It's OK to Not Be OK During a Pandemic

Want to be more resilient? Let yourself feel "all the feels."

Posted May 20, 2020

Have you been Netflixing more than normal? Or maybe you’ve found comfort in Priming, wining, or dining? Not you? Well, perhaps instead you’ve been working way more than you used to ... and, if you're honest with yourself, way more than you need to?

More importantly, have you engaged in any of these behaviors to avoid experiencing difficult thoughts and emotions? On occasion, I have. Perhaps you have, too. It’s hard to admit, especially to ourselves, that maybe we’re not OK. And while it seems (via social media) the rest of the world is doing just “fine,” picking up new skills and trying novel things, it’s easy to feel even worse about yourself when you seem to be the only one without a new hobby. But appearances can be misleading—and it may be that the rest of the world is also trying to avoid dealing with difficult thoughts and emotions—through baking, gardening, and learning new languages.

 Canva, used with permission
Source: Canva, used with permission

In our incessant pursuit of happiness, society has trained us to try to avoid negative emotions. While negative emotions aren’t necessarily bad (and sometimes can even be productive), we’ve convinced ourselves that the "good life" is solely made up of emotions like love, happiness, joy, and hope. So, we end up criticizing ourselves for feeling angry, anxious, or sad, which often drives even more negative emotions such as guilt and shame. This can become a vicious cycle either leading to complete emotional avoidance or getting stuck in a downward spiral of negativity. And while in the short-term avoidance may help, long-term emotional avoidance can come at a cost—with research linking it to: 

  • A greater likelihood of anxiety and depression
  • Poorer work performance
  • Lower quality of life
  • Increased rumination
  • Problematic behaviors such as substance abuse

The truth is, well-being is built upon giving yourself permission to acknowledge and accept all emotionseven the hard ones. Instead of trying to control, ignore or avoid anger, fear, shame, or (insert your emotion of choice), acceptance is about approaching emotions with a sense of curiosity and openness. In other words, acceptance is practiced through noticing your emotions without judging yourself for feeling them—and without the need to react to them. Importantly, science has shown that the practice of acceptance is linked to:

  • Reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety
  • Less stressor-related rumination
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Reduced levels of cortisol
  • More resilient coping

Though there are many different strategies for managing difficult emotions, here's a list of specific situations in which practicing acceptance may be most helpful. 

  • When emotions and/or thoughts keep resurfacing despite your attempts to avoid them
  • When you’re judging yourself for feeling a certain emotion (i.e. “It’s stupid for me to be upset over this!”)
  • When you begin engaging in unhealthy coping behaviors to purposely distract yourself
  • When experiencing stress-induced health challenges

If you find yourself in one of the above situations, here’s a simple, four-step process to help you practice acceptance—so you can ACTT with intention when facing challenges:

  • A: Acknowledge and accept uncomfortable thoughts and emotions—without judgment. You can do so by simply saying to yourself, “I’m feeling (insert emotion) right now.”
  • C: Consider what you can control in the situation.
  • T: Take several deep, diaphragmatic breaths (aka belly breaths).
  • T: Take intentional, values-based action, by first asking yourself, "What do I want to be known for in this moment?" or "What's the most helpful action I can take, based on what I can control?"

While it’s OK to not be OK, especially right now, it's more than OK to acknowledge and accept how you're feeling. Through the practice of accepting difficult emotions, you'll be able to respond to life’s challenges with more control, clarity, and purpose. Then perhaps you can save Netflix, Prime, and wine for the experience of enjoyment versus a means of distraction.

References

Catalino, L. I., Arenander, J., Epel, E., & Puterman, E. (2017). Trait acceptance predicts fewer daily negative emotions through less stressor-related rumination. Emotion, 17(8), 1181–1186.

Ford, B. Q., Lam, P., John, O. P., & Mauss, I. B. (2018). The psychological health benefits of accepting negative emotions and thoughts: Laboratory, diary, and longitudinal evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 115(6), 1075–1092.

Kashdan, T. B., Barrios, V., Forsyth, J. P., & Steger, M. F. (2006). Experiential avoidance as a generalized psychological vulnerability: Comparisons with coping and emotion regulation strategies. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44, 1301–1320.

Keng, S. L., Smoski, M. J., & Robins, C. J. (2016). Effects of mindful acceptance and reappraisal training on maladaptive beliefs about rumination. Mindfulness, 7, 493–503.

Kober, H., Buhle, J., Weber, J., Ochsner, K. N., & Wager, T. D. (n.d.). Let it be: mindful acceptance down-regulates pain and negative emotion. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

Lindsay, E. K., Young, S., Smyth, J. M., Brown, K. W., & Creswell, J. D. (2018). Acceptance lowers stress reactivity: Dismantling mindfulness training in a randomized controlled trial. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 87, 63–73.

Lindsay, E. K., Marsland, A. L., Young, S., Smyth, J. M., Brown, K. W., Gray, K., & Creswell, J. D. (2019). Effects of two-week smartphone-based mindfulness training on markers of inflammation: A randomized controlled trial. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 76, e33.

Machell, K. A., Goodman, F. R., & Kashdan, T. B. (2015). Experiential avoidance and well-being: a daily diary analysis. Cognition & Emotion, 29(2), 351–359.

Shallcross, A. J., Troy, A., & Mauss, I. B. (2015). Regulation of emotions under stress. Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences, 1–16.