf.pdf

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