Emotional First Aid in the Pandemic: 4 Ways We Need It

Written by: Bailey McAdams, M.Ed., LPC

With the unwelcomed anniversary of the start of COVID-19 upon us, I am reminded of the great losses we have experienced.  As of this writing, COVID-19 has killed at least 549,000 in the US, disrupted everyone’s lives, battered the economy, caused tremendous political division, and has impacted emotional and mental health the likes of which none of us has experienced before. 

All the losses, illness, and disruption would be devastating enough on their own on mental and emotional health, but then there are the all-encompassing, unavoidable divisive political aspects of the pandemic and those associated mental health impacts. COVID-19 generally, and the “mask debate” specifically, have contributed significantly to the current political climate. If you’ve been lucky enough to have been spared a COVID-19 death in your family and circle of friends, you most certainly have not avoided the associated political strife and division.

Like it or not, your seemingly personal health decision whether to wear a mask is now something like a public declaration of your politics. No one is immune. When you see someone out wearing a mask or not wearing a mask, chances are you’re making a snap judgment on this person’s character and making assumptions about their political views; conversely, other people may also be making snap judgements about you.

Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, when you add it all together, it feels like an angry, unwelcoming, untrusting, stressful, unsafe world. In a way, the anger, stress, and mistrust are understandable; predictable even, from a mental health standpoint—how could you not be frayed, raw, and on-edge in these unprecedented times these days (side note: Am I the only one who has had a bellyful of the phrase “in these unprecedented times”; see also: “the new normal” and “we’re all in this together”)?

It’s easy to be cynical at the idea that “we’re all in this together”, but it is helpful to keep in mind that everyone you know and everyone you see is having to deal mentally, physically, and emotionally with the pandemic—and regardless of the stark political and philosophical differences that have become so evident lately, we all do have that pain (anxiety, grief, social discomfort, and burnout)  in common.

1.  Anxiety

The National Institute of Mental Health statistics reports that 19% of U.S. adults have experienced an anxiety disorder over the course of the year in 2019.  Current statistics are significantly higher with the impact of COVID-19 impacting not only physical health and loss of life, but unemployment rates.  Many who have never been diagnosed with anxiety are reporting symptoms.  Children are reporting fears of dying or losing a loved one, and many adults who have quarantined are finding it difficult to navigate their personal and professional relationships and engage in self-care.  Agitation is one of the most common symptoms of anxiety that can easily be misinterpreted as someone being “on edge” or in a “bad mood”.  If you notice yourself or someone else being agitated or on edge, remember they may be showing you something about their own experiences.  We all have been impacted, no one is unscathed. 

First Aid Support:

Encourage yourself to find moments to connect with others and reach out.  Even if you talk about your favorite Netflix series or someone interesting you follow on social media.  Remember that support doesn’t have to mean you sit around talking about your current negative experiences if that is not something you feel comfortable doing.  Mindfulness is a great technique that helps connect you to presence of mind and slowing down.  One way to practice mindfulness is a technique called 54321.  Simply look around the room you are in and name 5 things you can see that you may not have noticed before.  Name 4 things that you can feel.  Touch these items and describe what it feels like.  Identify 3 things you can hear.  Find 2 things you can smell.  Make sure these things are pleasant to smell as they will evoke positive feelings.  Finally, name one thing you can appreciate about yourself that day.  Seek counseling if you feel that you are needing a neutral third party to provide support and additional coping strategies.  After all, that is what we are here for.  Psychologytoday.com is a great resource for searching for a “best fit” therapist. 

2.  Grief

Loss is something that we often wish we had a sign on our foreheads to notify others what we are going through without us having to talk about it.  Then we could be treated with more support, nurturing, and acceptance without needing to ask for help.  However, no such sign exists.  It is helpful for those that have not experienced such a loss to remember that we do not know what others have experienced during this year. So many of my clients and loved ones have experienced a loss.  As funeral sizes have been cut and, in some cases, not been had as direct contact with others is not advised it has robbed us of our typical ways of receiving support and grieving losses.  I also do not want to minimize the grief in the loss of our lives in the way that we would have lived them.  This includes high school prom, college orientations, walking our kindergartners into their first day of school, weddings, baby showers, and family reunions.  These are losses too and we grieve over all of them in our very own ways. 

