In the blink of an eye, we have found ourselves in unprecedented times, with no clear end date. Most aspects of life have drastically changed, and we have no clarity about what the future holds.
If you’re overwhelmed with emotions during this time, you’re not alone. Many people are experiencing some symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Thankfully, you can work through these emotions and manage your stress with these tips and tricks from my therapist toolbox:
1. Embrace the mentality that ALL feelings are okay.
Did you know that of the seven universal human emotions, only one (joy) is considered positive? Surprise is thought of as neutral, and the other five (anger, fear, shame, disgust, and contempt) are considered negative.
It’s unfortunate that those five emotions have gotten a bad rap by being labeled as “negative.” We don’t typically like negative things, so we do all sorts of things to avoid them – surf the internet, check email for the hundredth time, binge Netflix, pour that extra glass of wine.
The truth is, those emotions aren’t actually negative; they’re simply uncomfortable. And believe it or not, they’re very valuable.
Emotions, especially the uncomfortable ones, are our brain’s way of letting us know that we have a need. Ignoring them results in our needs being unmet, which typically leads to more discomfort. If we don’t address those emotional needs, they’ll come out in other ways like irritability, yelling at loved ones, and even depression.
Rather than avoiding those feelings, try acknowledging them, practicing self-compassion, and playing detective to figure out what they’re trying to communicate. It might sound something like this: “I notice I’m feeling anxious right now. That’s understandable in this situation. What is it that I need right now?”
2. Learn to sit in discomfort without judgment.
Have you seen all the encouraging memes going around? The ones reminding you to be grateful or the ones encouraging you to embrace this opportunity to spend time with your family? They’re great reminders, right?
At the same time, all those messages about being joyful and grateful might be causing you to question the emotions you’re experiencing that aren’t so comfortable. Perhaps you’re anxious about the status of your job or that of your partner. Maybe you’re sad about having to miss your weekly girls’ night out. Or you might find yourself overwhelmed by all the adjustments you’ve suddenly had to make.
You notice those feelings but quickly judge them as “bad.” You dismiss them because you think you should be happy that you still have a job – at least for today. You should be grateful that the technology exists that allows you to have virtual girls’ nights, and you should be embracing these changes and the extra time you now have.
That’s a lot of “shoulding” on yourself. Anytime you hear yourself saying “I should” or “I shouldn’t,” you’re making a judgment, and judgments typically aren’t helpful.
Instead, try simply allowing yourself to feel these emotions, without judging them as good or bad, and sit with them for a bit. You might be surprised at how quickly they pass.
3. Ground yourself in the moment.
When your emotions start to bubble up, you can keep them from overwhelming you by grounding yourself in the moment. Think of the brain as having two sides – an emotional side and a logical side. When emotions start to rise, access to the logical part of your brain becomes limited. If you don’t catch them in time, the emotions can overwhelm you and temporarily cut off access to your ability to think logically and rationally. You’ve seen it happen in others and likely experienced it yourself. Road rage, anyone? The emotions flood you, and suddenly you’re acting in a way you don’t intend.
Grounding yourself in the moment stops the emotional flooding by engaging the logical side of the brain through the use of your five senses or through focusing on your breathing.
It might look something like this: You turn on the news and hear that the number of coronavirus cases has increased drastically in your area. You feel fear rise up and the tears threaten to spill out. Recognizing you’re being flooded, you turn off the news and intentionally take a slow, deep breath, hold it for 3 seconds, and slowly release it.
After repeating that 3-4 times, you walk outside and use your sense of sight to observe a flowering plant on your front porch. You describe the plant in detail, noticing the lines within each leaf and the variations of red within each flower. You use your sense of touch to experience the different textures of the plant – the silky leaves, the soft, buttery petals. Your breathing naturally slows, and you notice that the intensity of your emotions has decreased significantly. You have grounded yourself in the current moment and prevented your emotions from flooding you.
4. Create a (loose) routine that includes self-care.
While it might be tempting to treat this time of quarantine as an extended vacation, it’s not the best idea in terms of your mental health. Routine and predictability give us a sense of control, which we all need – especially in a time when so many things are out of our control.
