By Ray Williams
December 19, 2019
The spread of the COVID-19 virus threatens our physical and mental health. Many people have never directly experienced WWII, or a natural disaster, or have not encountered the scene of empty streets and grocery store shelves and forced quarantine, let alone the very real threat of serious illness and death. Critical to dealing with the current crisis is our ability to manage or regulate our emotions.
These times are stressful for individuals and their families as well as for entire communities and the country. The stress generates worry, anxiety, fear and grief and even depression. We can find ourselves flooded with strong negative emotions and thoughts. While people may react differently to the stress, when we see repeated images or hear reports about the virus outbreak on TV or online, our stress can escalate.
When we experience real or perceived threat, our survival physiology kicks in, leaving us in states of “fight” and “flight.” While these states are meant for acute trauma situations to help us mobilize, in more chronic states of disruption — like the crisis we are experiencing with the coronavirus — our nervous systems become imbalanced, making it difficult to manage our emotional states. Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline start pumping through our bodies. Our immune systems become compromised, making us more vulnerable to viruses and infections.
Anxiety does not only make it harder for us to go through many days of confinement and isolation, it also affects the quality of our decision making at a time when we need it the most. Studies show that anxiety shuts down regions of the brain (prominently the pre-frontal cortex) that allow us to concentrate and screen out distractions.
Collective anxiety has no vaccine but there are some remedies that need no prescription. Physical/social distancing and limiting exposure to negative news are helpful. Extra skepticism regarding any pieces of information, especially those that contain disturbing news, is much advised. Ask yourself whether the source has any motive or interest in exposing you to that information. Our obsession to watch another piece of evidence regarding the disease already several weeks into it, is unlikely to offer additional important and useful knowledge, or to make us feel better.
During a Crisis We Deal with Losses
During a crisis like the COVID-19 virus, we experience losses, and often accompanying grief. Here’s some examples:
- Losing Things:Losing tangible things can create grief. This could include losing a home, income, investments, apartment, place to work, or a job. Feelings of insecurity often result. The loss of money and financial stability are also losses.
- Relational Loss:These losses are the kinds we identify most traditionally with grief. The death of those we love, related to separations and/or divorces in romantic relationships or friendships., and distance from colleagues and co-workers.
- Role/IdentityLoss:Losses that fit here are those related to ways in which we identify ourselves. Seeing ourselves as healthy, fit, or a part of a specific community are examples. Titles that help us clarify our role in our workplace or communities also fall into this category. Roles related to professional and family life are also relevant. Even the idea of being a free and independent person is core to our sense of identity. Losses in this realm are often deeply felt and frequently go unacknowledged.
- Physical Loss:When we experience a change to what our bodies can or cannot do, we experience a unique form of grief. When others respond to these changes with pity or infantilizing behaviors we often stuff or deny our sense of loss, scrambling to compensate and find confidence in the capabilities that remain. This actually hurts us deeply. We need to feel and work with our feelings of limitations in order to move to a place of strength.
- Deeply Personal (and Often Invisible) Loss:This category includes everything from the loss of security to the loss of control. It also includes the loss of dreams and wishes. Losses relating to events we’ve been planning, or experiences we’ve been looking forward to, fall into this domain as well.
Loneliness Vs. Solitude
One of the negative consequences of forced social and physical isolation is loneliness.Loneliness is a complex and usually unpleasant emotional response to isolation. Loneliness typically includes anxious feelings about a lack of connection or communication with other beings, both in the present and extending into the future. As such, loneliness can be felt even when surrounded by other people. One who feels lonely, is lonely. The causes of loneliness are varied and include social, mental, emotional, and physical factors.
Research has shown that loneliness is prevalent throughout society, including people in marriages, relationships, families, veterans, and those with successful careers. It has been a long explored theme in the literature of human beings since classical antiquity. Loneliness has also been described as social pain—a psychological mechanism meant to motivate an individual to seek social connections.Loneliness is often defined in terms of one’s connectedness to others, or more specifically as “the unpleasant experience that occurs when a person’s network of social relations is deficient in some important way”.
Whether a correlation exists between Internet usage and loneliness is a subject of controversy, with some findings showing that Internet users are lonelier and others showing that lonely people who use the Internet to keep in touch with loved ones (especially seniors) report less loneliness, but that those trying to make friends online became lonelier. and control, which has a positive impact on well-being or happiness.
