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Take a Deep Breath – By Mark Austin, PT

Posted 6 months ago on

‘The world around us has changed dramatically in just a few weeks. Most of us find ourselves at home, some off work, with more free time on our hands than ever before. We don’t know how long this is going to last. Fear and uncertainty are huge triggers for anxiety. I would like to take this time to share something unrelated to physiotherapy with you all, in the hopes that it might help you better navigate what is sure to be a challenging time for all. For some of you this information might be obvious, but for others maybe not. Please note that this post should not serve as medical advice—if you need help please reach out to an appropriate healthcare professional, such as a psychologist or counselor. This is an option even as we practice social distancing.

In 2016, I was living and working as a physiotherapist in Fort McMurray. This was during the time that the Fort McMurray wildfires, one of the largest natural disasters in Canadian history, occurred. A lot of what is happening right now feels very similar to that experience, albeit on a much larger scale. I’m sure a lot of people who lived and worked in Fort McMurray during that time can agree with me. I don’t often share a lot about my personal life, however, for those of you who have never experienced such a disaster, I thought that I would share my experience of the Fort McMurray fire, and the lessons I learned from that experience, in the hopes that it might help a little in dealing with the current Covid-19 pandemic.

The Fire

I never thought I would ever end up being a Newfie working in Fort McMurray. It’s a typical story where I’m from. Although Fort McMurray is a community full of good-natured and hardworking people, and I am very proud of the small town in Newfoundland where I come from, it was not what I had imagined for myself two years out of physiotherapy school. Nonetheless, following my first few months of work after university it presented itself as a way to pay down my student debt and get some fast experience under my belt. At the time, there was a huge demand for physiotherapy there, and one clinic offered to cover relocation costs and excellent pay if I came across to country to work for them.

On May 3rd, 2016, I woke up ready for an average day of work. There had been some nearby fires over the past few days, some close to town, but on that morning, I woke up to clean air that was free of woodsmoke. Feeling relieved that the threat of a fire reaching town was over, I went about my regular routine and headed to work. During my lunch break at the clinic, I walked to the McDonald’s next door for a cup of coffee. I noticed a faint plume of smoke rising above the horizon. It was cause for a little concern, but a few minutes later a co-worker informed me that they had been told by a firefighter at the grocery store that it was nowhere near town and just the result of a change in the wind’s direction.

This was not the case. Within less than an hour, the entire sky was lit up in an orange glow against heavy clouds of dark smoke. Flecks of ash began to fall softly from the sky. My brother, who lived with his family in Fort McMurray as well, called me in a panic—they could see the fire burning in the trees just across the street from their house. The police had just shown up at their door with orders to evacuate, and they were rushing their kids into their truck to escape town.

Unlike our current situation, there was no time to plan or prepare. By the minute, it was quickly becoming apparent to everyone at work that this was an emergency. My first thought was our physiotherapy assistant, who had a newborn child at home. I drove her home so that they would not get separated in the chaos. By this point, the roads were packed with traffic, even along what were normally quiet residential streets. I made it to my own condo, where building management was already forcing everyone to leave, just in time to throw some clothing from my drier into a carry-on suitcase and got into my car with my dog ready to start driving south to safety. My brother and his family had already hit the road to safety.

I called a friend in Edmonton to leave a message—“Hey, there’s a fire. They’re making us evacuate my building—a little pre-mature if you ask me, the fire is no where near this part of town, but I guess I will see you tonight!” It was not pre-mature. As soon as I was on the highway, but still within the town limits, I received a call from my sister-in-law warning me that they had just made it out of town in time, but now the fire had crossed the highway. The road south to safety was closed, and I would have to turn around and start driving north. A long line of cars heading south in front of me stretched into the distance. At this point, I could see the hillside next to the highway and one of the town’s neighborhoods, ablaze right before me. This was the moment that I realized the emergency was real. To get around the traffic, I pulled a U-turn, drove the wrong way up an exit ramp, the police at the top not batting an eye at me as I did so, and got back onto the highway driving north.

