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When Will We Feel Better?

The science of emotional healing

  • Many people are stressed, exhausted, and suffering emotionally from the ongoing pandemic.
  • Healing has been slow due to our limited ability to have face-to-face and touch contact with others.
  • Waiting for life to go back to normal isn't helpful.
  • Most people will benefit from starting to implement techniques like prioritizing play, focusing on others, listening better, being emotionally vulnerable, and helping others.

It’s hard to fully appreciate the emotional suffering and total exhaustion that many of us are carrying and experiencing these days. We’ve all been traumatized on some level by the fear, division, violence, death, disease, and isolation of our times. Sadly, the cost has been the highest for those who had the least before our world changed and those who’ve lost the most—loved ones, jobs, homes, and livelihoods. Even so, the collective burden of emotional pain that’s with us in the wake of 2020 makes it feel like wartime. And despite vaccines, some encouraging disease curves, and soon-to-arrive stimulus checks, the truth is that we’re still in fight-or-flight mode as we limp through the one-year anniversary of this nightmare, wondering when we’ll start to feel better again.

Polina Tankilevitch/Pexels
Source: Polina Tankilevitch/Pexels

That question is hard to answer because mental and emotional healing often follows a nonlinear, recursive path. Some emotional pain never leaves us completely but instead lives on in our bodies and our patterns of relationships. Physical pain and illness add an additional layer to emotional pain. If we’re lucky, we can get help from caring family, friends, or professionals before the impact on us is too severe. But even then, emotional healing, especially during times of unimaginable stress, can feel like climbing a mountain that’s covered in ice without an ax or the right boots.

For all of recorded history, and probably long before that, humans have had to deal with stress and mental anguish. And for all of that history, humans have had powerful methods for healing our minds and regulating our emotions. Unfortunately, some of these time-tested healing methods are hard to find now or have been lost in the race to modernity. For example, psychological healing has always been a social process. We heal best emotionally when we are with one another, when we can shoulder each other’s pain and heartache, embrace, really tune-in to one another, and share whatever life throws our way.

At the most basic level, when we are suffering and with someone who is offering to console us, we transfer our emotions verbally and non-verbally to that person. They compassionately process and regulate our emotions inside their brain and then package them (and the situation) in a way that’s more manageable for us. When we feel and convey our relief, the consoler receives a neurobiological reward, driven by dopamine.

This is sometimes described as “the warm glow.” For the consoler, it can decrease inflammation in the body and improve overall health. On the flip side, healing is hampered when we don’t feel physically, emotionally, or financially safe and when we allow cultural, racial, socioeconomic or differences of any kind to undermine trust and block the flow of compassion and empathy.

Not surprisingly, the science of healing works best when we are actually with one another and can see each other’s facial expressions as well as engage in touch. It’s also optimized when a strong, trusting relationship exists. In normal times, we all experience mini-moments of healing throughout our days. It could be a quick laugh with a co-worker or a brief moment of wonder with a child. But as we all know, face-to-face connection has been replaced by mask-to-mask connection or screen-to-screen connection. We are finding as much deep empathy and tuning-in as we can, but it’s a lot harder.

Even before the pandemic made getting together difficult, there was a trend toward less and less social gathering to share suffering and help individuals, families, and communities heal. Many avenues still exist, such as group psychotherapy, Alcoholics Anonymous, or the recently-launched, online group-talk platform, PACE. But such groups still carry a social stigma and are not matter-of-factly accepted as a normal part of existence, yet.

Psychologist Lawrence Cohen, the author of Playful Parenting (and my co-author of The Art of Roughhousing), notes that “the contemporary Western approach to emotional healing is commodified: pay-by-the-hour, take-a-pill. And the healing is isolated from the community: sit alone with someone in a windowless office. Psychological healing used to always include nature, music, and the whole community. That’s sorely missing now.”

Another source of healing that has been lost to most of us, at least to most adults, is playing. Not only are we play-deprived in modern society, but when we do play, we usually don’t let our minds completely surrender to the play itself. Instead, we’re distracted with our phones, work, or the next deadline. The effect is that we miss out on the mental and physical healing properties of play.

Right now, we are longing for playtime with each other, just like we did when the 1918 flu pandemic cooled off. What’s different now compared to a century ago is that we’ve remained virtually connected while being separated. Ideally, this juxtaposition—being virtually together but physically apart—has reminded us that nothing can take the place of actually being in one another’s presence. In this sense, maybe there’s even richer ground now for revitalizing our appreciation for togetherness and play. Wishful thinking, perhaps, but we’ll see.

What we do know to be certain at this point is that it will take a lot longer than we expected a year ago to work through and begin to heal all of the emotional wounds that we’ve sustained, personally and collectively. And we’ve already given so much of ourselves, so much of our patience and strength. In fact, it’s even a little hard to process the fact or say out loud that we’re at the year mark, let alone begin to think about what healing might look and feel like.

But if you want some specific ideas... Don’t wait for back to normal—whatever and whenever that may be—to take active steps for healing the emotional trauma of this last year. As you start seeing others more regularly, hold eye contact a moment longer, and don’t let your phone distract you from the moment. Listen closer than you ever have to the person in front of you, with attention toward their pain and enough vulnerability to share yours when the timing is right.

Look for ways to help others if you’re in a position to do so. Be slow to anger, but fast to forgive. Laugh. Hug. Cry. Sprinkle a little spontaneity into your day. Let yourself experience wonder more freely. Value your playtime as children do theirs.

Although these ideas don’t guarantee anything, they can help position us for success. The big question is whether we’ll be able to write our healing stories truly together, holding one another’s humanity with delicate care. Let’s hope.


Graham, C. The Human Costs of the Pandemic. Is it Time to Prioritize Our Well-Being. November 2020.…

McKirdy T. A Familiar Rhyme: What the Spanish Flu and the Roaring Twenties Tell Us About What Comes After Covid-19.

Taubenberger J and Morens D. 1918 Influenza: The Mother of All Pandemics. Emerging Infectious Disease. 2006 Jan; 12(1): 15–22.

Kohrt B, Ottman K, Panter-Brick C, Konner M, and Patel V. Why We Heal: The Evolution of Psychological Healing and Implications for Global Mental Health. Clincal Psychology Review 82 December 2020 101920.

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