mental health

Protecting Your Mind During a Time of COVID-19 and Social Justice Turmoil

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I knew the COVID-19 pandemic was having a profound, negative effect on my community when my own therapist told me that she woke up in the middle of the night having a panic attack. I had requested an emergency session with her because I was having a tough time, and it seemed as if she needed one just as much as I did.

My therapist does not make a habit of telling me about her personal mental health struggles, but this was a few weeks after national attention was brought to the killing of Ahmaud Arbery and a week after then Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd. The country was in an uproar. Though my therapist is a white woman, she seemed immensely relieved when I decided to talk about the Black Lives Matter movement—so she could emphatically agree on how abhorrent those situations are and how distraught she felt about them.

You know something is wrong when you want to pause your therapy session to ask your therapist, “You okay, sis?”

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Abstractly, I knew there were people struggling with financial issues, relationship stress, mental illness, and more, but as someone who’s prone to negative mood – pandemic or not—, I couldn’t exactly use myself as a bellwether for how my community was feeling emotionally. I knew my therapist and I weren’t the only ones struggling, but I wanted to know to what extent everyone around me may be experiencing negative emotions, so I sent this survey our to my friends, family, coworkers, and others from my community to see how they were doing.

Survey Results

It turns out my therapist and I were not alone. I asked my community how often they feel sad, angry, or irritable, and while it wasn’t a surprise that no one checked “never,” (we’re not robots after all), I was a bit surprised to see that no one – not one, single person – marked “seldom.” The survey was anonymous, but I made sure to ask some of my more happy-go-lucky friends to take it.

How often to you feel said/anxious/irritable?

Often: 43.75%

Sometimes: 31.25%

Every now and then: 25%

Seldom: 0%

Never: 0%

However, I figured that these negative feelings could be unrelated to COVID-19, so I asked if they had been experiencing sadness/anxious/irritability more since the COVID-19 pandemic, and the results were to be expected. Most respondents said they definitely were! No one said they were less sad/anxious/irritable.

Have you been experiencing sadness, anxiety, and/or irritability more since the COVID-19 pandemic?

Definitely!: 62.5%

Somewhat: 18.25%

It’s about the same: 18.75%

I’m actually less sad/anxious/irritable: 0%

Social Justice & COVID-19

What I really want to discuss is how COVID-19 and the subsequent outcry for social justice reform has impacted out collective psyche, and what we can do to ensure we’re taking care of ourselves.

The COVID-19 lockdown set the stage for social justice outrage like we’ve never seen before. Half (50%) of respondents said their negative mood was brought on by social justice issues, and 44% said their negative mood stemmed from COVID-19 itself. While these two topics were already stressful enough alone, together, they created a perfect storm.

Intense social unrest started with the shooting death of Ahmaud Aubery, and calls for justice skyrocketed in a way I’ve never seen after the killing of George Floyd. We were enraged, infuriated. But unlike in the past when protests fizzled out in a week or so, or remained isolated to a couple cities and towns, these protests set fire to the entire nations, figuratively and literally. Most people couldn’t scroll down their social media news feeds without seeing posts calling for justice or seeing blacked-out image of profile pictures.

The hosts of Code Switch, in their episode “Why Now, White People”, theorize, and I’m summarizing, that when people are placed on lock down, a bunch of energy is built up, so the first spark that comes along sets people off like an explosion. Fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent feelings of hopelessness and emotional turmoil, people used that energy and frustration to take to the streets to fight to justice.

But the result of this call for social justice meant that no matter where we looked, we were confronted with our troubling circumstances. We couldn’t get relief from our funny memes and video, and every time we stepped in a grocery store to get supplies for our lock down, we were confronted with masks reading “I Can’t Breathe.”

I feel like I can’t even breathe writing and recalling this; let’s jump to the coping strategies, shall we?

Strategies to Protect and Preserve Your Mental Health:

I’m no therapist, but I have been seeing one for a while, and we are constantly working on coping strategies to prevent negative emotions from impacting my quality of life. Here’s a breakthrough I’d like to share, which is the main reason I wanted to write this post. When I feel sad, anxious, or irritable, I follow these steps to understand myself more and put myself back emotional homeostasis:

Step 1: Realize When You’re Upset

Idle minds naturally wander, and sometimes, they don’t take us to places we want to be. The first step is realizing when there has been a change in your mood. This may seem obvious, but it can happen so subtly and incrementally, that we don’t even notice when our thoughts have affected our mood.

One second you’re washing the dishes, humming a song, and the next you’re extremely annoyed with your significant other. You didn’t realize you’d been ruminating on the annoyance you feel at your significant other for their having left you with the dishes, which led to thinking about past arguments, which can led to thinking about other relationship issues. So, the next time your significant other does something small, like set a dirty plate on the counter, you’re more annoyed or angry than you probably would have been otherwise.

The goal is to catch those thoughts when they’re budding. If you’ve already had this conversation with your significant other, and they promised to do the dishes next time, all these thoughts do is make you upset. Stop your negative thoughts in their tracks replacing them with self-soothing thoughts like, “We’ve already discussed this, so the situation is handled.” If you haven’t discussed it, your self-soothing thought would be, “I will address it with her/him when I am less upset.” We will discuss this more in Step 3.