First Aid Support:

Offer yourself the permission and the space to grieve.  This is available in so many ways.  There are workbooks available including: “Grief Day by Day” by Jan Warner and Amanda Bearse and “The Grief Recovery Handbook” by John W. James and Russel Friedman for adults.  For teens, “Healing Your Grieving Heart for Teens” by Alan D. Wolfelt, PH.D.  “The Invisible String Workbook” by Patrice Karst and Dana Wyss and “Why Do I Feel Sad” by Tracy Lambert-Prater, LPC for children.  There are also so many grief support groups that are available via telehealth or in person.  Try to remember to utilize your positive support network both at home and in your life.  We are all here together for a reason.  We don’t have to be alone in walking through this.     

3. Social Discomfort/Loss of Boundaries

Are they going to wear a mask?  Will they judge me if I wear a mask?  How many people will be there?  What if someone has COVID-19 and they don’t know it?  What if I am exposed to someone who is sick?  What if I get someone else sick?  How well is this place disinfected?  How will the mask mandate being lifted impact me and the COVID-19 numbers?  These may be some of the questions you or someone you know has asked leading us to feel anxiety or isolate ourselves.  This may also result in a lack of setting boundaries that feel comfortable for you. 

First Aid Support:

Have an honest discussion with your immediate family members residing in your home and create together a family risk assessment plan.  Discuss what feels safe and comfortable for each of you, even the younger members of your household have feelings about COVID.  Establish your boundaries in a short and sweet way should the risky scenarios come up.  Practice communicating these boundaries with a trusted loved one prior to initiating them with acquaintances, friends, and extended family.  Remember that it is okay to have a boundary that is different.  If you do not feel that your boundary is being respected, consider having a conversation with that individual or alter your engagement with them.  Finally, consider that everyone establishes their COVID-19 boundaries a bit different than you.  We can focus on what feels “wrong to us” and be emotionally tied up or focus on what we are in control of (ourselves and our own boundaries) and feel free of that particular emotional burden.  If you would like additional resources or recommendations, PsychologyToday.com has a great article written by Ilene Strauss Cohen, PhD. “Setting Boundaries During Coronavirus”. 

4.  Burnout

One of the many changes brought on by this past year has been that a large percentage of Americans are working from home.  What this now means is that we are stepping outside of our often-stressful work days directly into our household roles with no opportunities for decompressing.  Burnout is defined as physical, mental, and emotional fatigue brought on by extended periods of stress.  Burnout is different from stress in that when we are stressed, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.  Burnout causes us to lose motivation, feel cynical, experience decreased productivity and procrastination and satisfaction.  There are so many professions that are currently experiencing tremendous amounts of burnout at this time including but not limited to the following: medical professionals, first responders, mental health professionals, city officials, stay at home parents/guardians, and those that work from home.  We need a break!! We need the support and understanding of one another. 

First Aid Support:

If you can relate to the feeling of burnout, you are not alone and there are tangible ways to provide yourself with support.  Just remember, it doesn’t have to be big to make a difference.  Taking time off is one way to cope with burnout.  Even a long weekend can make a difference.  Plan time to unplug and spend time with your positive support network.  This includes those individuals in your life that encourage and lift you up.  Set boundaries where available.  This may include responding to emails only during specific times of day and creating “family only or me only times”.  For those individuals who are on call or responsible for individuals who cannot safely care for themselves, try to arrange for someone to relieve you if only for a small period of time so that you can recharge.  Neglecting your needs when you feel burnout can impact your life in a variety of ways including family relationships, physical health, and emotional well-being.  If you find that you would benefit from additional support, counseling services or support groups are very helpful in that it is time that is about you and for you. 

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