A twin study found evidence that genetics account for approximately half of the measurable differences in loneliness among adults, which was similar to the heritability estimates found previously in children. These genes operate in a similar manner in males and females. The study found no common environmental contributions to adult loneliness.
Feeling lonely vs. being socially isolated
There is a clear distinction between feeling lonely and being socially isolated (for example, a loner). In particular, one way of thinking about loneliness is as a discrepancy between one’s necessary and achieved levels of social interaction, while solitude is simply the lack of contact with people. Loneliness is therefore a subjective experience; if a person thinks they are lonely, then they are lonely. People can be lonely while in solitude, or in the middle of a crowd. What makes a person lonely is the fact that they need more social interaction or a certain type of social interaction that is not currently available. A person can be in the middle of a party and feel lonely due to not talking to enough people. Conversely, one can be alone and not feel lonely; even though there is no one around, that person is not lonely because there is no desire for social interaction. There have also been suggestions that each person has their own optimal level of social interaction. If a person gets too little or too much social interaction, this could lead to feelings of loneliness or over-stimulation.
Solitude can have positive effects on individuals. One study found that, although time spent alone tended to depress a person’s mood and increase feelings of loneliness, it also helped to improve their cognitive state, such as improving concentration. Furthermore, once the alone time was over, people’s moods tended to increase significantly. Solitude is also associated with other positive growth experiences, religious experiences, and identity building such as solitary quests used in rites of passages for adolescents.
Loneliness can also play an important role in the creative process. In some people, temporary or prolonged loneliness can lead to notable artistic and creative expression, for example, as was the case with poets Emily Dickinson and Isabella di Morra, and numerous musicians. This is not to imply that loneliness itself ensures this creativity, rather, it may have an influence on the subject matter of the artist and more likely be present in individuals engaged in creative activities.
Solitude is not just a physical state of mind essential to the development of our inner life, it’s also a practice that prepares us for participation in social and political life.
Solitude and social interaction are not either/or choices. Solitude is not the same as loneliness. Psychologists and therapists have often promoted the idea of a “time out” as a coping or replenishment strategy. Even then, the phrase “time out” suggests that, relating and stimulation are the important things in our lives and alone time merely a break or intermission. What if we viewed them as being equally important for our well-being?
Over the past 100 years we’ve had different perspectives on the concept of solitude. The word aloneness was coined in the medieval period signifying a completeness in one’s singular being. In contrast, in religious terminology, solitude meant the experience of oneness with God. In our current world, most people believe being alone implies a lack of something. People who seek solitude are seen as anti-social or suffering from mental health issues.
Restoring our sense of psychological and emotional safety is key to bringing our nervous system and emotions back in balance, as well as maintaining our physical health. This is a difficult task in a time when physical distancing is necessary.
What is Emotional Regulation?
Managing your emotions involves a process called emotional regulation, which is an element of Emotional Intelligence.
Emotional regulation refers to the process by which individuals influence which emotions they have, when they have them, and how they experience and express their feelings. Emotional regulation can be automatic or controlled, conscious or unconscious, and may have effects at one or more points in the emotion producing process.
The definition of emotional regulation encompasses both positive and negative feelings, along with how we can strengthen them, use them, and control them.
Emotional regulation involves three components:
- Initiating actions triggered by emotions.
- Inhibiting actions triggered by emotions.
- Modulating responses triggered by emotions.
Every day, we face hundreds of emotion-provoking stimuli, and most of them require some action or response from our end. It is only natural for the mind to get hooked into some negative contemplation or unmindfully ignore emotions after getting bombarded with so many stimuli every day.
Emotional regulation acts as a modifier; it helps us filter the most important pieces of information and motivates us to attend in a way that wouldn’t evoke stress or fear.
Studies on emotional regulation indicate that there is a significant positive correlation between emotion regulation and depression management. People with lower levels of anxiety show higher emotional control and social-emotional intelligence.
Kris Lee, a Professor and the author of the book Mentalligence:A New Psychology of Thinking–Learn What It Takes to be More Agile, Mindful, and Connected in Today’s World says that with emotional regulation, we can allow the initial upsurge of emotions to settle down and zoom out of the situation before reacting to it.
The increased time gap between stimulus and response restores the mental faculties that involve rational thinking and reasoning. As a result, we can save ourselves from sudden emotional breakdowns or burnout.
