COVID-19 and Our Mental Health

 COVID-19 Stress Mental Health

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, many people are finding ourselves stuck in a constant state of stress. Biologically, this stress response is our body’s natural way of coping. It is the sympathetic nervous system that takes over.  Our sympathetic nervous system is designed for this time – to quickly act to protect ourselves and those we love. But what happens when our sympathetic nervous system goes on overdrive?  Consistently set off with the latest news, scary grocery store runs, and economic turmoil. This combined with social isolation is a recipe for mental health weariness.

Earlier in my life, when I encountered a problem I tried to “fix” the issue, usually with that trusty frontal cortex, the logical part of the brain that helps navigate problems and come up with solutions.  Incredibly useful for external problems like finding that last bit of toilet paper, or for companies transforming their business to churn out medical supplies.  However, you can’t fix our internal emotional pain or only rely on “coping” with our pain for so long.  A day or two of coping with emotions by pushing them away (suppression) isn’t all that harmful.  We have periods of time that we need to do this.  But there will be consequences with your mental health if the pattern of pushing negative emotions away turns from a daily one to a weekly or monthly pattern.

I was an expert avoider, good with fixing, coping and acting like everything was ok – it wasn’t until Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) that I found processes that helped me move into my inner experience. Below are four processes from ACT that can improve our mental health by facilitating connection and movement toward your inner world, in a time of overwhelming stress.

1. Get Present

Find a way at least once a day, to reset to the present moment. You’ve probably heard this term a million times, but we often don’t have anyone guiding us through what it really means. This doesn’t mean to fully dive into the incredibly scary feelings you are experiencing, and get completely flooded with them. Or to be overloaded with the current onslaught of thoughts you are having. It also isn’t about trying to get relaxed. Although, that is a byproduct. It is about our ATTENTION – where we are focusing.  Otherwise, with all of the triggers we are experiencing, we are in a constant state of acting out the stories our minds are telling us.  Like a fish in water, we are swimming in a sea of thoughts and feelings, and we need a mode to step out of the sea.

Meditative Practices for our Mental Health

We find the present moment through sensations we are experiencing right here and now. The common way to practice this is a meditative practice. Pay attention to the focal point of your breathing, such as your chest. Notice your mind wandering and steal your attention. Gently redirect your attention back to that focal point (the sensation of feeling your chest breath in and exhale). Now immediately some people will be triggered with thoughts such as “the virus affects my chest, maybe that discomfort in there is the first sign of it!) Practicing being present means you take note of that thought and redirect to the sensation of breathing. Another option is engaging your sense of smell by lighting a candle. Put all your attention on the smell, notice your mind wandering, and bring the focus back to the sensation of the smell.

These exercises for your brain connect us to the present moment. It won’t feel at all helpful by the way when you first try it, just like when you first go to the gym, but it builds over time, and then we are less caught up in our thoughts and feelings. So, in the midst of the sympathetic response of our nervous system, we need something that helps us step outside of the sea of stress and “getting out of our mind” as creator of ACT, Dr. Steven Hayes describes in the book, “Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life.” In our culture, this is nearly impossible for a lot of us. But again, it’s not about getting it right, but messing up again and again, and practicing redirection to the present sensation.

2. Defuse from your thoughts and feelings.

Maybe you have done a great job of getting present, but where to go from here? Maybe now, we can finally get rid of our negative thoughts and feelings? Unfortunately not! Have you ever tried to get rid of or fix your negative thoughts?  As Dr. Russ Harris describes, we have an endless stream of negative and positive thoughts throughout our day. We can imagine this experience being like a never-ending chess match. We attempt to have positive thoughts, only to then experience an equal amount of bombarding negative thoughts.

But what if rather than trying to enter into the battle, we stepped back from the board, noticing the battle but not getting caught up in it.  Again, we are “getting out of our mind” and into the present moment, naturally differentiating from our thoughts. At this point, we are no longer swimming in the sea of our thoughts and feelings. We are able to step back from the sea, which means we are paradoxically more able to recognize and tolerate the thoughts and feelings.  This helps us begin to recognize that we don’t have to react to what our minds are telling us.  We are not defined by our thoughts and feelings, which is another step toward being able to tolerate them.