Fort McMurray is a very isolated community. There is one exit to the south, where after a couple of hours of driving you finally reach your first gas station in the hamlet of Wandering River, with Edmonton being several hours away from there. There isn’t much when you drive north; the only highway in that direction passes by several oilsand sites, work camps, the small hamlet of Fort McKay, and then terminates into a gravel road. From here the road is only drivable during the winter months. You can only go so far. Within an hour of turning around, I was a short distance north of town and traffic was slow and heavy. The sky remained dark, glowing with fire. Ash fell heavier now, in thick, fluffy flakes, smudged as streaks of dirt across my windshield by my car’s wipers. Every radio station blasted emergency broadcast signals. I was separated from my friends, family and co-workers and left to figure it out on my own. However, this was not a time to panic or feel sorry for myself. Through work and friends, I was familiar with most of the work camps north of Fort McMurray, where fly-in/fly-out employees of the oilsands stayed when not on site. I knew the first few closest to town would already by full of evacuees. I eventually pulled into Grey Wolf Lodge, 75 kilometres north of town, only to find the parking lot full and dozens of people lined up outside the entrance. I continued north, and after driving for some time down a gravel road, finally ended up at camp Wapasu, 120 kilometres from Fort McMurray.

I was the first evacuee to end up at this camp. The security guard at the gate saw me with my dog and was bewildered. I told him that I was an evacuee from Fort McMurray fires. He continued to look at me in disbelief. Not a moment later, the phone next to him rang. He answered, and upon hanging up he told me that I had come to the right place, as there were at least several hundred people on the road just a few minutes behind me. I checked into the camp and was given my own room and access to the cafeteria. As the only evacuee at first, residents stared in curiosity at me and my dog, walking down the corridors— was that a drug sniffing dog? I didn’t have to feel self-conscious for long. Within 30 minutes, the entire complex was full of evacuees and I blended into the crowd easily.

Later that night, a friend ended up at the camp with me. We heard that the highway south through Fort McMurray had cleared and re-opened. In the early morning hours, we got into each of our respective vehicles and drove back south, retracing our path back and eventually through Fort McMurray—now covered in a thick, low hanging cloud of smoke—and from there onward to Edmonton. We were lucky to not run out of gas along the way, knowing to take a side road off the main highway to the town of Athabasca where fuel was still available. Many others driving south were not as fortunate and had to abandon their vehicles on the highway before reaching their destination. Just a couple hours after we had driven through Fort McMurray, the fire spread, and the highway was again shut down. I had gotten out just in time, while those still at the camp would wait days either for flights out or for the highway to re-open so they could drive home.

For the next few weeks, there was nothing but uncertainty and waiting. I stayed with friends. I had only my car, my dog, and a carry-on suitcase of clothing to my name. I did not know when I would be able to return to my own home and belongings. I didn’t know if I still had a job anymore. I still had tens of thousands of dollars of student debt to pay off. Although I had escaped safely, I now had nothing but time on my hands when I woke up each morning, as the friends that I was staying with went off to work and about their personal business. When might life might start to feel normal again? Does this sound familiar to you? The evacuation lasted for several weeks. We were allowed back in town by early June. By that fall, most of Fort McMurray was up and running, although there was a devastating loss for many, including my friends and family. I was quite lucky compared to most—the condo I was renting just needed a deep clean from all the smoke, and the clinic I worked at was open again by mid-June. By September, I was as busy as ever with work. I learned a lot about myself during that time, and in the months that followed as we all tried to get back to normal.

“For the next few weeks, there was nothing but uncertainty and waiting.”

As you can see, there are a lot of parallels between what happened then relative to what is happening now. Here is what I have learned:

People and media outlets are going to be throwing worst-case scenarios in your face. Don’t get caught up in it.

While it is important to plan and be prepared for whatever the next few months have in store, these situations are just that: worst-case scenarios. Some people, if they see you aren’t as anxious as they are, may even unintentionally try to make you feel what they are feeling. During my first night of the Fort McMurray evacuation, while taking my dog outside for a walk at camp Wapasu, one of the camp staff walked up to me to tell me that they heard that the entire community had burnt to the ground, including the hospital, college, and schools. I was devastated. By morning, I learned that this was of course not true. Some neighborhoods had burnt, which was terrible, but certainly not the whole town. Then, a week or two into the evacuation, I was told that all the pollutants released by older homes that had burned would prevent anyone from ever returning to the community again. Again, a heavy sense of dread in my chest. When that turned out to be false, I was told it would be at least six months before we could go back. In reality, I was back at work by that summer, and by September work was as busy as ever.

