Coping with Covid: A conversation with Calgary Psychiatrist Dr. Allan Donsky

Calgary Psychiatrist Dr. Allan Donsky

by Maxine Fischbein

Calgary Psychiatrist Dr. Allan Donsky

(AJNews) – We turn the pages of barren calendars as COVID-19 continues to threaten and disrupt our lives and those of billions worldwide.

Even as shots are going into arms, health restrictions are expected to continue for some time.  Almost everyone is coping with grief and loss – often on multiple levels – and the horizon is full of unknowns.

If you aren’t feeling great right now, you’ve got good reasons.  And you are not alone.

“Research in Canada and internationally shows a significant decline in wellbeing,” says Calgary Psychiatrist Allan Donsky.

But there are things we can do to ensure we are doing more than merely surviving or coping, he adds.

“The first step involves recognition that this is a long haul.”

Another is accepting – and not resisting – what is.

“There is so much we want to be in control over, but we’re not,” says Donsky. When we resist what is, it is a problem, because “we are trying to negotiate non-negotiables.”

Instead, he urges everyone to “. . . recognize, accept and investigate what we have control over and what we don’t.”

“We always want to put our energies into getting a return on emotional and spiritual investment, which is our relationship to those things we can’t change,” Donsky says.

“What we can change is our relationship to what is.”

Donsky takes much inspiration from the words of psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl, who famously wrote, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Frankl knew first-hand that just about anything can be taken away from us, except our attitude toward things.

“When we recognize we have choice, we can set an intention,” Donsky says, based on the simple question:  “What’s called for now?”

“What’s called for might be stopping what’s not working or what’s not helpful, nourishing or productive. Because until we stop what’s not working, or what’s making us miserable, there’s no room for something else to emerge.”

Donsky likens the process to shivering in a blizzard.

“I can complain how cold it is, I can talk about my fear of frostbite, I can be angry I’ve chosen to live in Canada . . . but that’s not going to get me warm,” he added.

Hidden inside every concern, complaint, problem or issue is the solution.

“If I’m shivering, get warm. If I’m hungry, eat. If I’m sad, look for joy. If I’m worried, I need to calm down.  If I’m angry, I need to be patient.”

It is not about ignoring or denying very real feelings or sucking it up and getting on with things, says Donsky.  It is about recognizing and working with those feelings, seeing what arises and, often, leaning into the very things we think we’d rather avoid . . .  like the grief we’ve all experienced on some level during the pandemic.

“For things we’ve lost, we should sanction grief,” says Donsky.  This would most obviously include the loss of loved ones, but we also grieve COVID’s collateral damage, including job losses and isolation from family.

One year into the pandemic, many are also feeling a lot of unsanctioned grief – those things we had looked forward to that did not come to pass, he adds.

“There is also the distress and the pain of isolation. Even though we have ways of optimizing connection through technology, there is a real sense of isolation.”

What has settled in, for many, says Donsky, is “ennui,” a weariness or listlessness that is hard to shake.

 “There is no complete health without mental health. And it’s certainly true that there is no mental health without spiritual health.”

H adds, “To feel spiritually healthy requires spirit, heart and energy.”

As Jews, we are hardwired “. . . to be a light unto the nations,” says Donsky, who likes the way Carl Jung extends the metaphor: “As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.”

The easily-remembered acronyms SPK (slow, patient, kind) and PBJ (peace, beauty, joy) can guide us through the process of finding the light in the darkness.

Often when we are irritated and stressed, we speed things up, says Donsky.  We try to leap into the future so we can fix it. In the process, we run away from what is.  Unfortunately, however, it can’t be outrun.

“When we speed it up, we don’t do a good job of navigating anything,” Donsky says.  “In such situations, we are likely to skid out of control, doing things that are rash, impulsive and even harmful. That is why we need to slow it all down.”

As we slow it down, it is easier to be patient.

“Impatience makes me miserable and it doesn’t help,” he explains.  “Once I’m slower and patient, I’m automatically kinder to myself.”

