No matter how well you generally cope with pressure, there is no denying that the past two years have been exceptionally stressful. And this is just a baseline! For some of us, we have had to cope with struggles unrelated to COVID-19, and for others, the pandemic has made everything so much worse.
Whether you think that COVID-19 has impacted your mental health or not, it has. It has burdened people around you,
whose behavior was affected by how they were feeling. It has changed employment demographics with the loss of workers, altering access to services. It has created rifts in families and friendships. If you don’t know anyone who has had COVID or lost someone to COVID, you may think that you haven’t experienced much pandemic stress, if any. But the truth is that the state of the country (and the world) over the last two years has added an extra layer of stress to everything we do, see, and experience.
What does all this mean? It means that your mental health has been under duress for years. It means that significant life events, just as death, divorce, relocating, illness, and trauma, have all been colored by a global emergency. This sort of constant processing and vigilance is exhausting. The cost to your mental health is extreme, no matter how well-adjusted you are or if you even notice it anymore. If someone were to ask, “Is your mental health at a breaking point?” you might not say that it is. But there may be signs and symptoms that you are ignoring or downplaying. There may be signs and symptoms that you aren’t aware of or blame yourself for! So many people are going through this similar experience of constant fatigue; you are not alone.
A change in mood can indicate that you are experiencing a decline in your mental health; it may seem simple, but people can underestimate it. If you feel depressed,
angry, and/or anxious a lot of the time, that is a sign. You may have gotten used to feeling this way and don’t notice it anymore, but it is no way to live.
Mood swings are also an indicator of undue stress. Volatile emotions display an inability to regulate and process how we are feeling. This occurs when we are under too much emotional pressure.
You may notice yourself getting upset or triggered easily or losing patience. You “reach the end of your rope” more often and more quickly than you used to. The slightest inconvenience feels like the last straw. This is because you are running on empty more often than not.
This is probably one that you beat yourself up for. When our emotions are unpredictable and unstable, it inevitably leads to a lack of concentration and attention. We find it harder to prioritize or become easily distracted once we get started on a task.
You may have seen a lot of memes and comments online about how everyone has been sitting on the couch for the past two years – there is both truth and fiction in this narrative.
The fiction is that most of us have continued to work, whether in or out of the home, or both. The truth is that keeping up with our basic routines has been exhausting, so we have also felt overwhelmed by the idea of getting out of bed in the morning or off the couch. We are working so hard to keep going that we feel like we can never do enough, and when we have the opportunity to disconnect, we take it. It is a coping mechanism, not a personal failing.
You may have reached this point because you are afraid to seek support, despite consistent thoughts that you really need it. There can be many reasons why we delay asking
for help. We think, “Once I pay off my car loans, I will start therapy” or, “Once the kids are situated, I will make time for self-care.”
Sometimes, the ongoing stigma around mental health stops you from sharing your struggles and need for help. Especially with all that is going on around the world, you may think, “Compared to other people in other parts of the world, I have so much to be thankful for, I don’t know why I feel sad.” You might be feeling alone in your mental health struggles. You may also feel like you don’t know where to begin. “How would I even start to explain what I’m feeling?” If you feel as though all of your mental burdens are a ball of string, that is a strong sign that you have reached your capacity for coping.
We are living in a time of division, instability, fear, grief. There is no way to avoid being impacted in some way by the state of the world around us. However, we can take the time and space we need to do the best we can with what we have. Note that the best we can do doesn’t mean that we decide to turn everything around in a day, be happy, and never struggle again. It means that we intend to do our best on any given day in any given circumstance. Will our intent always lead to the results we’d like? No. Will every day be easy once we’ve had one good day? Of course not. We have to keep showing up for ourselves and trying our hardest to embrace what is happening in the present moment, good or bad.
Things won’t change unless you first recognize that you have a problem. Whether it is in your relationship with your partner, or with your emotions, the first step is to recognize that you are struggling. Instead of minimizing or dismissing your feelings and challenges, you can start to acknowledge your emotions.
You may prefer to sit and meditate about how you are feeling, journal, or move your body. Allow yourself to process what you observe from as neutral a place as possible; see it as gathering information. Be curious about what you discover. When are you most vulnerable to feeling overwhelmed? How long has this been going on? Which of your stressors is the hardest for you to cope with? Give yourself the space to explore what has been going on and how that looks for you in your life. Have you pulled away from loved ones? Do you find it challenging to stay motivated at work?
