Three Things to Do for Your Mental Health Right Now

Three tools to help you cope in this challenging moment.

Posted May 18, 2020

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and this particular May has been a tough one for our mental health. In fact, most of us have found ourselves in the most uncharted emotional territory of our lives. We are grappling with grief, anxiety, and isolation. Yet, with new challenges, responsibilities, schedules, and daily routines, we may not even check in with ourselves long enough to get a full sense of what we’re going through. 

As Dr. Pat Love said in a recent online talk we did together for PsychAlive, “If you’re not anxious during this time, you’re not paying attention, because it is an anxious time. We’re in a collective trauma.” This statement is not meant to instill panic or hopelessness but rather to ignite our self-compassion and recognize that our emotional health matters right now. What we’re going through is really hard, yet there is a path to get through it. There are powerful ways to cope with our emotions, take care of our minds, and enhance our resilience. And we should all make these efforts a priority.

Here, I have chosen three mental health principles I feel are essential to meeting this moment. They come from experts in the field of psychology whom I deeply admire. Here is some of the best advice I’ve taken from these individuals.

1. Name it to tame it.

“In the brain, naming an emotion can help calm it,” wrote Dr. Daniel Siegel in Brainstorm. “We can call this ‘Name it to tame it.’” As simple as it sounds, the concept of identifying and naming an emotion can be a powerful way to calm ourselves down and take control of our actions. So often, we are slaves to how we feel, and we’re messy about letting these feelings spill out in our daily lives. Yet, we don’t necessarily take the time to recognize what’s going on inside us.

Think about the moment you snapped at your partner for not loading the dishwasher correctly or stormed off after feeling completely overwhelmed by your kids. Consider those times when you were stuck in a cycle of beating yourself up about your performance, your appearance, or even your emotional state.

In all of these cases, we assign meaning to our reactions, labeling ourselves or the people around us, often through a critical filter. About our partner, we may think “He is so lazy” or “She doesn’t care about anything I say.” With our kids, we may have thoughts like, “They never listen to me. What am I doing wrong?” or “I'm a terrible mother/father. I have no idea what I'm doing.” 

We often accept our thoughts and emotions as fact, reacting to the stories we tell ourselves. As Siegel put it in Parenting from the Inside Out:

"When you are feeling stressed or find yourself in situations that trigger past unresolved issues, your mind may shut off and become inflexible. This inflexibility can be an indication that you are entering a different state of mind that directly impairs your ability to think clearly. We call this a low mode of processing … or ‘the low road’ where you can become flooded by feelings such as fear, sadness or rage. These intense emotions can lead you to have knee-jerk reactions instead of thoughtful responses."

The idea of "name it to tame it" is that by hitting the pause button and reflecting on our emotions, we can not only understand ourselves better, but we can be more thoughtful about our actions. We can do this by taking timeouts to SIFT our mind, an acronym Siegel uses to describe a process of identifying any Sensations, Images, Feelings, and Thoughts we’re experiencing. We can simply acknowledge whatever comes up, or we can write it down. These sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts may offer us insight into the underlying stressors that are being triggered in us—the fear that’s fueling the pressure we’re feeling, the sadness behind our irritability.

If we feel isolated or overwhelmed by our emotions, we can also reach out and express what we’re going through. “Sometimes these low-road states can go beyond being unpleasant and confusing—they can even make life feel terrifying. If that is going on, talk about it,” wrote Siegel in Brainstorm. “Sharing your experience with others can often make even terrifying moments understood and not traumatizing. Your inner sea and your interpersonal relationships will all benefit from naming what is going on and bringing more integration into your life.”

With many of us sheltering at home, social distancing, and experiencing a new load of stress and uncertainty, we are all more likely to be sensitive and reactive. We may often feel dysregulated or overwhelmed. The process of “name it to tame it” invites us to be more aware of our emotions, more compassionate toward ourselves, and more patient with others. Most importantly, it gives us a tool to make the unconscious conscious, which helps us to calm down and choose actions that are in sync with our goals.

2. Ride the wave of emotion.

Many of us mistake resilience for emotional suppression. We tell ourselves to “keep calm and carry on” in the face of adversity. And yet, we fail to realize how much we’re guided by our feelings, a process that becomes much more complicated when our emotions have been buried or misplaced. During this intense moment in our lives, giving ourselves permission to feel our feelings in a raw, unfiltered way can be liberating. 

Dr. Les Greenberg, the primary originator of Emotion-Focused Therapy, argues that emotions are actually “an adaptive form of information processing and action readiness that orients people to their environment and promotes their wellbeing.” Greenberg has warned against efforts to avoid or gloss over our emotions.

“People often experience emotional flooding as dangerous and traumatic, which leads them to try to avoid feelings altogether,” said Greenberg. “At times emotional avoidance or numbing may be the delayed result of trauma, and this is one of the key forms of post-trauma difficulty. Emotional over-arousal also often leads to the opposite problem, maladaptive attempts to contain emotion.” 

Most of us can relate to the problematic results of trying to either avoid or over-attend to our emotions. Again, this can lead to what Greenberg calls emotional dysregulation and impulsive actions. For instance, rather than facing a primary emotion such as sadness, we may find ourselves reacting with irritability toward a loved one. Rather than accepting direct anger at a situation that hurt us, we may internalize a feeling of shame toward ourselves, believing we are to blame for our circumstances.

For many of us, emotions like anger, fear, sadness, and grief may be right under the surface right now, but we may not be allowing ourselves to feel these feelings fully. Instead, we may be stuck in a spin cycle of secondary emotions like stress, anxiety, or irritability. Taking time to sit and breathe through an emotion may feel like the last thing we want to do but getting to a core emotion like sadness can actually center us. Like a wave, the feeling will rise and fall. When we give ourselves permission to take that full ride with a feeling, we often feel relieved, more clear-headed, and free after it’s passed.

3. Try mindfulness meditation.

A lot of people I know feel daunted by the idea of trying meditation. A racing mind can feel like a wild animal we’re afraid to try to tame. It is hard to slow down, especially when we’re feeling anxious, but taking small and easy steps is at the center of mindfulness meditation. A wonderful expert on this topic is Dr. Donna Rockwell.

“Meditation is not about getting to this state of always being able to be right here right now in the present moment,” said Rockwell. “What meditation is about is training the mind how to come back.” One of the ideas behind mindfulness is that we don’t have to be carried away by a thought or a feeling. An anxious mind likes to shoot things at us, hoping they’ll stick. Mindfulness allows us to acknowledge these thoughts but to let them pass like cars on a train. “What meditation teaches us is how to return from all that discursiveness to this breath, to the here and now of this very moment,” said Rockwell.

In this new strange time, much has been deleted from our social calendars, and we are spending many more hours alone with our thoughts. Trying a mindfulness practice can be transformative and beneficial to both our mental and physical health. It’s also something most of us can easily carve out time for by setting aside as little as 10 minutes a day. You can learn a mindfulness meditation practice from Rockwell here.

During this pandemic, we need to not only take care of our physical health but of our mental health. The suggestions above address methods for dealing with the difficult thoughts and feelings most of us are experiencing right now—to not only survive but actually thrive in certain areas of our lives.

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