Now that COVID-19 has become the norm in the media, the worst stories are going to get the most attention. As a species, for survival, thousands of people across the globe are calculating and predicting just how bad things might get for us. Since we all want to be as safe as possible, these are the stories that we notice and share the most often. COVID-19 hasn’t changed the fact that the news is still a ratings game. Media outlets that broadcast the worst and most fear-inducing news know that they get the best ratings as well. We really don’t know what is going to happen in the coming weeks and months, but we must try not to get too caught up in speculation. I’m certainly not trying to minimize the gravity of our current situation, as some have, it definitely helps to be thorough and well-prepared– but our biggest fears rarely ever come true. To counter all the frightening possibilities being thrown at us, we can look at how countries such as Japan and South Korea are managing their outbreaks and keeping infection rates low, with relatively little disruption to day to day life, as a source of hope and guidance. Even now in China there is news of life returning to normal.

Pay attention to what you are doing in each moment.

Most of us have more free time on our hands than ever before. We have been ejected from our busy lifestyles and are now stuck at home. Many people can’t work from home and have little to distract themselves with. We are faced with nothing but our thoughts. For those of you who are still working (thank you!) some of the following will still apply.

During the evacuation, I spent the first week reading every news story and taking in every piece of information that I could to try to understand the situation, and to estimate when I might get back to my regular life. At the time, staying well-informed felt like a good coping strategy. However, this constant influx of bad news eventually made me feel physically sick and anxious. I couldn’t face all the uncertainty anymore. I found some clinics in Edmonton where I could work and take my mind off things. Helping others eased my stress, but I was still ignoring the root cause of it. When I wasn’t at work, I was exercising. When that was done, I would drive and visit friends, even those who were hours away. My obsession with staying busy continued even once the evacuation ended and I was back home. This is the ‘flight’ part of the fight-or-flight response. I was reluctant to slow down and confront what had happened. While it is important that we try to make the most of our downtime, becoming obsessively busy is sometimes how we cope with stress and anxiety. That said, doing so is rarely a good long-term solution to the problem. The feelings we run from will eventually bubble over and catch up to us. It’s important to our future selves that we cope with the current stress in the right way.

Have you heard of the term neuroplasticity? I have had the good fortune to have worked in research in this field prior to becoming a clinician. Through scientific study, we have learned that our brains adapt and change based on how we think, behave, and feel. New neurons and synapses form in response to our current habits and experiences, and old pathways become less likely to be utilized. Your brain is undergoing neuroplastic change right now, in response to this very situation. Think of your brain like a house plant – if you keep the soil nutrient-rich, water it appropriately, and provide it with the right amount of sunlight, a plant will grow and thrive. If you neglect it or fail to care for it in the right way, it will whither. Our minds are much the same, and right now they are going to need some extra care.

As humans, evolution has programmed our brains to always be vigilant for the next big threat, so it is normal for us to be responding to the current situation with fear and worry. However, we don’t live in isolated tribes anymore. The problem is global and the entire world is scared. Spending most of the day reading grim news stories, worst-case scenario projections, or watching numbers in your bank account fluctuate is much like feeding your brain junk food. The effects of stress are often long-lived. You may get through the pandemic without contracting the virus– but exposing yourself to constant negativity will still have a bad impact on your health and well-being long after this is over. Inform yourself in small doses.

This doesn’t mean we that we should ignore what is going on or run from bad feelings. Often, the best remedy for anxiety, fear, or stress is acknowledging that it is present, rather than trying to shift our focus to other things. I learned this the hard way. If you are scared, anxious, or stressed, let yourself feel it for a little bit. The best advice I ever received from someone who told me, “it’s okay to feel anxious or worried, just don’t unpack your suitcase there.” Let yourself feel what you’re feeling, and when you’re ready, move on.

There are so many science-backed ways to keep your mind and body healthy while we deal with the current situation. Think of it all as a big buffer to all the stress being thrown our way. Simply practicing deep breathing for a few minutes is enough to settle anxiety and get your brain thinking rationally again. Exercise and meditation both have tremendous positive effects on stress and anxiety as well (yoga involves both!). With regular practice, this has a compound effect. Get creative. Learn something new. If you’re stuck at home, work on something around the house that you’ve been putting off. Stay connected to others, and don’t just talk about how uncertain and worrisome things are right now. Try to laugh. If you are in the position to help anyone, in any small way, help them—this is one of the best remedies to stress and worry that I know of.