Take this information and acknowledge it. Speak kindly to yourself about what you now know. You may want to write yourself notes of encouragement and post them on your bathroom mirror, or keep them as a note on your phone. When you are validating your struggles, it is important to name them, claim them, and accept them. “I am short with my family because I am stressed out; I am too overwhelmed to handle everything on my plate. I deserve a life I can manage.” Be honest with yourself about where you are at mentally. “I am struggling to stay positive; my fear and pain are valid.
When our mental health is declining, our thoughts become more skewed and negative. We tend to have distorted thinking about ourselves, others, and the future.
In Cognitive-Behavioral therapy, unhealthy and negative thoughts are called cognitive distortions, such as All-or-Nothing thinking or Catastrophizing. All-or-nothing (or black-and-white) thinking is a way of thinking that means that if one thing is true, everything else is impacted by it and becomes true, too. If you have some mishaps, it’s over; the day has to be either good or bad, and there is no turning it around. Catastrophizing involves a similar train of thought, where every wrong thing reminds you of every bad thing from the past and creates anxiety about all the bad things you are certain are coming to you in the future. These rigid ways of thinking can quickly overtake your entire thought process.
To improve your mental health, you have to change the way you think. Once you recognize your unhelpful thinking, you want to question your thoughts and identify alternative ones. The easiest way to do this is to talk to yourself like you talk to someone you love. It can be hard to tell ourselves, “This won’t be forever” when we are feeling bad. But it is precisely what we would say to a loved one who was struggling with a similar issue.
While there are so many ways to create a routine, it is important to start with the way you begin your day and end your day.
Morning routines play a big role in the way you approach your day, whereas evening routines can help you have closure from the long day. These are the simplest routines to set because they typically exist in an environment over which you have control: your home. Make sure you have everything you need in place for these routines, regardless of how much control you have over the middle of the day. Having this daily framework provides consistency that is soothing to our minds in times of chaos and turmoil; this is also why we notice that we have trouble keeping up routines when we are feeling low.
Some parts of your routine might not be daily, and that’s okay. Make sure to go for a walk at least twice a week, do your laundry on Sundays, and call your sister every other Thursday evening; these are all routines. They allow and enable you to feel consistent, which creates stability and reassurance that you have some power over yourself and your life. A lot of our anxiety comes from the feeling of powerlessness. We can attempt to feel powerful in unhealthy or impossible ways; having a routine is a good antidote to that.
Coping skills are a bank that you can go to of self-care acts, habits, and routines. The more often we visit our coping skills bank, the more easily we can deal with stress, and less likely it is to build upon us. The great thing about these skills is that you can make them work for you and your needs. Deep breathing is a great tool to use when you are stressed but can also be used in regularly-scheduled meditation sessions or prior to entering what you think could be a stressful situation.
Physical activity, such as going for a walk, can be used the same way: before, during, or after events that put pressure on you. Listening to music, journaling, creating art all of these are all ways to boost and/or express your mood. Regular self-care such as enough sleep, hydration, and nutrition are also keys.
Some coping skills require emotion-based exploration that benefits from the guidance of a licensed therapist. We offer both in-person and online therapy here at our practice in Woodland Hills; you may be more comfortable in an office or the familiarity of your own home. In therapy, you can speak to someone who has no other affiliation with your life, no personal bias or investment in how you cope other than to support you in feeling better. You can explore and expand your coping skills through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). A therapist will help you unpack your history, your current day-to-day experiences, and the stories you tell yourself without judgment. The tools you collect and build in therapy enable you to process life events with confidence and resilience; the goal of therapy is for you to terminate your sessions eventually. You may want to return intermittently to refresh your toolbox or need additional support during a particularly difficult future time, and that’s okay, too! The key is to begin and show up for yourself so that your mental health supports you instead of harming you.
It can be scary and overwhelming to accept and admit that we have reached a breaking point in our mental health. In our culture, we spend a lot of our time attempting to live a life that looks a certain way from the outside. Our determination to be “flawless” is not realistic; human beings are not perfect. We all need help sometimes. If you are experiencing worsening mental health to the point of considering self-harm, please reach out to a health professional immediately so that you can receive the help you need and deserve.
Here at Embracing You Therapy, we invite you to explore with us how life would be different if you had more control over your thoughts and emotions, and we invite you to consider that it is possible to accept things just as they are, embracing imperfections to create a gentler place for calm in your life.
Let’s learn what drives your unique perspective on anxiety and stress. Then, let’s find the tools-your unique tools that help you respond to life in a healthy, calm way. Contact us today for your complimentary 15-minute phone consultation with one of our Client Care Coordinators.
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