The COVID-19 pandemic has swept our nation, leaving all of us navigating between spaces of known and unknown, familiar yet unfamiliar. In a recent webinar, Anticipating the Psychological Impact of COVID-19, I was asked a series of questions pertaining to the emotional impact of the pandemic and how we can all strive towards mental health, while championing others to do the same. Here are a few key takeaways from my talk.
1. Make space for all emotions.
Anxiety is the emotion that quickly comes to our mind amidst this pandemic. Anxiety is, after all, characterized by feelings of tension, stress, fear, and worry. Our muscles are tense, we feel on edge more often than not, we’re having difficulty sleeping and concentrating, and perhaps we’re a bit irritable. These are all symptoms of generalized anxiety. We know anxiety can also take the form of intrusive thoughts and images, feelings of being out of control, or fear of impending doom. Arguably, then, anxiety is inherent during the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s also important to recognize feelings of loss and grief. Whether it’s tragic loss of life, health, loved ones, or income, or loss of graduations, vacation plans, marathons, and routines — we are all experiencing collective loss. Researcher and family therapist Pauline Boss coined the term ambiguous loss as “a loss that occurs without closure or clear understanding…. which leaves a person searching for answers and complicates and delays the process of grieving, often resulting in unresolved grief.”
I encourage you to acknowledge all of these emotions: sadness, grief, loss, and frustration. It is okay. As a matter of fact, it is normal.
As a psychologist I tell my clients that pain is pain. We should not compare it or try to hierarchize it. We should not deny it or downplay it either. Rather, let’s listen – without judgment – to our own heart and that of others. Let’s acknowledge the grief and ambiguous loss during this pandemic.
2. Create a culture of honesty and compassion, for yourself and others.
Psychiatrist Dan Siegel coined the phrase “name it to tame it” referring to the importance of acknowledging our strong emotions so that they can inform us, and not overwhelm us. When we name the emotion for what it is – whether it’s anxiety, loss, anger, sadness – it puts us back in control and allows us to explore more productive ways to relate to it. The simple act of labeling your stress and anxiety moves neural activity from the amygdala — the center of emotion and fear — to the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive control and planning.
In other words, when we take a moment to acknowledge our feelings, it moves us from operating from a fearful, reactive place to a position where we can be thoughtful and deliberate. It’s in this space that you can practice self-compassion, which involves saying, “This is a hard moment, a hard time and I am – we are – doing the best we can.” Mindful self-compassion is a non-judgmental, receptive position that takes a balanced approach to our negative emotions – neither suppressing or exaggerating them.
When you are honest about what you feel, those around you will be more inclined to share as well. This does not have to be a time period marked by only shared grief – it can also be a time of shared growth. We are all suffering to some extent and we all need to be gracious to others AND ourselves. Compassionate, active listening is one of the most powerful and enduring gifts we can give to one another during this time. When we listen, we embody the love of the sacred, the love of a wider community, and the love of life itself. Compassionate listening is exactly what people need when they are faced with the overwhelming, uncontrollable circumstances of a crisis.
3. Identify symptoms of fatigue, before it becomes burn-out.
Fatigue and burn-out are real, occurring when we feel like we are constantly “on” and overwhelmed by our needs and those we are caring for. Symptoms pointing towards this can include lack of motivation, difficulty concentrating, impatience, losing interest in things you normally enjoy, persistent anxiety, headaches, loneliness, irritability, and difficulty making decisions. Pay attention not only to your emotions but your body; remember – the body keeps the score.
If you feel like you are experiencing these symptoms consistently, I encourage you to focus on self-care and practicing healthy habits. Physically, this means getting at least 7 hours of sleep each night, eating well, and exercising (ideally outside) for 30 minutes five times a week. Emotionally, adopt routines of deep breathing, meditation, prayer, gratitude, and rest. I also encourage you to establish a care network. Even though we can’t be together physically, we can find ways to connect with supportive loved ones, mentors, colleagues, and teachers in your life. Who can you call that will be a listening ear and a calming presence for you? It’s important that you allow others to care for you, too! Of course, seeking the support of a professional psychologist or counselor is also a good option.
Remember you are not alone. We are in this together.