By Jennifer Campoy, LCSW
During times of adversity, we need to look for “silver linings” and tend to search for “lessons learned.” During the past year’s pandemic, the need for community support and hope is greater than ever. Many thought leaders and psychologists have named what we are all feeling right now a type of “grief.”
This can be oddly comforting because it names the chaotic experience that is filled with the loss of normalcy and uncertainty about the future.
This past year has brought an increase in mental health challenges for all of us — being isolated from our loved ones, uncertainty about the present and the future, and economic stress that has threatened our sense of safety and security.
For families home schooling their kids, providing structure, encouragement and support while maintaining their own jobs can stretch their bandwidth to a breaking point. It’s an extraordinarily vulnerable time.
We tend to like routines. So much uncertainty about the present and the future is bound to cause an increase in irritability, a shortened capacity to be there for our loved ones and heightened stress.
What I hear often in my practice is that people can make it through many challenging experiences as long as they know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. We not only don’t know where that light is, we don’t yet know what our new “normal” is going to be. For some people the new normal is greater isolation or an extended period of time away from people they love.
We’ve also experienced greater restriction and deprivation — deprived of close contact with the people we love and meeting new people. Fewer outlets that keep us sane and balanced, such as going to the gym or the movies. Paying attention to one’s mental health is paying attention to how the current circumstances are affecting our stress levels, our attitudes about the world around us, and how we are coping.
Are we snapping at others more than usual? Are we drinking in unhealthy ways? Are we isolating more than usual, watching too much TV or playing too many video games? Normal reactions to abnormal circumstances for sure, but not a place we want to live for the long run.
It is important to find meaning in suffering and adversity. However, we can be tempted to rush meaning and acceptance in order to avoid discomfort. So we need to learn to sit with our feelings of sadness, anxiety, and anger.
Paying attention to how we cope can address both the present and our greater need for meaning.
How stress affects us is unique to our personalities. Some people overeat in response to anxiety — they use food as a form of comfort. Some feel so stressed they don’t eat at all and gravitate more towards stimulants like coffee and sugar.
Maintaining a healthy, balanced diet can help to regulate blood sugar levels and also mood.
Find a routine for self-care. Establish a regular time for sleep with bedtime rituals, like showering at night to wash away the stress from the day, or reading or meditating to transition to a place of calm.
Stay connected to your loved ones — make contact, face-to-face via video if needed or an old fashioned phone call. Express appreciation for your children and family.
Move more and sit less. Make time for exercise and activity, even if it’s a daily walk with your pets. We need exercise to release all the unwanted stress and energy.
For children and teens, there is both confusion and frustration as life as they knew it suddenly changed. Parents are their role model for how to cope with stress. Validate their frustrations and talk with them about their losses and their wishes for normalcy.
This is a time when our mental health is tested and the need for support and community is more important than ever. It is a time when we need to pay attention to how we are stretched and compromised. There is no shame or stigma in seeking therapy or outside help. Taking care of ourselves can help and is even necessary for taking care of the people we love.