If you spend the next few weeks or months connecting with others, practicing self-care, and working on personal growth, you are going to emerge from this experience a much different person than someone who has spent their time taking in every single negative news story and negative prediction for the future available to them, or running away from their stress. This effect will last long into the future once this is over as well.

Social support is more important than ever. Acknowledge and talk about how you are feeling to other people.

Our collective mental health is going to be more important than the economy once this is over. In Fort McMurray, after the evacuation was over and as people got back to their regular routine, both personally and in my physiotherapy practice I saw many people who were struggling with post-traumatic stress. Many did not even realize they had it, although its presence was clear to me as an outside observer. I believe that to this day there are people who are unknowingly still dealing with feelings from the fire, likely made worse by the current situation. It is important to acknowledge and talk about what we’re going through. Many people are going to be traumatized by this pandemic, even if they never actually get sick. This is where I made a mistake during the evacuation; none of my friends outside of Fort McMurray really grasped or understood exactly what I had been through, and I really didn’t want to bring it up or bother them about it. At the time, it was a painful experience to re-live through conversation. Once the evacuation was over and I was back at work, I pretended that things were back to business as usual. This would catch up to me months later, as the feelings I had bottled up manifested as anxiety in my day to day life and an inability to sit alone with myself. Finally opening up and acknowledging what had happened to some close friends helped me to finally move on. Yoga was also a big help here!

The current situation is a different in that none of us are alone in this. Your friends and family know what you are going through, because they are going through it themselves. So talk. Let someone know how you are feeling, whether it is a friend, family member, co-worker, counselor, or some other health professional.

A lot of people also have mental health challenges and other life struggles that are pre-existing to the current situation and are now left at home alone with said struggles. If you are one of these people, please reach out to someone. There is no shame in what you are experiencing. We need to take care of our minds just as much as we take care of our nutrition through eating healthy, and our muscles and joints through exercise. If you have a friend who you think might be struggling, please check in on them and encourage them to reach out for help as well.

Focus on all the positive things happening around you.

Struggle fosters empathy, connection, and resilience. I cannot tell you how much kindness I experienced during the Fort McMurray evacuation. Although I was physically alone for most of the evacuation itself, I quickly became aware that I was not alone in spirit. I had countless friends around the country and beyond reaching out ready to support me. On the first night of the fire, I had calls from Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto, and all over Newfoundland. Classmates from my physiotherapy school in Scotland heard the news of the fire and reached out to me too. These friends continued to check in on me during the entire experience. Much like all of us now, I was alone only by geography.

Although I was unable to get back home to my own bed, friends took me into their homes without reservation, even though no one knew how long I would be there. All evacuees from the fire were welcomed with open arms wherever they went. My landlords lived in Calgary but put my rent payments on hold and even offered me their home in case I didn’t have anywhere to stay. The government and Red Cross provided financial support. Physiotherapy clinics allowed me to use their space to offer free treatment to other evacuees. Everywhere I went, once finding out I was from Fort McMurray, strangers went out of their way to help by any means possible. It actually got a little over the top, as a bike shop offered me a discount on a new bike that I could still afford regardless. My nieces and nephew, also displaced by the fire, showed up at a new school in Edmonton in the middle of May to find that their backpacks and school supplies had already been purchased for them. I will always remember the countless instances of kindness while the memories of the evacuation itself will eventually become vague and clouded.

In the coming weeks and months, as we begin to return to our normal lives, you are going to see acts of kindness, support and connection more than ever, on a scale much larger even than what I experienced during the Fort McMurray fires. I am confident about this. Those directly affected by this illness will have an entire city to lean on. Support for local business will be stronger than ever. In the meantime, spread good news. Fill social media feeds with stories of people helping others. Look for stories about how cities and countries improvise and come together overcome this pandemic in the coming months. Practice gratitude that you have family and friends who care about each other, or that you have somewhere to stay, food to eat, or support from our hardworking medical community should you fall ill.

You are going to be a stronger person once this is over.

We are the product of our struggles. A few months ago, I was recounting some past experiences to a friend, fires and beyond, and how they had really helped me to develop a strong sense of resiliency.