Step 2: Ask “How did I get here?”

Many times, I am guilty of completely being unaware of my rumination period. Social media has the ability to make our brains hop from one issues to the next, and sometimes, we completely miss our rumination period.

I may have been going through the motions of my day, thinking about how my professor has pissed me off. Then, I share some passive aggressive but funny posts. Then, I read an inflammatory comment in the dreaded Comments Section (dom dom DOM), so I have an imaginary argument with this person in my mind — or worse, actually comment back!

(We all know Internet arguments are a great way to stress ourselves out, right? Okay. Good.)

Then, my friend sends me a funny meme, and we banter, and I laugh for the next hour or so.

But later that night, I feel distraught and unhappy even though I just finished laughing and having fun with a friend, so what could possibly be the problem?

When I realize I’m sad/anxious/irritable, I mentally rewind my thoughts that day to remember what I spent time thinking about. It is usually then that I realize all of the problems that I may have ignored that have been causes me subconscious stress because I didn’t address them.

Guys, watching funny videos is not addressing your problems, but sometimes, this can give you some much needed emotional distance, so you can have the clarity to address them.

Step 3: Assign Solutions to the Problems

Once I realize the issues that are really bothering me, I assign solutions to each one. First, I put them into categories:

  • Problems that can be solved now
    • Plan to take steps toward the solution.
    • Self-soothing internal dialogue: “I should take a break from social media.”
  • Problems that can be solved, but not right now
    • Remind yourself that this problem is a temporary one.
    • Self-soothing internal dialogue: “The semester is only a couple more weeks long; then, it will be over, and I can decide if I want to take a semester off.”
  • Problems that I have no control over
    • Change the way you think about the problem. This may seem like you’re ignoring it. You’re not. Again, you’re temporarily stepping away from the issue for self-preservation purposes.
    • Self-soothing internal dialogue: “We survived slavery, fought Jim Crow, stood up for Civil Right, and continuously make progress in our demands for fair and equal treatment for everyone. As track records go, we have a habit of positive progression, and I don’t know why that would stop now.”

I usually journal this process to keep my thoughts in order and avoid becoming overwhelmed.

Worrying is our brain’s way of telling us that it’s working on a solution. Sometimes, it makes us feel like we are being productive, when all we’re actually doing is upsetting ourselves. Our brains lie to us more than we think, so it’s important to train our minds to monitor our brains. When we’re slipping in to negative thinking, tell it to stop, and replace it with self-soothing internal dialogue.

This is easier said than done. Guided mediation or apps like Calm can help you learn how to build this skill of replacing negative thoughts, so you can use it more effectively.

Respondent Tips

There are many things in life that are out of our control or difficult to change. It’s easy to let them consume us, leading to negative feelings. Fine the coping strategies that work for your, but I hope you can use mine as another one for the mental wellness toolbox. Here are some other tips you might consider.

Here are the solutions respondents had. I’m not agreeing or disagreeing with any of them. Different people have different solutions. But perhaps you will find solutions you may not have thought of previously:

  • Acknowledge that your feelings are valid, and allow yourself to feel them for a moment. After the moment has passed, make an effort to feel better.
  • Talk to a friend / a professional / a confidant
  • Pray
  • Micro-dose using psychedelics
  • Express yourself instead of bottling it up because that will cause greater anxiety sooner or later
  • Find what makes you happy, and do it. Putting your mental health before everything else is necessary a lot of the time.
  • Engage in a favorite hobby, create a video blog, create a collage with pictures of good times, pet a dog, go bicycling
  • Lean into your feelings! Feel what you feel when you feel it. It’s okay! Also, go outside and take a walk.

Well guys, I hope you were able to take something from this blog post. There was a lot more I could have said, but this is getting find of long. Lol. More posts coming in the future!

Good Luck, and Happy Adulting!

 

 

 

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Have You Ever Tasted Fear?

Terror has a taste. It’s metallic. Medical professionals theorize that it comes from the fight or flight response causing your gums to bleed or the intense anxiety causing your sense of taste to go into overdrive. Writers describe the copper taste of fear filling their characters mouths, and readers wonder if it’s a metaphor. It is not. Let me tell you today that fear has a taste, and you never want to be that afraid in your life.

I remember the first time I tasted fear. It was 2016, and I was driving my 2001 Nissan Maxima down South Monroe Street. My friends talked enthusiastically, three of them squished together on my cracked faux leather seats in the back. It was 80 – 85 degrees in the Florida summer, and my a/c only kind of worked if the car had been sitting in the shade for a little while. It was basically worthless in any hint of sunlight, so my windows were down. I debated attempting to turn on my a/c anyway, feeling awkwardly inadequate because I couldn’t make my friends comfortable, which was strange because, one, they didn’t have cars, so they were grateful for the ride, and, two, they didn’t care one way of the other. We were used to roughing it as a group of mostly first generation college students who came from working-class households. But I digress.