3. Accept your Primary Feelings

Are we practicing being present and defusing from our thoughts and feelings so that we can live in an imaginary world where we aren’t experiencing any pain? Of course not! The purpose isn’t to avoid our pain, but to set the stage for us to mindfully ACCEPT our pain.

Acceptance is the process of holding your emotional experience in your lap and allowing yourself to feel your PRIMARY emotions. I like to think about anxiety as a secondary emotion, the emotion on top of or in response to the primary emotion. We can have anxiety about the underlying anxiety, but we also might have anxiety since we are feeling GRIEF, HELPLESSNESS, DESPAIR or a host of other negative primary feelings. Currently, many of us are acutely experiencing grief through the loss of loved ones or the loss of our livelihood, and even with the loss of our normal lifestyles.

Our Emotion-Phobic Culture

We live in an emotion-phobic culture. Mariam Greenspan points out in her book “Healing Through the Dark Emotions,” we are especially phobic of Fear, Grief, and Despair. If we aren’t grounded in the present, we are much more likely to act out these feelings (aggression) or find a constant need to suppress our feelings, which often leads to depression. With Acceptance, we are leaning into the negative emotion. We are ALLOWING it to flow through us, NAMING it to help VALIDATE / ACKNOWLEDGE IT and TAME it. Then, we are LETTING IT GO.  We don’t have to feel it forever. Practice it for 20 seconds. Find that primary feeling underneath the generalized anxiety, ride the wave of it, and then let it go.

Acceptance does not mean we passively resigned to negative emotions. It’s saying, ok, I am slowing down enough to recognize that my body is telling me that I’m feeling a negative emotion right now. I’m letting myself acknowledge this feeling is there. Rather than shaming myself (why am I so weak for feeling helpless!), we are naturally practicing compassion by allowing ourselves to momentarily feel it.

4. Connect to your Values

If you are practicing Acceptance but still finding yourself flooded with the intensity of the emotions, connecting to your values can ground yourself further, enhancing our ability to regulate the intensity of emotion.  In fact, research shows that we can withstand much more physical and emotional pain if we are connected to meaning and values when we are experiencing the pain.

Connectedness to values and purpose transcends our own negative thoughts and feelings. The big picture in life comes into focus rather than getting caught in the weeds of all the stress.  It naturally helps us step back and defuse from the feelings. A crisis will naturally connect people to something greater than ourselves.  How might you be a part of this collective care for one another?  What role can you play that will ground you and move you out of constant fear and into the connectedness of caring and loving others? If we are connected to helping, serving, and loving others, we are suddenly thrust into a greater perspective.

>We aren’t connecting to values to avoid our feelings. We are putting them in perspective, take the edge off them, and perhaps allow us to return to them in a more self-regulated way.  Grounded, we can again return to and practice accepting our pain, holding it, and allowing it to pass through us. If we aren’t practicing this, the emotions build up and often turn into anxiety and depression.

Impact on Mental Health Over Time

The cumulative effect of avoiding your pain will have a significant impact on your physical and mental health over time. Presence, Defusion, Acceptance, and Values are four processes to connect to during this stressful time. When used in conjunction, they will work together to foster the ability to FEEL and HEAL your pain rather than only coping with it.

If you are experience stress, anxiety, or grief through this time, and need to connect with a counselor, we are offering Telehealth appointments via online platform, so you don’t have to leave your home.  If you are interested in connecting with my practice, please feel free to contact me today.

References:

Greenspan, M. 2004. Healing through the dark emotions: The wisdom of grief, fear, and despair. Shambhala.

Harris, R. 2008. The happiness trap: How to stop struggling and start living. Trumpeter.

Hayes, S. 2005. Get out of your mind and into your life: the new acceptance and commitment therapy. New Harbinger Publications.

 

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