Almost everyone’s mental health has been impacted from the turn life has taken in the last few months. As things were, life was already stressful enough for many people prior to COVID-19. There was more than enough anxiety, panic, depression, fear, worry, headaches, and more to overflow our mental and emotional tanks. Life has always had a thick layer of uncertainty built into it — job stresses, family stresses, illnesses, and so on. Now, that sense of uncertainty has multiplied many times over in addition to all the things in life that needed our attention before.
Is there room for more?
On top of what was already filling the emotional pot, we now find ourselves trying to cram a whole new series of emotions, worries, anxieties, fears, unknowns, and more into a space that was for many already boiling over before the virus even showed up. Whether you’re worried about getting sick, have lost loved ones or friends, have family members in a higher risk group; or have lost your job, could lose your job, or are coping with working full time from home while also taking care of children and homeschooling them; or have experienced your thriving university campus life suddenly turn into being home with your family, or are isolated in your home by yourself; or if you are trying to cope with the loss of human-to-human contact, gathering, and fun that often serves to de-stress from the typical hustle of life — whatever the additional layers are for you, the mental health struggle from the recent changes and losses is very real.
For each person, the brand of struggle may be different. For some it may be a more crippling anxiety or a higher baseline of anxiety — meaning functioning continuously closer to experiencing things like panic attacks, overwhelm and burnout, obsessive worrying, compulsive behaviors, anger, irritation, and otherwise. Or, the struggle may be closer to a threshold of depression, shutting down, wanting to stay in bed until life returns to normal, difficulty feeling motivated or energized, or carrying an intense emotional heaviness or hopelessness. Or, for others your relationship could be taking the brunt of the struggle. As well as other manifestations not listed here. Whichever your struggle(s) tends to be, for most people the stress of this sudden life shift has likely turned up the volume on what was already there.
If you were already at a 9 or 10 (out of 10), then what happens now with so much unforeseen complexity and stress added to the picture?
A world-wide trauma
For many people, the unexpected life shift from the emergence of the virus is likely being experienced as a form of trauma. It is something that no one really had the space to internally prepare for before suddenly working from home, losing jobs, taking children out of schools, and wearing masks to go outside. While before you may have just gone to the grocery store to pick up some food, conscious attention and awareness is now needed for what was previously a somewhat mindless task of walking around a store. There is a lot more to pay attention to now in general, which means more work for our brains to take on.
When we don’t quite know how to internalize an experience, we end up adjusting and compensating (internally and externally) in different ways in order to work around it. But this doesn’t happen easily. It’s generally at the expense of something else. Think about it like time in a day: if you have two things on your to-do list between 9am and noon, you will experience your day very differently than if you have ten things on your to-do list in that same frame of time. The whole layout of your day and how you experience the stress of the day will be different. If you have two things on the list, then you can likely feel a sense of having enough room for both things, and maybe also put some attention towards the three things on your afternoon list as well. But with ten things on the morning list, the afternoon likely doesn’t even exist in your mind yet and there’s probably a question if you have enough room for what’s on the morning list.
The point is, with every step of routine life having become magnified, small (and larger) details require thought and attention that weren’t previously necessary. This all in addition to what was already there. It’s almost impossible to not be overwhelmed right now with all that needs our attention. We may go through the motions of where life has taken us, but this doesn’t mean that we have an emotionally secure and stable sense of being in this new space. In fact, it’s possible that some people could still be experiencing the shock of the change, which can be experienced as an emotional numbness while functioning on a sort-of detached autopilot.
Therapy and Self-Care
When in a crisis, people often try to avoid the psychological and emotional impact because the crisis itself can be so overwhelming. While it can feel like taking care of yourself is one more thing to do amidst the overwhelm, taking care of yourself is actually what can start to reduce the overwhelm and help you to regain your footing. When trying to “push through” a crisis on your own, the emotions can start to take over in various unhealthy ways. In short, don’t be afraid to ask for help, even if it’s just to have someone along with you to turn to through the process. You don’t even have to leave home for help, as therapists can meet online. Just because many people may be going through a similar struggle right now doesn’t make what you’re going through any less difficult or important.
Nathan Feiles currently offers therapy and coaching online, and will resume seeing people in-person in his NYC practice when safe to do so.