What Doesn’t Work in Managing or Regulating Your Emotions
When it comes to regulating difficult emotions, there are two ways most people respond: They act out or they suppress. If you act out with a strong emotion like anger, you will most likely create undesirable consequences in your relationships, your work, and even your play. The ripple effects of acting out usually provoke more anger around you, which leads to more difficulty.The consequences of suppressing those big emotions can be even more dangerous.
Tragically (and ironically), efforts to “talk yourself out of your emotions” often result in “increased rumination and perseveration.” In other words, you will keep thinking about and holding onto those emotions you’re trying to avoid. Anyone who’s had a deep-tissue massage has empirical evidence for how the body holds suppressed feelings. Suppression gets held in the body and creates a host of downstream effects, including anxiety, depression, stress-related illness, all the way to substance abuse and suicide.
Not all emotional regulation strategies are created equal, researchers suggest. Emotion suppression, for example, consists of “inhibiting the outward signs of your inner feelings.” Professionals in high-stress jobs (eg: doctors, police, military) are often taught that emotional suppression is an effective strategy for emotional regulation. Yet there’s lots of research that concludes it is not effective. Studies have shown that suppressing emotions actually endangers your health and well-being, both physically and psychologically. Emotional suppression (“have a stiff upper lip”; “suck it up”; “be strong”) might decrease outward expressions of emotion but not the inner emotional experience. In other words, emotional suppression doesn’t make the emotion go away; it just stays inside you and can cause even more pain, anxiety or fear.
Highly trained professionals are explicitly instructed to either suppress, deny, or compartmentalize their challenging emotions in order to function effectively in high-stress jobs—jobs that involve significant exposure to the kinds of suffering likely to trigger strong emotions. In fact, participants often reported with pride their ability to completely “turn off” their feelings either at work or at home.
Research has shown that these professions report some of the highest incidences of both suicide and substance abuse. These specific populations, whose jobs involve acute exposure to difficult emotions, and who have been generally taught to deal with emotions by suppressing them, demonstrate such high degrees of clinical distress.
Strategies and Tips to Help You with Emotional Regulation During the Crisis
Screen and limit your news intake. During this time of social distancing and staying at home, it is easy to get caught up spending hours surfing the internet looking for information, much of which may not be based on facts. Pick two to three reputable news sources and stick with only gathering information from them. Additionally, limit your news checking to two to three times a day.
Commit to finishing projects for a sense of accomplishment. Since we are being forced to stay home, use this time productively. This is a good time to organize closets, clean out your garage, or just simply conquer the many home projects you have been putting off this past year. Feeling productive and accomplished during this time will keep your mind occupied and give you a sense of purpose and well-being.
Nurture safe connection.Staying connected to friends and family is crucial during a time of crisis. What we know is that when communities pull together during times of stress, they recover more easily. While this is a bit of a challenge because of social distancing, pick a few friends to stay in touch with on a regular basis. Perhaps you can set up a conference call with a few friends to check in daily or set up a group chat to stay connected, share information and daily downloads of your day and how you are keeping yourself occupied. Either way, take your safe connections and utilize them to their fullest.
Make time for your children to voice their questions and fears.It is imperative that we make our children feel safe during this stressful time. Set the stage for honest and open discussions, relating the facts without causing them stress. Answer questions appropriately while doing your best to help them feel safe. Your children will only be as calm as you are yourself.
Inhibit your anxiety response.When your anxiety starts creeping in, find a comfortable place in your home, ideally a space that you already find relaxing. Once you can feel your feet on the ground, begin to make the sound of “voo.” This vibrational sound provides a massage for your vagus nerve. The vagus nerve works with our autonomic nervous system and regulates many functions in our bodies, including social engagement and emotional regulation. Repeat this exercise 5-10 times. This exercise works directly to bring your nervous system back into balance.
Identify and label your emotions. Learn how to recognize and label current emotions. The inherent complexity to emotional processes makes this deceptively difficult. The process of identifying emotions requires the ability to both observe/notice one’s own responses as well as to accurately describe the context of the emotional occurrence.Try focusing on observing and describing: (1) the event triggering the emotion; (2) the meaning attributed to the event that triggered the emotion; (3) the sensory experience of the emotion – bodily sensations, etc.; (4) expressive behaviors linked to the emotion; and (5) consequences of the emotion on personal overall functioning.
