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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Six Tips to Help Cope with Panic Attacks at Work

Trigger warning to my anxious peoples. If reading about panic attacks makes you anxious, skip to the portion that gives the 6 tips to help you deal with panic attacks at work. The subtitle is bold, so you’ll see it.

Art drawn by J. Braga

Art written by Shan

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Panic attacks don’t schedule appointments. They can happen anywhere and anytime: while you’re playing video games, driving, standing in line at the grocery store, and the most dreadful location—at work, the place where people are supposed to see you as nothing less than professional, in control, confident, and reliable.

But what are you supposed to do when you’re speaking with a client or customer, and suddenly you feel like you can’t breathe? You hear your heartbeat quicken, you feel sweat prickle your forehead, and the headache you’ve been holding at bay with Aleve is suddenly back with a vengeance? You want to run outside and gulp fresh air to reassure yourself that you can indeed breath, but you’re in the middle of explaining objective pronouns to a student who is beginning to look at you strangely because you’re suddenly talking very quickly, and your information isn’t as clearly delivered as it was at the beginning of the session.

Panic attacks at work really suck. If you didn’t already feel like a mad person for freaking out when nothing is wrong, having people you don’t know personally see you freak out or breakdown when nothing is actually wrong will make you feel like a plum fool.

While I was an English tutor in FAMU’s Writing Resource Center, it was inevitable that I would have panic attacks. Not because the job was stressful. It wasn’t. I loved my job, my coworkers, and the students we tutored. When you have anxiety, any situation can be a stressful one, and the slightest nudge could lead to a panic attack.

Here’s how not to handle them.

I was working with a young woman on an essay assignment. We were using one of the computers, which sat at the desk on the perimeter of the WRC. This one was facing the wide, half-wall windows that reveled the beautiful blue, cloudless sky over wonderful view of FAMU’s journalism school, dorms, and parking garage. It was a lovely day.

Unfortunately, it was around 3 p.m., which was when my anxiety worsened because I had been subconsciously clenching my jaw and tensing all my muscles since I woke up that morning, and my body had had it! This wasn’t a unique occurrence. It happened every day. It was subconscious, so I could not stop it or control it for long, meaning, by the end of the day, I was completely on edge.

So, when I heard the yyyyyyyyyyeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeerrrrrrrrrrrmmmm of the plane the first time, I took a deep breath.

The plane is not going to crash into us. That’s an irrational thought. I told myself as the yerm got closer.

Fear of planes crashing and cars exploding were some of the early signs of my anxiety. It didn’t take me long to realize that what I was experiencing was abnormal. I’d assume most people don’t finance a whole car because they think their current one is prone to exploding. I digress. That’s another story.

I felt immense relief as the plane reached it’s nearest point to us, and I was acutely aware of the yerm getting farther away. I continued my session with my client, still a bit frazzled and uncomfortably anxious at this point.

Whatever.

It’s gone.

Moving on now, I tried to tell myself when I heard…

YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRMMMMMMMMMMMMM

Why the hell was this plane back again? This time, as I looked out over the beautiful sky, I could see, to my horror a very large plane flying dangerously close to the ground. Close to us. Close to me! Which is clearly its target. I nervously joked with the student about it.

“Hehe… What? Are those guys lost?” I said loudly enough for those in my vicinity to hear. “They are really low to the ground.”

“Probably a part of a military exercise,” another member of the WRC staff chimed in, looking out the window at a plane.

That made sense. I had been seeing many more army vehicles out that week. It’s probably just a military exercise… I went on with my session, now completely unsettled but trying to calm myself.

YEEEEEEEEEEEEERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRMMMMMMMMM

Anxiety: You know? An HBCU would be a great terrorist attack target.

Luckily, my hour session had just ended, and I had no more appointments for the day. I chucked the deuces to my WRC family and said “good luck, y’all” with a chuckle, hoping they saw it as a joke. I did not.

I gathered my laptop and folder very quickly and left work an hour before my shift ended, covertly searching the sky to see if the plane was returning. I guess somehow I thought I could outrun it? I watch too many action movies.

Needless to say, FAMU was still standing the next day, completely unharmed, and I felt extremely silly for having such an alarmist reaction about something so implausible. But that’s how anxiety makes you feel. In hindsight, it’s easy to see that nothing was wrong. You feel foolish for thinking otherwise, but in the moment, the panic and sense of impending doom is as real as the screen you’re looking at.

My coworkers didn’t seem to think anything of it that time. But I’m sure I raised a couple eyebrows with this one.

Once again, I was in a session with a student. There was always an ailment of the week of which the Anxiety Monster, Terry (the thunder cloud thing you saw above), convinced me I was dying. This week, it was an aneurysm. It was around 3 o’clock again, and I was trying to not think of the odd pain in my jaw that radiated up to my right temple as I explained an English-related concept to a student.

