As we grapple with a surge of COVID-19 cases in our third calendar year enveloped in the pandemic, you may find yourself feeling especially uneasy, drained, unmotivated, tense, exhausted, sad, or a host of other difficult emotional experiences right now.
As the saying goes, we humans are “creatures of habit” – our minds and bodies feel secure when nestled in familiarity and routine; understandably, then, the “unprecedented times” we have been navigating have rendered our minds and bodies disoriented and vulnerable. Understanding what is going on internally can equip us to show more compassion toward ourselves and others. For many people, the pandemic is creating and/or exacerbating:
Anxiety – Have you heard of the human body’s fight/flight/freeze response? In situations that seem dangerous to our bodies, our nervous systems try to help us stay safe by getting us ready to defend ourselves, run away, or “play dead” so that the frightening thing leaves us alone. Any situation that makes us nervous or aware of danger – like a pandemic – can trigger this response. This might show up as: irritability, tense muscles, shallow breathing, racing thoughts, or feeling stuck and unable to get things done, concentrate, or make decisions.
Trauma – We are in the midst of a global traumatic event. As our community responds to surges in COVID-19 cases with increased restrictions and guidelines for public safety, we may be encountering more physical and emotional discomfort because our bodies are on guard (again, that fight/flight/freeze response is being triggered) as we are reminded of the initial days of pandemic life when many factions of society shut down and panic abounded. If you have been through other traumatic events in your life, your body may be extra triggered by the changes as it’s reminded of other times you have been endangered and felt powerless.
Grief – Grief is the emotional experience of dealing with any kind of loss that is significant to us. The pandemic has created constant and widespread grief, individually and communally, over a myriad of losses. This includes the loss of: routines, sense of normalcy, stability, predictability, events, experiences, activities, traditions we enjoy, jobs, opportunities, housing, relationships/connections, physical, mental, and/or spiritual health, and loss of human life. Grieving often involves feelings of sadness, confusion, anger, anxiety, and loneliness, and requires us to adjust to new ways of functioning.
Ways to Cope
1. Identify Your Feelings
Emotions are one of your body’s ways of communicating how you are being impacted by the world and your experiences in it. Identifying your emotions and then trying out safe ways to respond to them, rather than ignore, suppress, deny, or shame yourself for having them, can relieve stress and tension. Every day, give yourself time and space to recognize your emotions. Referring to a visual aid like a “feelings wheel” or chart can be helpful for describing them. Accept that you may have multiple emotions at once, even ones that seem to contradict each other. Notice the physical sensations that accompany your emotions.
2. Sit with Your Feelings
This means allowing the emotions to exist without labeling them – or yourself – as bad or wrong, or acting as though they need to be fought against or instantly eradicated.
3. Use Accessible Coping Skills
Coping skills are responses to our feelings that are soothing and keep ourselves, others, and our relationships safe. Writing down or making a drawing of your options for coping activities as a reminder of your personal “toolkit” can feel empowering.
Some coping skills that may be helpful to try:
● Making or looking at art
● Listening to music
● Stepping outside/going on walks/spending time in nature
● Using sensory items (ex. stress balls, fidget/sensory toys, soft blankets,
aromatherapy, heating pads)
● Deep breathing, which may be incorporated into guided meditation, breath prayer, progressive muscle relaxation, etc. (remember to inhale through your nose, let the air fill your stomach, and exhale through your mouth)
● Grounding (what do you see, feel, hear, smell, and taste right now?) – engaging your five senses helps your body stay grounded in the present moment rather than overcome with worry
● Prioritize REST as much as you can
● Connect with your support system – Who in your life is a good listener? Who makes you laugh? Who offers you practical help? Reaching out to a supportive person or group when feeling down, anxious, or overwhelmed and offering mutual support when able can help alleviate loneliness and stress.
It’s important to be honest with ourselves about the painful impacts of this pandemic. And in doing so, we can develop a clearer understanding of our psychological needs, and honor those needs by utilizing tools that create more peace within ourselves, our homes, our relationships, and our communities.
Jessica Achugbue, AMFT, is a clinical therapist in TGC’s Long Beach Outpatient Program, where she helps address the emotional and behavioral needs of children and families. She is passionate about providing trauma-informed care and contributing to community wellness through mental health education and advocacy. Achugbue earned a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from California State University, Long Beach and a Master of Science in Marital and Family Therapy from California State University, Dominguez Hills.