Updated: Jun 4
Who would have thought a few weeks ago that we would have to live under these extreme circumstances where we’re being asked to isolate ourselves from people we love and normally turn to for support, friendship and even a hug?
Everyone is in the same boat and, although there’s a collective unity in doing what’s right, there’s also an underlying feeling of anticipation and concern plus a total absence of certainty about what our future holds.
For people who don’t suffer from anxiety, there’s an in-built coping mechanism for when a stressful situation hits. Stress levels may rise to a certain level where they become anxious about this situation.
However, once it’s established that a distinct threat is manageable, either because the emergency is over or simply because there’s nothing they can do to manage it, their stress levels return to normal.
The problem with anxiety sufferers is that we start from an anxious place, so when something stressful happens, anxiety levels quickly shoot up to a critical point.
The stressful event could be a relatively small thing like a sensation or a thought but often, we have no idea at all what the stressor is but the anxiety response is always the same - inappropriate.
So now our governments are telling us to stay at home and avoid going out unless absolutely necessary to curb the ongoing Covid-19 outbreak.
These warnings are unprecedented. The clampdown has never been seen before, not even during the two world wars. It’s normal to feel anxious and we might even be really feeling as if we're at the edge of our mental health limit.
So, how do we deal with anxiety and the ongoing emotions in all of this…. ?
I’m going to be running a series of Facebook Live’s talking about ways to protect mental health during this critical time.
The general topic will be about managing anxiety and emotions.
In this blog I’m focusing on managing emotions because so many people I’ve spoken to are having a really hard time handling their current emotions.
It’s not surprising, just think about it:
We’ve got no distractions in that we can’t get out and get busy because there’s no ‘business as usual’
Freedom has been removed
Choices have been curtailed
We’re living in close proximity with others
Perhaps people we don’t want to spend a lot of time with
Plus, we can't see the people we really want to see
Our support system’s been ruptured
We’re anxious about the future
We might feel extremely isolated which is not surprising since that’s what we’ve been asked to do – socially isolate!
Being static, changing our routine or not having the old safety nets can invoke a lot of fear because we’ve lost our normal levels of control. The emotions can seem overwhelming. Panic, anger, a sense of loss (grief), suffocation or frustration can come at us much more quickly than we’re used to.
When we’re overloaded with emotions and we’re not used to, it can have a very negative effect on our mental health. We might feel out of control or think there’s something wrong with us.
Many of us could turn to an extended wine o’clock, munching junk food or become very depressed. It’s not only the fear of the unknown that drives us to seek refuge in external sources, it’s also the angst of being confronted with emotions that we simply not used to dealing with. It’s called emotional overload.
Unfortunately, there is no escape. It’s like running down a dead-end street where you get to the end and you're splattered on a wire fence like Top Cat. Turn around and there’s your emotions staring you in the face.
What do you do?
1. Fight your way through them and try and escape in the opposite direction
2. Accept them
Your first choice really leaves you no option because your emotions aren’t going anywhere. They’ll turn around and chase you down the street. The second choice is your only option – accept them.
Opening Our Hearts To Our Emotions
As frightening as this may seem, emotions are very important. They really matter and they are special. If we make the emotions go away or push them down we lose a very important part of our life.
If we push down negative emotions, we also push down positive emotions. They’re not just the source of our fear and anger, they’re also the source of joy and happiness. It’s the centre of giving and receiving love, the part of us that helps us to feel close to other people.
By releasing them, we get back in touch with ourselves and our instincts. We become guided by our emotions and learn to trust them to help us through problems. They may not always be a barrel of laughs, but pressing them down can be a miserable existence.
What Is The Answer: Acceptance.
If we can learn to stay with our emotions, we can positively acknowledge them and let them pass because they always pass. They are like clouds in the sky, here for a while and then move on.
When they feel overwhelming, self soothe with things like:
It’s okay to have emotions.
It’s okay to feel my emotions.
All these emotions are okay.
Emotions are not wrong; they are my emotions.
I don’t need to feel guilty about my emotions.
They are not inappropriate.
I don’t need to judge my emotions.
They are not who I am, they are energy, not my personality.
In the hurly burlyness of life we can lose touch with our emotions. Often this is a self protection measure to avoid being hurt. It can seem as if being emotionally vulnerable might be dangerous. If we've been hurt once, we may fear being hurt again and so it seems safer to withdraw emotionally.
People who have hurt us, some hidden trauma or old family systems are all good reasons why we might want to hide away. We may have even been told in childhood to NOT express our emotions, that they are stupid or irrelevant. Consequently, many of us don't even recognise our emotions because we've kept them buried for so long. We might even feel afraid of them.
It can be daunting to deal with a whole load of them at once and so confusing that we can't distinguish them.
Here's a simple way to identify emotions. In the world of pop psychology, there are four emotions:
Everything else is a variation of these four emotions. For example, loneliness would be sad, happiness would be glad and anxiety would be scared.
It’s a common misconception to think that we have to be on guard for feeling all our emotions, that we have to wallow in an emotional mess. It's dealing with our emotions that clean-ups any emotional mess.
An emotional mess is when we CAN’T deal with our emotions and we have to turn to unhealthy behaviours to try and avoid them. Dealing with them means we find the peace and security we’re looking for because we stop running away.
If an emotion comes our way, we don’t ignore it or block it or run away from it.
Instead do these three things:
1. Feel it.
2. Acknowledge it.
3. Let it pass.
It's best not to say to ourselves ‘don’t feel that,' or judge ourselves for having emotions. It's better to experience them and allow the energy to pass through us and accept it as our emotional state in that moment. Then we have control over our emotions. If we have an overload of sadness, we feel it - acknowledge it - let it pass.
We make rational decisions about that emotion and any accompanying thoughts as our moral compass comes into play. We might ask ourselves, ‘Is there a problem I need to resolve?’ or ‘Do I need to speak to someone about it?’ or ‘Am I getting over anxious about something that is unlikely to happen?’
Our emotions don’t need to control us. If we are angry we don’t have to hit anybody or beat ourselves up. Can it be enough to merely feel the emotion and acknowledge the thoughts? Then let them pass?
Paying attention to the inner dialogue of, ‘I shouldn’t have these emotions’ and then dismissing those thoughts can help to smooth the path towards a little more inner peace.
This is the time to invite emotions into our lives and make a commitment to ourselves. We can take a loving attitude to them. By trusting our emotions, we are trusting ourselves and we will find our way through this critical time. We’re all in this together.