I tried not to imagine myself fainting and never waking up again or how I would react if everything suddenly started going dark. But that’s like the pink elephant exercise.

Try not to think of a pink elephant.

Now what are you thinking about?

That was it. I had worked myself up past the point of no return. I became hyper-aware of any little sensation in my body. At this point, I was in full panic mode, and I couldn’t even pretend to act normally. I felt my face grow warm suddenly. I stood up abruptly, apologized to my client, and told her I had a terrible headache and needed to leave immediately. I looked desperately to a coworker and asked if she could take over my session, giving the same headache excuse. She agreed. I began attempting to pack my laptop and other items. OMG, what was that twinge in my jaw? I believe I audibly said, “I can’t. I have to go,” to no one in particular and left.

I left my laptop and all of my things and rushed out of the door. I didn’t stop speed-walking until I got to my car. I got in, drove to my SO’s job, and waited for him to get off work, at which point I was fairly certain I wasn’t going to die anymore, but I still wasn’t calm. It was very rare that I was ever calm in those days.

Anxiety had won again, and I felt evermore the fool.

Over the next few months, I got better at having panic attacks at work. There are only so many times you can just leave your job unannounced, even if your boss is super cool and understanding like mine was.

Here are 6 tips that can help you combat panic attacks at work.

  1. Know what worsens or triggers your anxiety.

When you have general anxiety disorder, Terror is always lurking, waiting for a chance to pounce. Notice what in your work routine gets you past the point of no return. Mine worsened around 3 o’clock. I would wake up in the morning feeling fine because my body had relaxed overnight while I was asleep—no chest pain, no headache, no lack of oxygen. All was well. But after several hours of subconsciously tensing my body in my waking hours, all of those symptoms would begin to show, and they’d make me nervous and uncomfortable.

For you, it may be doing certain tasks: being around your boss, speaking with customers, or working your job in general. Of course, you’d avoid it if you could, but we have to go to work! We’re adults! We have bills to pay and student loans to repay and comfort food to buy. We have to find good short-term coping strategies until we can find long-term solutions.

  1. If you’re in panic mode, go somewhere you can calm down and take a couple of breaths.

I was lucky enough to have a job and a boss that allowed me to walk outside, sit on a bench, and breath while I calmed down. If your boss is a pain, maybe you can go to the bathroom for a little while. Just sit, breath, and relax your muscles as much as possible. Put on a timer, so you’re not worrying about getting back to work before anyone notices you’re gone. Give yourself five minutes to relax.

  1. Move and breath slowly and calmly.

Having a panic attack can feel like the dams holding back every anxious thought you can conjure have broken, and you’re being flooded by rapids of anxiety-inducing scenarios. Do not mimic the thoughts. Resist the urge to move with them. Move and breath slowly and deliberately. Moving around nervously while breathing uncontrollably will only send more signals to your brain that you are in danger. If you must move at work, try to slow your motions. If you’re not moving, a nice, short walk, even to the bathroom and back to your work station may help.

  1. Practice mindfulness activities.

Do something that takes your mind off the thoughts and puts you back into the present moment. I liked the color game. Choose a color. Let’s say blue. Then, identify all the blue items you can see from where you are.

The exercise may make you feel a little strange because you’re looking around the space aimlessly, but there are casual ways to go about it. No one knows what you’re thinking. For all they know, you could be on the precipice of a brilliant idea and just needed some visual simulation.

You could also tune in to your senses. Ask yourself what do you smell, what do you hear, what do you feel. You need to get out of your head and back in the present world.

  1. Use the progressive muscle relaxation technique to find where the tension is in your body.

You can do this standing or sitting. Starting from the your face, progressively tense one muscle group at a time for ten second while breathing in and let it go quickly as you breathe out. It’s a good way to discover which muscles are tense and release the built up tension.

Realize that this exercise should not hurt in anyway. Don’t tense your muscles to the point where you’re in pain.

6. This GIF. 

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I had the link to this GIF as my first toolbar bookmark for about two years. It certainly came in handy. If I had even a couple minutes of downtime, I found that it helped significantly with getting my breathing under control.

Adulting with anxiety and panic attacks disorder is difficult. You can’t not go to work because you fear you’ll have a panic attack. We have bills to pay and clients and coworkers who depend on us. We have to face the world and take it one day at a time.

You’re not foolish or silly or weird. You’re a brave individual who chose not to allow their struggles to deprive them of the world nor the world of them.

Keep fighting the good fight. I hope my tips helped.

Peace, Love, and Happy Adulting!