“We make the situation worse when we punish ourselves for feeling sad or anxious or angry,” says Bethany Teachman of how we have managed our emotions during the past year. Teachman is a professor, the director of clinical training, and the director of the Program for Anxiety, Cognition, and Treatment (PACT) in the Department of Psychology in the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Virginia.
Teachman offers mental health resources at the bottom of this post.
IT IS OK NOT TO FEEL OK
These times are asking (too) much of us.
In response, we tend toward narratives about our mental health that are extreme – ‘if you just pick yourself up by the bootstraps and do all the right things, you’ll be OK’ versus ‘this is a traumatic time, and you are fragile and should expect little of yourself.’ Neither of these oversimplifications is helpful. There is a middle ground that welcomes both acting on those parts we can control and improve, and acceptance that there is a lot right now that we cannot make better and it is OK not to feel OK.
As a professor of psychology who directs the Program for Anxiety, Cognition, and Treatment (PACT) and a licensed clinical psychologist, I have seen and treated anxiety in many forms. This time of anxiety in our collective story feels different. Today, many of us feel not only the sense of threat, vulnerability, and danger that characterizes anxiety, but also a deep, wary tiredness. This leaves us both revved up and on edge, and drained and lethargic.
Since COVID was declared a pandemic, the media has (at last) been prioritizing stories about how people can manage their mental health. As an expert on anxiety, I have truly appreciated the chance to share some of our work and tell people what the science says can be beneficial at this time. I have recommended many strategies, including:
- question catastrophic thinking, so you don’t automatically assume the worst in a situation;
- practice good self-care, including regular sleep, exercise, and healthy eating;
- show compassion to ourselves and others because almost no one is at their best right now;
- take breaks from social media and the news, so you don’t feel constantly overwhelmed by threat and negative stories;
- stay physically distant but not socially isolated, so you keep those critical social connections;
- find creative ways to pursue your goals and stay true to your values, even if your original plans have had to change;
- practice mindfulness or relaxation, or whatever approach helps you slow down the urgency of your racing, negative thoughts.
I engage a lot of these strategies myself and find them helpful. Yet, it is also important to say out loud that these strategies are often not enough right now. They are strategies we need to manage this painful time in as healthy a way as possible, and that is a worthy goal. At the same time, most of us will still feel considerable (and for those experiencing huge losses, tremendous) pain during this period. This doesn’t mean we’re doing something wrong; it means these times are asking a great deal of us.
So, we need to throw every resource possible toward understanding and addressing the mental health crisis we’re collectively facing. This will enable us to apply strategies that will help us manage today and take steps to make tomorrow easier. We also need to acknowledge that we are in new territory, and there is not a clear road map. The research shows that most people tend to be incredibly resilient despite dealing with all kinds of hardships, and I strongly believe most of us will recover our mental and emotional health as the strain of this time lessens. But we need to make space to simultaneously take steps to make this time less painful for ourselves and others while also admitting that it will not be enough. We make the situation worse when we punish ourselves for feeling sad or anxious or angry, so we need to embrace the dialectic of both accepting our emotional pain and not judging it, while also fighting to lessen that pain.
And if the emotional pain persists and is making it difficult to function and meet your goals, reach out for help. There are many effective treatments – ABCT.org and ADAA.org are good places to find a (telehealth) therapist in your region. Also, our lab offers free online interventions through a program called MindTrails to help shift anxious, catastrophic thinking as part of our research program. Finally, the COVID Coach app is designed to support overall mental health during the pandemic. Many online apps can also support mental health.
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