Life is full of experiences and responsibilities that cause stress, fear, and anxiety. If left unchecked, these stressors can lead to mental health struggles, which can become very severe. The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced collective stress across the globe, unlike anything we have seen before. Now more than ever, people are struggling through fear, anxiety, and worry far beyond life’s typical stressors.
Bryan provides insight into the effects that the COVID-19 pandemic is having on our professional workforce, and how we can better understand when our concerns and fears may have crossed the line into something more serious, like depression or anxiety.
Q1: How has your typical day as a psychotherapist changed since the pandemic began?
We have seen a huge increase in people reaching out. The original thought was COVID would be a few weeks, but that didn’t happen. We are in the thick of it. It’s been a sustained season of high anxiety with the news of the virus, and during a high-tension political year. Our practice has seen a spike in intake every month.
On an existential level, there’s a collective threat to our sense of safety. This collective trauma has normalized the need for therapy. Everybody can benefit from therapy, and the virus has amplified it. It’s a blessing to be able to help others at this time.
Q2: Could you elaborate on this statement you made; “How you’ve learned to show up in the world is multifaceted, complex, and shaped by a lifetime of experience.”? How has the pandemic shifted how we show up in the world as professionals?
We all have different patterns, different personality traits, or defense mechanisms. There are multifaced streams that flow into the ocean of who we are. At an early age, we develop our personality traits. Some are conscious and others are subconscious.
When things get overwhelming, people become less present. As a response, they check out mentally and become less effective at their job. Their ability to tackle responsibilities since COVID has become more challenging. Others may become more aggressive. Some put their head in the sand and pretend it is not that bad. These are all unconscious coping mechanisms or patterns of relating to the world.
Q3: Let’s talk about the emotional fatigue we might experience from isolation and living with COVID restrictions for so long. What are some tips to combat that fatigue?
To put it in a different language, COVID fatigue is a function of our nervous system, which controls our unconscious behaviors. Our parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems are at work. The waves come along and trigger fight or flight, and introduce a surge of chemicals in our bodies. When the stressor is ongoing, our bodies cannot handle the influx of chemicals.
People are feeling a measure of not being in control. Our bodies can go into a shutdown mode from dealing with cortisol, which is the fight-or-flight stress hormone in your body, for long. It looks like a lot like depression. You will see a lack of motivation and a sense of powerlessness. If it goes unchecked too long, it can lead to more serious issues.
How we cope has a lot to do with how honest we can be with ourselves about how we are doing. We live in a culture that values independence, although we are wired by relationships. There can be shame around the sense of needing help. Finding the courage to reach out to a family member, a friend you feel safe with, or a professional practice is the first step. Sometimes other people can see what we cannot see.
Q4: The pandemic is the dominant news story everywhere and is a prominent topic on social media. Is it possible to get oversaturated with COVID-19 news and information?
It is not just possible, it’s absolutely happening. With short news cycles and social media, it’s a constant message of fear and it puts us right back into fight or flight mode. All this energy and information comes at us at an outrageous pace. It’s important to set boundaries around what you allow yourself to take in terms of media and from the people you communicate with.
Some people talk about the pandemic nonstop to regulate their own nervous system. There’s a sense of, if I talk about it, I will feel better. I’d encourage people to set boundaries and confide in trusted friends to talk about how they’re truly feeling. Limit intake. Figure out what self-care looks like for you.
What is energetic and healing for you? Healing activities are things like physical exercise, meditation, or mindfulness practices.
Part of what causes so much anxiety is that our brains travel into the future and worry about things we cannot control. Mindfulness keeps you in the present. Breath is the anchor to the present moment. You are breathing now in this moment. Take a moment to listen and feel your breath. Notice your sensations and try to be patient. If you try to focus on your breath, and if you notice your brain is thinking about the future, acknowledge this and move on. This is a technique that can calm someone who is feeling anxious.
Q5: Lockdowns, working from home, and distance learning are examples of restrictions that can create stressful challenges. What signs should someone look for to identify whether normal stress has become something more serious like depression or anxiety?
Sometimes it helps to ask another person, “How do you think I am doing?” Direct feedback from someone you feel safe with can be a good way to check-in.
You can also look at how your life feels.
- Are you losing interest in things?
- Are you isolating yourself?
- Are you shutting down in some way or are you becoming more aggressive?
- How are others experiencing you? Is it vastly different than you normally are?
- Are others expressing concern?
Q6: What signs of stress should we watch for in others, including coworkers and loved ones?
It’s the same things that you’d look for in yourself. Are they acting very differently than they normally do? Are they unable to complete tasks or participate in work like they used to? Maybe they used to participate in a meeting, but now you notice they are behaving like they are checked out. This happens to all of us from time to time, but if it’s consistent, it could be a sign of trouble.
We all have that gut feeling. We all know what it’s like to walk into a room and feel tension. Train yourself to pay attention to your gut feeling and to approach the gut feeling with curiosity and not as if it’s data. Rather than saying, “Hey you’re on edge,” instead say, “Something feels different today, I just wanted to check in — how are you feeling?”
Q7: Is it possible some of us will have lasting, long-term issues from living through the COVID pandemic?
I think something at this level has a way of marking us. It’s a collective trauma. It’s a much more acute trauma for some. By trauma, that means it is registering in our nervous system, and that gets into our being in a way. For some, it could have long-lasting negative impacts, but it’s also an opportunity for us to look inward. How we deal with collective trauma and past experiences means we may show up differently in the world. My hope is to use this as an opportunity to look inward and become self-reflective and invite new relationships. We will find healing through relationships.
Q8: What pieces of wisdom gathered from your life experiences as a psychotherapist, husband and father, friend, business owner, and coworker, would you offer us in these challenging times?
- Self-care is not selfish. Some people feel a sense of shame over taking care of their basic needs. Setting boundaries may feel like conflict. The need to take care of ourselves allows us to show up for others.
- We are all suffering. Everyone is going through it. When you observe people acting out of character, don’t just sit back and hope it passes. Instead of tolerating or enduring the change, get curious about what they may be going through and see if you can help.
- Practice compassion for yourself. Your feelings, emotions, and needs matter. Have compassion for others as well.
- We are relational beings. To repeat a line from my mentor, Roy Barsness, Ph.D, “We are formed in relationship, we are harmed in relationship, and we are healed in relationship.” If you are isolated, find someone to connect to. Trust and safety are important. If someone is not available, then reach out to a professional. People are there if you are willing to take the risk of speaking.
A theme throughout this post is the need to take care of ourselves and to also take an interest in the health of the people around us. We invite you to step in with your own helpful tips or experiences to learn from. Please comment in the “Leave a Reply” box below. Thank you!
For more of Bryan’s perspective on emotional health, check out his “Why in the World” podcast: https://whyintheworld.podbean.com/.