Over the last several months, we have been called to navigate many challenges and disruptions that have impacted our community and those around it. COVID-19 has continued to limit and shift our approach to daily life, while increasing anxiety and stress on many levels. Additionally, the intense feelings elicited by the death of George Floyd and the social unrest that followed, both locally and around the world, added more anxiety, complexity, and pain to an existing state of unease. While some individuals and families have adapted well to social distancing, working from home, and helping kids navigate distance learning, others have struggled to meet financial obligations, manage addiction, and cope with new or worsening mental health symptoms. Certainly, our individual and collective emotional capacities are being challenged as we work to process and respond to these events and circumstances.
In regard to COVID-19, none of us is yet certain when or how we can safely begin to relax, as the numbers of new cases and hospitalizations in Minnesota decrease, or if we need to brace for another several months of impact, however that may look. This is a difficult task, as our brains are not great at comfortably withstanding places of limbo, particularly for extended periods of time. Research suggests that even when an outcome is negative, knowing what it is, is often more emotionally manageable than sitting in the place between two possible outcomes. Part of the reason for this is we like to have the ability to predict and control what happens in our environments, two things that the current pandemic has greatly interfered with. Although none of us can predict or control what the virus will do, there are some things we can do to increase our areas of control and lessen the negative impact on our mental health.
First and foremost, getting adequate sleep, eating healthy, and moving our bodies can reduce existing stress and support our ability to take on and manage new stressful events and circumstances. There are many ways to increase physical activity, and even stretching can release stress from our bodies and help us feel more balanced. Remember our bodies, not just our emotions, are impacted by stress and uncertainty, so attending to our physical health is important for increasing overall resilience.
Take time to notice feelings. It is often assumed that ignoring difficult feelings helps keep them at bay, but there is a lot of research to suggest that the opposite is actually true. Reflecting internally on how we feel can reduce the intensity of emotions and increase self-awareness. Using healthy coping and calming strategies such as mindfulness, meditation, spending time in nature, journaling, and expressing feelings through art are great ways to manage difficult feelings when they arise. Additionally, be attentive to any tendencies toward unhealthy coping strategies, such as substance use and other addictive behaviors.
Listen with kindness and compassion to the stories and experiences of others, particularly to those that may be different from your own. Work toward increasing your awareness and understanding of systemic racism, intergenerational trauma, and implicit bias. Remember the difficulties you have experienced in your life are not negated or minimized by showing attention and compassion to the stories of others.
Check in with your children, who often feel the impact of community stress and may not be able to verbalize their feelings. Anxiety in children is often displayed in increased irritability and behavioral changes, such as those related to activity level, eating, and sleeping. Kids and teens need understanding and space to process their feelings just as adults do.
Continue to connect with friends and family in safe ways. Though we cannot often be as physically close as we would like, we can still maintain emotional connections with our loved ones. Reach out when you are in need of support, and be present with others as they reach out to you.
Be mindful and intentional about where your information comes from. We can be easily drawn-in by sensationalist stories and videos, but it is important to seek news that is grounded in facts. Also, keep in mind that too much media exposure can negatively impact your mood and ability to cope, so limit the time you and your family spend.
Lastly, it can be difficult to ask for help. If you find yourself struggling to cope with these or other circumstances, reach out to your primary provider or a licensed mental health professional who can help.
Carrie Niles, MA, LPCC
Youth and Family Therapist
Lakes Center for Youth and Families