“What could happen next? My town has already been engulfed by a wildfire.” I joked– sometimes I cope with dark humor. Well, fast forward a few months and now we are in the middle of a global pandemic. Life has once again managed to up the ante in an unexpected way. I am unable to work beyond seeing a few urgent care cases. I still have student loans to finish paying off– physiotherapy school was not cheap! —and rent and bills to pay. Luckily we have just received news of government that I will not have to worry about paying my rent for a few months and most businesses have allowed me to defer my other payments. Most of my family is in Newfoundland, my brother and his family still up in Fort McMurray, and I can’t see any of them right now. I could get sick, or someone I know could get sick. However, I’ve learned that at this moment I am okay. I know that a year from now when the dust from this crisis settles I will most-likely still be okay. The Fort McMurray fires made me a stronger person, and no matter what happens I will definitely be an even stronger person after all of this is over as well– and so will you, if you choose so for yourself.

Struggle, growth, and resiliency is a universal human experience. The key is in how you choose to respond to it. I recognize that in the grand scheme of things, I am a very fortunate person. Some people in Fort McMurray lost their homes and jobs in the fire—I did not. I’ve never had to worry about food and shelter, education, or war. There are millions of people out there in the world who have had it far worse than me, and who will have it worse than me in the coming weeks, months and years. I don’t want to minimize what they are going through, but I also want to acknowledge that each and every one of us, rich and poor, fortunate and less fortunate, is going through a tough time right now, and we all have the opportunity to become better versions of ourselves because of it. Accept uncertainty and know that the only thing you can control in this situation are your own actions. My heart goes out to those whose health has been directly affected by this virus, as well as their friends and families. While many of my good friends work on the front lines of this situation— thank you so much to all of the healthcare workers and researchers out there right now I have lots of personal projects to work on in the short term, this blog post being one of them. I have time to reconnect with all my friends and family across the country and around the world. When this is finally over, I have hope that the egocentric, ‘me-me-me’ culture bread by social media over the last few years will shift towards a culture of connection and empathy. I hope that countries, provinces, and states all over will recognize more than ever that we all inhabit the same planet. Although there is loss ahead, and I’m sure some global conflicts will emerge, overall I believe that the world will eventually change for the better as a result of what is happening right now.

This may be the best opportunity of your life to re-draw who you are as a person. While there is undoubtedly loss, sadness, and struggle in our future, we all still have a choice in how we respond to it. Focus on how this situation is making you a stronger and more resilient person. Humans by nature are resilient problem-solvers. At no point in history, during all the past wars, disasters, and pandemics, have we ever known what the future has had in store for us. But we have always figured it out. We will get through this. Take a deep breath. Stay present. I hope you can look back on this experience and know that you managed it to the best of your ability.

“This may be the best opportunity of your life to re-draw who you are as a person.”

My Favourite Meditation Apps:

Calm: www.calm.com
Waking Up: www.wakingup.com

Free Online Yoga Classes With Me:

Several of my yoga students have reached out with an interest in me continuing with my yoga classes while we social distance during the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve decided to offer a free live broadcast Wednesday and Friday mornings at 9 am (Mountain Time), starting March 25th. Classes will be a 45 minute, all-levels mindful flow-based format. Classes are open to everyone, so feel free to invite friends and to include family members at home. While I would love to have everyone join live to foster community and social connection, if you are unavailable during the broadcast times I will be uploading the videos to my youtube channel afterward so you can still take part. Classes will be broadcast through Facebook and Instagram.

Facebook live stream: www.facebook.com/movewmark

Instagram live stream: www.instagram.com/ascent_health

For All of my Current/Previous Patients and Anyone Else in the Calgary Area Needing Physiotherapy:

Physiotherapy services are still available while we practice social distancing. Physiotherapists have a mandate to keep as many people as possible out of doctor’s offices and emergency rooms while we battle this pandemic.

If you are dealing with pain or injury—I can still help, and this includes new patients. I am offering free online 35-minute telehealth consultations to assess and offer advice and exercises to keep you feeling your best. Book a virtual appointment online at www.ascenthealth.ca. If you have an urgent situation that needs to be seen for in-person assessment and treatment, we can arrange for that as well—just reach out to me via e-mail at mark@ascenthealth.ca. Please pass this on to anyone else who you know who might need help.

If you have any other questions or concerns, or need to reach out in any way, don’t hesitate, I am here.

Mark