This May, we’ll be exploring various aspects of mental health in a new series called “How Do I Deal?” As we navigate Mental Health Awareness month during COVID-19 this year, we feel like this current moment in time requires us to go a few layers deeper as we learn how to manage all the grief hope, whiplash, fear, anxiety, and sadness we may be feeling in this moment and beyond.
*Originally Published on May 1, 2020.*
"How do I deal?" If you’re anything like us, you’ve been asking yourself this question since early March — or perhaps much longer. This is a tough time for anyone to manage their mental health, and it’s especially tricky if mental health or illness was on your mind way before this all started. This week, we’ve teamed up with Alma, a New York-based community of therapists, to find answers to the questions you’ve been asking us most.
1. I’m anxious all the time. Where do I even start with learning to cope?
“Consider the first step of coping to be that you are acknowledging you are having a reaction; we cannot manage our reactions until after we are able to recognize that they are happening. This includes some level of acceptance, as we know that the more we resist our reactions, the more likely they are to exacerbate. Once acknowledged, you can pivot to focus on empowering yourself through your own personal agency to make choices about implementing coping skills that are adaptive and work for you (every person is different).
Adaptive coping refers to coping skills that are healthy, which assist the person towards positive functioning and increasing their well-being. Adaptive means we can adjust in a healthy manner to what we are experiencing. Examples include:
• Exercise, especially yoga or breathing techniques that can help to calm the stress response in your nervous system that is activated
• Talking to friends or family to receive support
• Using music (listening/singing/dancing)
• Refocusing or distracting yourself with positive activities such as games or reading
• Expressive art such as writing or drawing
Maladaptive coping refers to unhealthy ways of coping. This may help a person cope in their immediate need, i.e. having a few drinks to numb uncomfortable feelings, but after the immediate band-aid falls off, we know that this type of coping actually leaves us vulnerable to feeling worse. So for example, consuming alcohol may relieve some immediate feelings of pain and discomfort but, ultimately it has the potential to lead us to feel even more depressed and anxious than before.”
— Lisa Henshaw, PhD, LCSW
2. I’m experiencing so many psychosomatic symptoms, and I’ve noticed more connection in my mind and my body than ever before. How do I deal with the physical manifestation of my anxieties?
“Understanding the body-mind connections is important. We often are not aware of our body sensations and how they affect us, especially when we live in a world that we are over stimulated by sounds, noises, and so on. Doing a body scan meditation helps identify how our body reacts to stress and tension. Start with being aware of the top of your head, slowly moving down to your face, etc. This can show you how tense your shoulders are or where you hold your breath.
Another technique is being aware of our breath, which is like taking a thermometer and finding out how anxious we are. Take a breath right now. Where do you feel the tension as you breathe? Is your breath labored or do you feel at ease? By asking yourself these questions, you’re getting to know your body-mind connection better.
Additionally, there are other ways you can find to relax. This can take the form of feeling your feet on the ground or holding a pillow to your chest as you breathe in and out regulating your autonomic nervous system. These are forms of stimulating your Vagus Nerve that help with regulating the fight or flight system.”
— Lynne Matte, PhD
3. How do I deal with pressures to be productive or make meaning of this moment?
“We live in a culture that values productivity. When we meet someone, usually the first question we ask is, “What do you do?” but we don’t spend a lot of time on deeper questions like, “What do you value?” or “What do you feel when you are doing something that makes you happy?” Therefore, we may need to stop and think about the answers to those types of questions right now. Most of us think of them as out-of-body experiences, when in fact, they’re more inner-body experiences that help us slow down and get in touch with what makes us feel good.
A good way to find meaning in this moment is by finding out what we can be grateful for right now. Keeping a gratitude journal can help you find the small things that make you happy, like the sip of a good hot chocolate or the laugh of your family member.”
— Lynne Matte, PhD
4. How do I deal with the collective trauma of all this?
The shared experience of a collective trauma, like anything, has potential pros and cons.
For example, one potential negative is that it can be tempting to compare ourselves to others and we may find ourselves questioning why we’re having a different response than our partner, friend, colleague, or parent. In this experience, it’s important to understand that every person’s reaction to trauma is different and there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to respond. One way to cope is to help reassure yourself that your reaction is normal for you and to not question it in comparison to others.
