Let’s Take Another Deep Breath

It doesn’t seem that long ago when I wrote a slew of articles to support the many under high levels of stress, worry and preoccupation during the pandemic.  A common thread connecting my readers, clients and many people around me was uncertainty and loss of control.  We sharpened our resilience and in many cases had to dig deep to learn 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.  Sources of stress include finances as well as politics and current events.  According to the survey above, one-third of U.S. adults say they have “always” or “often” felt anxious in the past year, and another third saying they felt anxious “sometimes.”

In my therapy practice and personal life, I’ve seen chronic 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 our stress baselines started ticking up again.  It seems that if so many people are experiencing some level of anxiety, it’s time to not only look at 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 put back on a shelf in the garage of your mind.  Or maybe you have one but it’s a little slim on tools.  Regardless, I’d like to offer things you might want to consider having in that toolbox during these ongoing unusual times.  It’s totally up to you what you choose to take and what you leave.  What is effective for one, may not be effective for another.  But all of the tools below are research supported ways to build resilience, self regulate 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.  With anxiety tending to live in the future, a good skill to help stay 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.

2- Take in the good.  An offshoot of learning to be in the moment, the ability to notice and internalize the things that are good around you is a practice that can help calm the mind 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.

3- Identify your self-care plan.  Everyone has their own experience of what feels nurturing.  Be clear on what yours are and make time to do them.  For some it’s exercise.  Others enjoy soaking in a bath.  Whatever you consider “self-care,” do it, especially if you feel challenged by your mental health.  Creating predictability with rituals can help soothe a trauma response.

4- 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.

5- 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, it’s not worth it.

6- 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 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 of the comments from the survey:

In Their Own Words: 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

7- Help where you can.  If you feel driven to do something in support of whatever issue or larger problem you are preoccupied about, 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 been notice underlying tension or unease in yourself, you aren’t alone.  Many are feeling more reflective 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.  If you need a little more help, consider a therapist to help guide and support you through.

Additional resources:

Psychology Today Therapist Directory

988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline


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