Accept that all your emotions serve a purpose. Rather than seeing your emotions as “good” (eg: joy, love, compassion) or “bad” (eg: anxiety, fear, anger), see them all as serving a purpose. They just are. Emotions are never really good or bad, positive or negative. We need every emotion. The difficulty is when holding on to one emotional experience becomes distressing to functioning in our daily lives. People who avoid all the negative and only live in the positive (and vice versa) do not deal with the full experience of living but rather create an aversive response to the world around them.Learning to listen to the messages behind our emotions will help us learn more about our environment as well as ourselves. By developing our curiosity to understand the sources of our emotions, we are actually reducing their intensity and applying a very effective emotions management technique.
Reduce your vulnerability to emotional reactivity. When we are under physical or environmental stress, it follows that we are far more vulnerable to emotional reactivity. A key component to regulating emotions involves maintaining a healthy balance in different areas of day-to-day functioning that prevents us from getting overtaxed physically, mentally, or emotionally. Reducing emotional vulnerability involves balanced nutrition/healthy eating habits, sufficient amounts of sleep, adequate exercise, treating any existing physical ailments, abstaining from non-prescribed mood-altering drugs, and increasing your sense of mastery by immersing yourself in activities that function to build a sense of self-efficacy and competence.
Increase the number of positive emotional events in your day.From a long-term perspective, this involves making fundamental life changes that result in increasing the likelihood that positive events will occur more frequently. A big piece of this centers around being mindful of positive events when they dooccur, and savoring them, so they become vivid in your memories.
Learn and practice mindfulness. Mindfulness can be defined as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.” Other definitions are: “bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis,”and “it includes a quality of compassion, acceptance and loving-kindness.” Mindfulness gives us the ability to accept painful thoughts and feelings in a balanced way. In particular, it is, for most of us, a healthier way to deal with both the stress and fear surrounding the COVID-19 virus pandemic. Mindfulness offers a way to turn toward our anxiety and fear so we don’t become overwhelmed by it. First and foremost, mindfulness involves being in the present. It has been said that the present moment is all we have. The past has already occurred and the future is yet to be. We can become so lost in our fears about tomorrow that we miss the present. In addition to learning how to pay attention in the present moment, we need to learn how to do so without evaluation or judgment. We need to use our conscious awareness and direct our attention to observe and only observe. So mindfulness entails observing what is going on in our field of awareness just as it is—right here, right now.
Acceptance is another aspect of mindfulness. Instead of trying to ignore or get rid of our emotional pain, when we respond to our pain with acceptance, change can happen naturally. Acceptance is not the same as resignation or feeling powerless or hopeless. And it is not the same as sugar-coating reality. Instead, acceptance in this context refers to making a conscious choice to experience our sensations, feelings, and thoughts just as they are. When we practice acceptance in this way, when we give up trying to control or manipulate our experience, we open the door to change.
Practice self-compassion. While compassion is the ability to feel and connect with the suffering of another human being, self-compassion is the ability to feel and connect with one’s own suffering. More specifically for our purposes, self-compassion is the act of extending compassion to one’s self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering.
If we are to be self-compassionate, we need to offer ourselves the recognition, validation, and support we would offer a loved one or a dear friend who is suffering. Kristin Neff, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, is the leading researcher in the growing field of self-compassion. In her ground-breaking book, Self-Compassion, she defines self-compassion as “being open to and moved by one’s own suffering, experiencing feelings of caring and kindness toward oneself, taking an understanding, nonjudgmental attitude toward one’s inadequacies and failures, and recognizing that one’s experience is part of the common human experience.” Self-compassion encourages you to begin to treat yourself and talk to yourself with the same kindness, caring, and compassion you would show a good friend or a beloved child. Just as connecting with the suffering of others has actually been shown to comfort and even help heal others of their ailments or problems, connecting with your own suffering will do the same for you. Instead of becoming self-critical when you begin to feel anxious, fearful or panicky, you can work toward accepting your behavior with self-compassionate statements like:
- “It is understandable that I would feel afraid right now.”
- “It is understandable that I would go back to old habits when I’m stressed.”
The key here is to remind yourself that it is understandable, given the present situation, that you would be afraid, stressed, or panicked and that offering yourself understanding and self-compassion will help you a lot more than judging or criticizing yourself.