On the other side, experiencing a collective trauma reinforces that we are not alone in our experience; you are not going through this in an isolated manner. This is a traumatic event that everyone is experiencing, though differently, together. We are all in the same boat and can find ways to support each other.
Setting boundaries with media, friends, and family can be extremely helpful right now. Because this is a collective trauma, it may seem like this is all anyone is talking about, which you may find helpful or harmful. My recommendation would be to evaluate your reactions to media exposure (watching the news, scrolling through social media) and to speaking with friends, loved ones, and colleagues. Are you more anxious after you talk to someone in particular or scroll though Twitter? Is someone’s reaction during a telephone call or Zoom session triggering yours? This self-evaluation can help to identify where your boundaries need to be, which may also take some trial and error to figure out (it won’t be perfect!). The goal is to set boundaries that work for you and support your well-being.”
— Lisa Henshaw, PhD, LCSW
5. How do I deal with all the vivid dreams I’m having right now?
“There’s a couple camps I’m hearing in terms of dreaming right now. Sleep patterns are really affected in times of stress and unrest, so I’m hearing some people reporting they can’t remember their dreams because they can’t even fall asleep and others saying they’re having the wildest dreams and they don’t even know where to place them.
I work with a lot with clients using creativity as a means to express the same things you would with talk therapy, but adding writing and visual art to explore those same thoughts and ideas. I really advocate for tapping into your more creative spaces in times of stress, especially when it comes to dream analysis. If you’re waking up in the morning feeling really triggered by a really hard dream — or even a fantasy dream where all of a sudden everything was “back to normal” and everyone was fine — giving yourself a creative space to process that could be helpful. You could keep a journal by your bed and write things down in the morning. Write down the main feelings present when you wake up. Or, if you prefer, make a visual representation of something that was present in the dream so it doesn’t bleed into the rest of your day in a way that’s hard to process.”
— Naomi Cohen-Thompson, LCAT
6. How do I deal all the different types of grief I’m feeling right now?
“Our grief responses to the varied experiences of loss associated with COVID-19 will be unique to each person. Across many types of grief, there will be feelings of powerlessness. One of the most difficult aspects of grief is that we have lost something, and that loss is out of our control. Allowing yourself time to grieve without feeling guilty is helpful; feeling through your feelings and letting them go can be much more productive than bottling up feelings inside without having any outlet.
Talking through feelings of loss or working through anger related to loss with positive coping (such as exercise) can support how we move through grief in a healthy manner. It can help us cope when we know what to expect; however, COVID-19 is quite unpredictable. Grief is also unpredictable. Therefore, it’s important to work on letting go of the control of our emotions and understand that each day will be different and it’s normal to have good days and bad days.
If you find yourself trying to cope and not being able to function in your daily life to the point where you’re having difficulty meeting your basic needs, or if your reaction is interfering with your daily functioning to the point where you’re unable to complete tasks, I would 100% recommend reaching out to a therapist for help. Connecting with a therapist for support with managing your reactions to trauma and loss can offer space for healing that is invaluable. There’s power in learning more about yourself through exploring with someone who is not biased and non-judgmental, as well as an expert in helping others heal.”
— Lisa Henshaw, PhD, LCSW
How are you prioritizing your mental health right now? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below! 👇
Naomi Cohen-Thompson uses talk therapy and creative self-expression to help clients work through anxiety, communication issues, and relationship challenges. She helps people identify triggers and develop self-care strategies to better manage their mental health, especially in high-pressure professional settings. Naomi also serves as a clinical supervisor to graduate-level art therapy students.
Lynne Matte is a clinical psychologist working with clients to achieve self-fulfillment through a range of techniques, including CBT, motivational interviewing, biofeedback, and multicultural frameworks. She is open-minded and empathetic, and specializes in supporting clients who are struggling with health issues, anxiety, and depression.
Lisa Henshaw is a psychotherapist who brings more than 10 years of experience and passion to her practice. She tailors her work to meet individual needs and strengths, with expertise in assisting adults struggling with depression, anxiety, trauma, relationship difficulties, and more. Outside of her private practice, Lisa works as an Assistant Clinical Professor at Yeshiva University.
Art by Coco Lashar for Girls’ Night In.