Suddenly, the scent of gasoline wafted through the air. I could no longer hear my friends’ banter. My body completely tensed. My heart-rate spiked. My stomached lurched. My lips tingled, and my face went cold and bloodless as I genuinely considered opening my car door in the middle of moving traffic and jumping out like Jack Bauer from 24 while my friends were chatting away completely unaware of any of this mental battle seeing as it all happened in under a second. Clinging to the only thread of reality that told me my car was definitely NOT about to explode, and I should NOT jump out into oncoming traffic leaving my friends in a driverless car, I fought down the fear, and we arrived safely at our destination.

The experience baffled me, and I didn’t talk about it for months because… it’s crazy? But little did I know, this was the beginning of my seemingly impossible battle with anxiety and panic attacks. Over the next few months, I would show up in every local clinic, emergency room, and urgent care center who would take me, convinced that I was dying of something. My heart was beating too fast; I was having a heart attack. My arms were going numb; it’s a stroke! My stomach had a weird, gurgly feeling; internal bleeding! Incessant headaches; I am clearly having an aneurysm. Why is everyone acting so calmly!?

Every medical professional would give me the same emotionless, unconcerned response: “It’s just stress.” How? How could it just be stress that it causing random spots on my feet and legs to feel like a hot comb is 2 inches from them?

The Medical System and the Uninsured

As someone with no health insurance and no primary care doctor at the time, over the next few months, I learned a lot about the health care system. I learned that if you don’t have a primary care physician, instead visiting the ER for non-emergencies, you can visit the Urgent Care component of a hospital in the day time, and even if you have no insurance, it’s fairly inexpensive. It was $50 in my case. I learned that local clinics physicians are way overworked and understaffed, but they do their best to ensure every patient gets what they need, but the receptionist will treat you like you spent the night before in VIP, popping bottles while you owed her $100. This was true at every local clinic. I learned that you could call an ambulance to your apartment, have them check you out, but decline to be taken to the hospital. I also learned that you could call an ambulance while pulled over on the side of a street, have them check you out, and they will strongly insist you go to the hospital if you are running around like a mad woman in a Whataburger parking lot when they get there… and it will be VERY expensive.

I can laugh about it now, but it was definitely not funny at the time.

Anxiety: The Misconceptions and the Myths

Anxiety is a largely misunderstood disorder. Everyone feels anxious at some time or another. It is a natural response to stress. In many cases, it keeps us safe. If a small child was about to fall off of a high bed, you want your heart to pump more blood to your muscles, so you can run and catch the child before she falls. That’s anxiety doing its job. Fear jolts you into action.

But in my case and other’s who suffer from anxiety and panic attacks, our stress levels are extremely high, beyond the normal threshold, which is different for everyone, and our minds trigger the fight or flight response at the slightest hint of danger. In the example above, we would catch the child, take a breath, and calm down. But with anxiety disorder, because it’s a false alarm in the first place, there is not action to take, so we’re suck in this terror limbo, our bodies on edge and ready to respond to an emergency that does not exist. That is why I almost jumped out of my car into moving traffic.

For a long time, I didn’t understand when medical professionals told me the symptoms I was experiencing were all caused by stress. It wasn’t until I got health insurance through my job in 2017 and saw my primary care physician that I began to understand the enormous impact stress can have on a person’s life and body. Another thing I learned about the medical system: it can take up to two months for you to see a physician for the first time even with insurance, but having a good primary care physician makes all of the difference.

She wasn’t overwhelmed by an unusual surplus of patients, so she had time to sit and calmly explain to me that my chest pains, headaches, and other weird sensations were a result of my always physically tensing my body because my mind was sending it signals of danger. I would get a headache from clenching my jaw all day. Then, my overactive fear response would convince me that it was an aneurysm, and I would have a panic attack and rush to some medical professional who would tell me “It’s just stress,” and go about their day. Afterwards, my mind would tell me that the physician or nurse was just too busy to inspect my situation thoroughly, and they were probably wrong, so my mind would keep sending my body those signals, causing other sensations, in a never ending loop of panic and terror.

My primary care physician ended this loop. She referred me to a therapist who gave me even more information on anxiety coping mechanisms, like muscle relation techniques and how to calm anxious thoughts by setting aside a specific time to worry throughout the day. I hope to divulge all of the methods I discover throughout my blog posts, as they all benefited me greatly—some more than others.

I spent all 2017 and some of 2018 struggling desperately. I cried a lot during that time, wondering if I would always be like that, unable to calm down, vividly imagining my death in various ways. I watched my significant other struggle to decide if he should take me to the hospital again or try to calm me down. What if it wasn’t a figment of my imagination this time? What if I was really dying this time?

But I’m happy to say, I haven’t had a panic attack I couldn’t handle since the spring of 2018. I still see my therapist, and I still take steps to keep my stress levels down. That included cutting some people out of my life, stepping back from others’ drama, and realizing that I couldn’t save the world. But that’s another blog post, though.

Peace, love, and happy adulting!