It doesn’t seem that long ago when I wrote a slew of articles to support the many under chronically high levels of stress, worry and preoccupation during the pandemic. A common thread connecting my audience, clients and many people around me was uncertainty. No matter how people experienced it, the collective response involved some level of fear and loss of control. As humans can do, we sharpened our resilience and in many cases dug into what self-care during crisis looks like.
A recent Kaiser survey survey showed that 90% of the public believes there is a mental health crisis. Primary concerns are mental health issues with teens and children, and anxiety or depression in adults. One-third of U.S. adults said they have “always” or “often” felt anxious in the past year, and another third said they felt anxious “sometimes.” Sources of stress for adults in particular include finances as well as politics and current events.
In my therapy practice and personal life, I’ve seen concerns about the existential threats of extreme political divide, war, uptick in incidents involving hate and uncertainty about the direction of Covid. We barely have had enough time to apply the salve on our prior wounds before stress baselines started ticking up again. It seems that if so many people are experiencing some level of anxiety, we need to not only understand what’s driving that, but what to do about it.
Let’s take another deep breath.
What does your emotional health toolbox look like? Perhaps you had one and it’s back on a shelf in the garage of your mind. Or maybe you have one but it’s a little scant on tools. I have some offerings for you to consider having in that toolbox during these ongoing unusual times. It’s up to you what you choose to take and what you leave as what is effective for one, may not be effective for another. Regardless, all of the tools below have been shown to foster resilience, improve emotional regulation skills and develop more positive feelings.
1- Breathe. Your breath is an excellent anchor to the present and oxygen is an antidote to the stress hormone, cortisol. When you notice yourself feeling overwhelmed or worried, take 5 slow and deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth.
2- Be mindful. Because anxiety tends to live in the future, a good skill to keep your inner calm is the ability to bring yourself to the moment. This can be practiced by doing something as simple as closing your eyes and focusing on your belly as it rises and falls for a few breaths. For those of you who also spend a bit of time in front of the computer, I like this very relaxing guided meditation, Daily Calm: 10 Minute Mindfulness Meditation.
3- Take in the good. An offshoot of learning to be in the moment, the ability to notice the things that are good around you, is a practice that can help your mind find peace and invite hopefulness in challenging times. I love this quote by Rick Hanson, PhD, in the piece, What Do You Do When the Bottom Falls Out:
Outside you, there is the kindness in others, the beauty of a single leaf, the stars that still shine no matter what hides them. Right now as you read, all over the world children are laughing in delight, families are sitting down to a meal, babies are being born, and loving arms are holding people who are dying. Inside you, there is your compassion, sincere efforts, sweet memories, capabilities – and much more. Take heart with others, sharing worries, support, and friendship.
4- Take a media break. Maybe you need a break from the news. The “bad news” can feel unrelenting, especially if it is sought out too frequently. Can you check one time a day? Or perhaps skip a day? Create some space between the upsetting situation and you. This includes social media as most people by now are aware of the toxic potential for misinformation and attempts to manipulate emotions. If the topic of your distress exists in this funnel, give yourself a pause from this as well.
5- Revisit your self-care plan. Everyone has their own experience of what feels nurturing. For some it’s exercise. Others enjoy soaking in a bath. Fatigue can impact your emotional state so ensure that some kind of rest happens. Rest is not just physical but can be mental and sensory. I love this infograph, based on the TedX talk by Saundra Dalton-Smith, sketchnote by Anuj Magazine. Whatever you consider “self-care,” do it, especially if feel your mental health being grated on. Also, creating predictability with rituals can help soothe a trauma response.
6- Hand on the heart. This is an exercise and powerful tool to restore a sense of calm and equilibrium in your body and brain. It can prevent a stress response or even calm a panic attack. See Mitigate the Stress Response with a Hand on Your Heart by Linda Graham, MFT about what it is, why it works and how to do it.
7- Seek support. Chances are good that there are others around you who have similar concerns and will be able to validate your experience. Who of your family or friends are good listeners? Let others in on your anxiety, depression or other mental health issue, if it’s coming up. Monitor any shame around how you “should” be feeling. According to the Kaiser survey, many who are struggling with their mental health keep it to themselves.
Here are some comments from the survey:
What is the main reason why you don’t feel comfortable talking to your relatives and friends about your mental health?
“I don’t want anyone to know any thing about me. I am not a good sharer. I do not share my feelings.” – 47 year-old Black woman in Illinois
“I do not feel like they understand mental health issues and treat it like it should not be a big deal.” – 31 year-old White man in Tennessee
“There is a stigma and [I] don’t think people would really understand or be there.” – 29 year-old Hispanic woman in California
“Because it’s not considered manly. I’ve gotten funny looks and debilitating jokes when expressing my concerns in the past.” – 41 year-old Hispanic man in Texas
“Everyone is dealing with their own problems. Feels like an added burden on them.” – 34 year old woman in New York
“I don’t want to worry my friends or family with my own personal struggles.” – 37 year-old White man in Texas
“I’m not a very open person. I like to hide my feelings. I fear being judged. & I fear putting my problems onto people I love.” – 24 year old White woman in Florida
8- Help where you can. If you feel driven to do something in support of whatever issue you are preoccupied with, seek out those opportunities if they exist. Volunteering reduces stress and increases positive feelings by releasing dopamine. For some people, just “doing something” to address the perceived problem can help them feel less out of control.
If you’ve noticed underlying tension or unease in yourself lately, you’re not alone. Many are feeling more processing and pondering what many of these larger societal challenges ultimately mean.
If your concerns are beginning to impact you more deeply from a mental health perspective, it’s important to take this seriously. Begin by getting out your toolbox to try a few things to alleviate your unease. But if you need a little more help, consider a therapist to help guide and support you through.
Psychology Today Therapist Directory
988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline