Due to our challenging situtation of living in a global pandemic, we are all noticing an increase in our emotions of sadness, anger, anxiety and fear. Many people, both friends and patients, have described themselves to me as being on an ‘emotional rollercoaster.’ While I'm sure I do not understand all the reasons why, I do know we are all struggling with at least two huge emotional & cognitive challenges simultaneously:
- Grief - the emotional experience of loss that brings up unpredictable feelings of sadness, anger, and disbelief (this last one causes us to question the validity of our experience..."can you believe we are all wearing masks to leave the house?!?")
- Unfamiliarity & uncertainty. Our brains love patterns, familiarity and finding soloutions to problems. Our brains are working overtime to make sense of this scary, frustrating and completely unfamiliar existence.
During and long after this pandemic, many of us will struggle with painful emotions related to trauma, grief, loneliness, financial insecurity, the breakdown of primary relationships and all the rest. For some, the increase in intensisty of our emotions comes with a risk of progression to depression, unmanageable anxiety or sleep problems and reexperiencing of prior traumatic events. For some, struggling to manage these emotions in a healthy way will lead to substance abuse and other addictions, self sabotage and violence.
Based on what I am already seeing with some of my patients, I believe my colleagues and I will be treating these symptoms years into the future.
What To Do:
No one needs me to tell them why they are experiencing an increase in these feelings right now. With pain, our human need is to feel better. So we come up with strategies to do this. The following are my ideas for how to manage our painful emotions in a mentally healthy way.
The behaviors themselves are not complicated; what makes this difficult is creating an intentional, daily practice around mental wellbeing. Being intentional takes practice and the presence of mind to ignore (or at least postpone) the MUCH more enticing behaviors of comfort eating, drinking alcohol, binge-watching TV, working too much, smoking weed, and picking up our phones.
The goal here is to do a little more of the following each day and to be kind to ourselves in so doing. If our brains and bodies are mostly healthy, we can all do some of these and, I believe, it will have a significant, lasting impact on our emotional health as we navigate this challenging time.
First: Create some structure. Remember, our brains our comforted by patterns and familiarity. This can be aided by the following two steps.
Second: Sleep. Our brains need more of it to process the new information and manage stress. Get 7-10 hours. While very, very few people can do ok with slightly less than 7 hours, this is not the time to determine if you are one of them.
Third: Eat well throughout the day. Here, I go to Michael Pollan: Real food, not too much, mostly plants.
Last: Do at least 1 hour/day of any of these:
- Physical activity. 20 minutes treats anxiety, agitation, anger, insomnia and, for some, mood.
- Play. Play is defined as something you do to seek joy, without expectation in the outcome. As adults, it is harder than you’d think.
- Practice. Work on a new skill 10 min/day. The process of learning and recognition of improvement over time helps depression.
- Create. So much research supports that producing something (art, music, bread) is healing.
- Nurture. Your family, friends, community, pets, plants, the earth.
- Work with purpose. Doing something to help (such as homeschooling, making masks, supporting frontliners) during this crisis will reduce anxiety and boost mood.
- Laugh. Watch comedies. Share the memes and videos. Find the humor in our situation. There is a lot out there.
- Process the painful feelings: Meditate, journal, talk to your therapist. There is power in acknowledging & working through our feelings rather than skipping over them.
If you can only do one thing for your mental health every day make it connecting with other humans