Combine mindfulness with self-compassion. Self-compassion and mindfulness can work in tandem to help you learn to lean into your fear and anxiety and establish a new relationship with it. As Christopher Germer stated in his book, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: “While mindfulness says, ‘Feel the pain,’ self-compassion says, ‘Cherish yourself in the midst of the pain.’” Mindfulness practice often leads to self-compassion. Mindfulness combined with self-compassion will help you to experience fear, anxiety, and pain in safe doses instead of either avoiding these feelings or allowing them to overwhelm you and your ability to focus and function. Self-compassion teaches us that instead of dealing with difficult emotions by fighting against them, we acknowledge our pain and respond to it with kindness and understanding. As Kristin Neff so eloquently stated in Self Compassion: “The beauty of self-compassion is that instead of replacing negative feelings with positive ones, new positive emotions are generated by embracing the negative ones. The positive emotions of care and connectedness are felt alongside our painful feelings. When we have compassion for ourselves, sunshine and shadow are experienced simultaneously.”
Distract yourself from stressful thoughts and feelings: Another thing under your control is what you pay attention to. Focusing on the drama unfolding on a day-to-day basis has its limits it terms of its usefulness and it is important to focus on other things that you enjoy or that enhance your life. Read a novel, play a game, watch a movie, play music, do some spring cleaning, bake or cook, visit a museum (virtually) or catch up on all those things you have said you wish you had more time to do. Using distraction too much in everyday life can sometimes backfire, but it is a great approach to use when we experience situations we cannot control.
Engage in a reappraisal: By far, the most effective strategy for regulating emotions such as anxiety, fear or panic in uncontrollable situations is reappraisal — thinking about the situation in a different way. The reason this works so well is that the thing that initiates an emotion is often an appraisal — how we think of the significance or meaning of an event. So, a re-appraisal is a way to reconsider or reframe that meaning. Here are a few examples of how reappraisal might work in the current situation:
- Refocusing— while it is easy for us to focus on “what does this mean for me?”, an alternative which may be appropriate in this situation is “what does it mean for others?” Indeed, those who are at low risk for severe infection should be concerned more about the possibility of transmitting the virus to someone who is at high risk, rather than just their own health. So, one way to reduce distress and anxiety about your own uncertain future or self-isolation is to think of how you can have a positive impact on controlling (see bit about control and acceptance above) the spread.
- Reframing— there are many ways to reframe a situation. One possibility for those distressed by the social isolation or feeling like their anxiety is unique is to notice how each of us are not alone in this. The entire world is grappling with their uncertainties, responses, and self- or other-imposed social distancing, just like you. We are all in this together. There are very few moments in which we can perceive the entire planet sharing the same experience. Often this comes from common threat. This may not diminish your anxiety, but it might change your sense of feeling alone or lonely over the coming weeks.
Social Support: There are two ways that social support can have an impact on our emotions. The first is the obvious one — receiving support from others. Support from others is powerful and can change how you feel about a situation quite rapidly. But in these socially distant circumstances, it may be that you need to reach out rather than wait for someone to offer support. With cellular and internet tools, this is not as daunting as it once was. Check in with people to share what is going on or just to say hi. Some people share a video chat while watching a movie “together.” Whatever it is, connecting with others is good. The second way is that you will actually feel better is by providing support to someone else. Reach out, check in, figure out ways to share and help. Maybe this is online, or maybe it is making a meal or doing some shopping for your elderly neighbor (with appropriate cautions to not infect others, of course). Or maybe it is as simple as being there to listen. Often, when we see others having a hard time, we want to jump in right away and offer a solution. Sometimes just listening and validating someone’s feelings is enough. It is one of the great ironic truisms of life that helping others makes us feel better about ourselves.
Establishing and maintaining a healthy routine. Developing routine daily habits helps to regulate our emotions, and keep a positive frame of mind. This includes the following:
- Mindfulness meditation and breath work.
- Healthy eating and nutrition
- Adequate sleep
- Regular exercise
- Calm quiet time.
- Reading (particularly fiction)
- Listening to peaceful music.
- Engaging in other creative activities.
The crisis we are in will create many demands upon us. While the physical demands that cause our stress are obvious and worrisome, we cannot underestimate the demands the crisis is putting on our mental and emotional well being. For that reason, embracing the importance and practices of emotional regulation is critical.
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