Create a schedule that includes elements or activities that replenish you, but keep a flexible mindset. Being too rigid about the schedule can create just as much anxiety as having no schedule.
And keep in mind that self-care doesn’t just mean massages and mani/pedis. Sometimes little things like a fragrant candle, calming music, meditation, deep breathing, or going outside to feel the fresh air on your skin and the sun on your face can fill your cup.
What things replenish you and bring you comfort? Try incorporating them into your daily routine, and then pay attention to how your mood differs on days when you manage to get to them compared to the days when you don’t.
5. Practice radical acceptance.
You can think of radical acceptance as meaning “it is what it is.” When you choose to practice radical acceptance, you’re not saying you like the situation, but you’re choosing to accept it for what it is. When you do that, you release yourself from the stress of trying to change what can’t be changed, and you switch your focus to what can be done in light of the situation.
In this current situation, you might find yourself overwhelmed with anxiety because your morning trip to the gym has been canceled indefinitely or the birth plan you had imagined is no longer an option. The more you think about it, the more emotional you get. But telling yourself “it is what it is – I don’t like it, but I choose to accept it” helps you break free from that emotional spiral and focus on finding alternative ways to work out or making new plans for your upcoming birth.
6. Stay connected.
Read these wise words from the beloved Brene Brown: “We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.”
Quarantine, self-isolation, and social distancing go against your core need to connect with others. And when you have littles at home, your need for adult connection and conversation is intensified! Thankfully, today’s technology makes it easy to connect in alternative ways.
Schedule a recurring video date with family or friends. Participate in a group workout class on Zoom or Skype. You can even have a virtual playdate so the kids can see what the others are doing and you can be reminded that you’re not alone on this journey.
There’s great power in journaling, especially with pen and paper. Writing down your thoughts can unlock the subconscious part of your brain and provide you with insights you might not be aware of otherwise.
If you find yourself in a funk but don’t know why, find a time and a place where you won’t be interrupted (you might have to get help from someone who can tend to the littles!) and just start writing.
Don’t know what to write? No problem. Start with something like, “I have no idea what to write, but I notice that I’ve been feeling _______ lately.” There’s a very good chance that you’ll keep going after that, and you’ll be amazed at what will be uncovered.
Be careful not to judge your thoughts and feelings as they flow on to the paper. Instead, simply let them be, and allow yourself to get curious about them. Remember, feelings are valuable pieces of data.
8. Get outside.
Breathing in the fresh air and feeling the warmth of the sun on your skin are powerful mood boosters (and a great source of vitamin D!). Really paying attention to those sensations is a form of mindfulness, as it’s grounding you in the moment.
Do your best to get outside each day, even if that just means sitting on your porch or patio for five to ten minutes. The flowers, trees, and grass, along with the sounds of the birds, will be a welcomed change of scenery.
9. Practice gratitude.
Did you know that a daily gratitude practice, one as small as mentally identifying three things a day, can change the wiring in your brain? Amazing, right?
The brain is an experiential learner, meaning it changes based on repeated experiences. So, when you intentionally look for things to be grateful for, your brain will eventually respond by directing your attention to positive things and little details that will bring you joy.
One way to help you remember to practice gratitude is to use a concept called habit stacking. Think of something that you already do, without much thought or effort, every day, like brushing your teeth in the morning. Make that the time that you think of your three gratitudes. You can even stick a post-it note on the bathroom mirror to remind you until it becomes an ingrained habit.
Keep in mind that your gratitudes don’t always have to be big things like family or health. Find little things to be grateful for, like the smell of your baby’s head or the moment your toddler smiled at their baby sibling.
Learning to notice the little things – and appreciating them – is a joy-producing habit that can help you endure the challenging times of coronavirus and beyond.
These are difficult times, and it’s okay to be struggling. If you find yourself overwhelmed with emotion to the degree that it’s hard for you to get through the day, please reach out to a health care professional. Many therapists, including myself, are continuing to provide therapy virtually. I’ve found that the ability to connect with and provide support for my clients is just as strong virtually as it would be sitting across from them in my office. You are not alone.