Dr. Jennifer Chain is the President and Owner of Thrive for the People.
The coronavirus pandemic has been all over the news, dominating my conversations with clients, friends, and family, as well as constantly swirling in my mind. At such an unprecedented time in our global history, anxiety and stress are running high for very good reasons. There is so much uncertainty about how this invisible force can hurt each of us, our loved ones, the economy, and the world. We are in the middle of a medical, psychological, financial, and political crisis.
In times of crisis, it is critical that we prioritize our self care while we care for and serve others. We need to consider how to best survive the crisis in the present moment as well as preventing the development of mental health concerns afterwards. As I mentioned in a previous post about trauma, symptoms of PTSD can develop when we face challenges that are beyond our capacity to cope, are unable to feel and express our emotions, feel invalidated and unseen by others, and cannot return to a place of safety and security in our bodies and in our community.
To help cope with the elevated stress and anxiety related to the coronavirus pandemic and to prevent the development of trauma symptoms in the future, I want to offer several coping strategies in this survival guide for mental health.
1. Validate Your Emotions
My family in China lives two hours outside of the city of Wuhan, the first epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. Witnessing them live through the outbreak and quarantine, I experienced a roller coaster of emotions from this side of the world. I felt fear, helplessness, anger, sadness, anxiety, grief, and loneliness. Now that the coronavirus has spread in the U.S., many of my clients, friends, and family here are experiencing a similar roller coaster of emotions. These feelings are universal and they tell us something important about the context that we live in right now and what we might need to cope and survive.
To manage these overwhelming emotions, we can take some time to identify them, validate and sooth them, and express them to supportive and trusted friends and family members. For instance, if you are feeling more anxious since the coronavirus outbreak, take a quiet moment to ask yourself, "What is this anxiety about?" Is your anxiety about the health and safety of your friends and family? Is it about feeling helpless that you could protect them? Is it about your financial stability and future? If it about the pain of witnessing devastation and suffering around the world? Is it about the grief and loss related to the illness and/or death of a loved one? Is it about feeling overwhelmed with working on the front lines? Is it about your emotions not aligning with the emotions of others around you? When we become clear about what the emotion is trying to tell us, we can better validate and soothe them.
During a crisis, not having our emotions validated and soothed by ourselves and others is one of the risk factors for developing PTSD. One study found that health care providers on the front lines of the SARS outbreak were more likely to develop burnout and PTSD symptoms 1 to 2 years afterwards if they did not receive enough emotional support. Some of us may have learned to cope with emotions by telling ourselves that our emotions are "too much" or that we are being "oversensitive." We may have learned to ignore, deny, or logic our way out of our feelings. Although these strategies work well in the short term, our emotions can become stuck in our bodies and manifest in other ways such as tension, pain, gastrointestinal upset, illness, anxiety, and depression.
Instead of ignoring or compartmentalizing emotions, I encourage you to practice validating and accepting your own feelings, no matter what they are or how "illogical" they seem. For example, if you are feeling anxious about the health and safety of your friends and family, take a moment to practice being compassionate with yourself. Perhaps saying to yourself, as you would say to a child or a good friend, "Wow, I am feeling really scared right now for my loved ones' safety. I feel helpless that I can protect them. This fear tells me how much they really matter to me. This fear comes from a place of love and concern." Allow the emotions to come and go like waves. Notice how the emotion feels in your body. Tune into what your body needs and find ways to release the emotional energy in constructive ways (e.g., crying, shaking, running, being still, giving yourself a massage, petting an animal, hugging a loved one).
When you are ready, share your emotions with a trusted and supportive person. Ask them to listen and provide validation and reassurance. Remember that each person may have unique ways of coping and making sense of the pandemic; not everyone is able to be present, empathize with, and validate your emotions. Find the individuals who are able to give you what you need. Seek help from a mental health professional if you are having a hard time finding emotional support.
When we can honor and soothe our emotions, we can then act from a place of groundedness and wisdom.
2. Validate Others' Emotions
Listening to and validating others' emotions are powerful acts of kindness and generosity during a crisis. Other people's emotions may not align with our feelings but it is important to validate that these emotions are real and true for them. This is especially important for children and teens in your life who are struggling to make sense of the pandemic and the anxiety that they are seeing in the adults around them.
Take some time to check in with your loved ones and neighbors. Really listen to their experiences, stories, and emotions without judgement. Let them know that their emotions are important to you, their emotions make sense, and they are not alone in feeling these emotions. Let them know that you are here for them. Emotional support can be an antidote to our collective fear. This act of love can be a protective factor that will help us be resilient in the face of so much uncertainty. Even without solving their problems, your presence and support will make a world of difference in someone's life right now.
If your loved ones and neighbors are struggling with symptoms of mental health concerns due to the pandemic, such as depression, anxiety, or trauma, gently refer them to a mental health professional for extra support.
3. Give Yourself Time to Adjust
In a time of crisis, we can forget that we need time to adjust to transitions. We may experience pressure from society, our family, or ourselves to quickly adjust to a new context and move forward without skipping a beat. As I witnessed my family members go through the shock and adjustment to the outbreak and quarantine in the Hubei province, their experience reminded me of the cultural adaptation process of people who live temporarily in foreign environments (e.g., international students, foreign aid workers, anthropologists). People who experience a sudden change in their context may go through five stages of cultural adaptation: euphoria, disillusionment, hostility/hopelessness, adaptation, and integration. As we adjust to the new stay-at-home orders by working from home, homeschooling our children, limiting our social contacts, and changing our lives in dramatic ways, we may be experiencing similar stages of euphoria ("Working from home in my pajamas is great!"), disillusionment ("I miss my old routines." "Staying home all the time is not as wonderful as I had thought."), hostility/hopelessness ("When will this be over?" "Being around my family all the time is driving me nuts."), adaptation ("I am finding some normality now by embracing the new experience."), and integration ("I have found new and creative ways to get my needs met." "I am experiencing joy and pleasure again even in this uncertain and chaotic context."). You may have experienced these stages when you changed jobs, moved across the country, started a romantic relationship, became a parent, or experienced any other major life transitions.
I encourage you to give yourself plenty of time to adjust to the challenges of this new context. These challenges can include having less boundaries between work and home life, finding new ways for social connection and entertainment, adjusting to being a teacher and a parent, coping with sudden unemployment and financial stress, caring for a loved one who is ill, or working overtime on the front lines. Be patient, kind, and gentle with yourself. Anticipate that you might go through all of those stages of adaptation and more. As the coronavirus is changing our world on a daily basis, we might have to adapt and adapt again.
Online Counseling During COVID-19
Are you struggling with increased anxiety and stress due to COVID-19? Are you looking for extra support during this difficult time? I am a licensed psychologist with a private counseling practice in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle. I help individuals and couples in the Seattle area with a wide range of mental health concerns. I am offering online therapy for individuals and couples during the pandemic. You can schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation or contact me for more information.
We created this blog to share information about living a healthy, happy, and fulfilling life. We are constantly learning new things and making mistakes along the way. This blog is our way of chronicling our discoveries, musing, and lessons learned as people and professionals. We invite you to come along on our journey of self reflection, discovery, and thriving with challenges. We also hope to exchange wisdom and enlightenment from you, our readers.
The information provided in this blog is not a substitute for professional mental health treatment.