Once we have achieved the SPK part of the equation, the PBJ can emerge.

Seeking peace when we are irritable or annoyed, beauty when we see ugliness in ourselves and the world, and joy when we are sad can help us to navigate challenges like COVID.

“We mustn’t forget PBJ in our lives,” says Donsky, most of all because they work.”

“You don’t deny that things are difficult or try to make the ugly pretty, but there is a way to navigate this that is gentle, human, kind, forgiving, passionate and loving.”

On that road, it helps to remember that we are human beings and not human doings, despite the many jobs, tasks and chores we must do in order to live.

According to Donsky, an important question we need to ask ourselves is “How am I being while I’m doing my doing?”

There are ways of bringing being and doing into harmony, he says.  However, problems can arise when one over-dominates the other.  The undulating symbol of the yin and yang underscores the importance of maintaining a balance between the two, Donsky adds.

“This is an ongoing conversation . . . . I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to improve the quality of their being, emotionally, mentally, spiritually.”

Donsky suggests that we use the disruption created by the pandemic to re-evaluate our lives and zero in on what is valuable and important, what is working and what is not,  thus taking “ . . . an intra-psychic dive” into where we are at.

“Of course some people are having a hard time because if they don’t have a healthy enough ego, if they don’t have enough connections, if they’re really isolated, depressed or addicted, then they’ve had another three straws that have broken their back.”

Given the challenges of the pandemic, it important to monitor ourselves and our loved ones for warning signs that help is needed.

These could include:

  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Significant changes in sleep and appetite
  • Low energy
  • Sustained feelings of emptiness, hopelessness and helplessness
  • Irritability, confusion and anger (beyond one’s typical baseline)
  • Changes in function (neglecting self-care, absence of routine)
  • Absence of desire to connect with family and friends
  • Noticeable slide in the quality of work
  • Repeated expressions of worry from loved ones
  • Substance abuse

While some of us are getting by with a little help from our friends, others may benefit from the many mental health resources available in Alberta.

“I always recommend that people start with their family doc,” says Donsky. “They know what’s available locally.”

In addition to seeking the guidance of mental health professionals, he points out that spiritual advice and support is also beneficial.

“In both Edmonton and Calgary there is a tremendous range of spiritual guidance,” he says.

“A lot of what people are going through right now relates to deep existential questions, including the meaning of life and fundamental questions about identity.”

“The good news is we are actually called creatures, which comes from the same root as creation, so we have the capacity to create ourselves again . . . moving from order through chaos to reorder.

Donsky likens the experiences to walking from one room to another.

“We’ve got this mix of feelings, of leaving and arriving but being in neither place at the same time, and not being quite sure what is coming.”

“Analyzing that experience is important,” he says, adding that the journey requires compassion.

“Co means to be together.  Passion’s root is pathos, or suffering,” adds Donsky, an avid student of etymology.

Thus, compassion literally means being with suffering.

Why do that?

“Because it’s here; we must come together in our suffering.  The question is, how do we do that in a life-affirming or healing way?

Doing for others is a helpful path, because when we engage in tikkun olam – healing the world – we also heal ourselves.

As always, though, charity begins at home.

“Self-care is sometimes misperceived as selfish,” Donsky adds, “but we need to put our oxygen masks on first to be of help to others.”

Some Alberta mental health resources

In Emergency/life-threatening situations, call 911

Access Mental Health (Calgary): 403-944-1500

Access 24/7 (Edmonton): 780-424-2424

Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 or text 45645

Canadian Mental Health Association (Edmonton Region):

CMHA Distress Line (Edmonton): 780-482-HELP (4357)

Distress Centre (Calgary): 403-266-HELP (4357)

Jewish Family Service Calgary:  403-287-3510

Jewish Family Services Edmonton:  780.454.1194

Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 or text CONNECT to 686868

Momentum Walk-in Counselling (Edmonton):

Wellness Together Canada: Mental Health and Substance Use Support:

Maxine Fischbein is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for Alberta Jewish News. 

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