PEERS Perspectives is a blog series that offers thoughts and reflections from our staff and community members on mental health, current events, and the ways they affect our lives.

Today’s post on how to navigate difficult emotions brought up by the COVID-19 crisis is written by Community Engagement and Development Director Jules Plumadore.

While the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic aren’t without precedent in human history, they can certainly feel unprecedented to those of us living through them for the first time. Over the past several weeks, we’ve experienced situations, fears, and emotions that we’ve never had to confront before, so we don’t have a mental map for them. When those challenges are added to the logistical struggles of navigating new technology, the financial worries of making ends meet during the crisis, and the interpersonal frustrations of seeing other people either too much or too little depending on our Shelter in Place circumstances, we may end up feeling overwhelmed, sad, angry, or numb.

Those feelings are perfectly natural. But many, even most, of us have been taught to push difficult thoughts and feelings aside and try to act like we feel better than we actually do. We don’t want to complain, sound ungrateful, or upset the people around us. We may have received messages in our lives like, “Do whatever it takes to get the job done,” “Don’t do anything that might make anyone feel uncomfortable,” or “There are plenty of people who have it worse.” So we muddle through and try to do the best we can, and for the most part we do OK.

That is, until we don’t.

The risk of pushing aside those uncomfortable thoughts and feelings is that they don’t go away on their own if we just ignore them. We may not realize what a toll they’re taking on us until they pop out in the wrong way, at the wrong time, or at the wrong person. We may break down crying unexpectedly, or shout at someone we care about, or engage in behaviors that make us feel worse rather than better.

It doesn’t have to be that way. There are some helpful steps we can take towards managing our own responses to stress and change, and some actions we can take to support the people we care about:

  • Accept. Whatever feelings you’re experiencing these days, accept them. Trying to change feelings by sheer force of will can be like trying to turn lead into gold: people have been attempting to do it for centuries, but nobody’s been able to figure out exactly how to make it work. The truth about feelings is that they come and go in their own time, and the more we try to resist them, the more powerful the hold they have on us can be. Learning to accept that it’s OK to have uncomfortable emotions can be a healing experience in itself.
  • Validate. No matter what you’re going through right now, your experience is valid. Just because somebody else’s experience may be harder doesn’t mean you don’t have a right to feel scared, or sad, or angry. Once you’ve validated your own experience, try validating someone else’s. For example, if you hear someone apologize for expressing a difficult emotion, let them know it’s OK and that you support them in talking about what they’re going through.
  • Practice Self-Care. Take time for yourself. Just as many of us have been discouraged from allowing ourselves to feel or express difficult emotions, many of us may have been taught that it’s selfish to put ourselves first. But the reality is that in order to be there for others, we have to be taking care of ourselves. Make sure you take time to do things you enjoy and that help you to relax and keep perspective – not just during the current COVID-19 pandemic, but beyond.
  • Share. Find someone you feel comfortable talking things over with. It’s important to have an outlet to express what you’re feeling to keep it from building up to the point where it becomes unmanageable. That outlet doesn’t have to be a psychiatrist or psychologist; research has shown that peer support, or support between people who have a shared experience, can be as effective or even more effective than clinical intervention. You might reach out to a trusted friend or close family member to talk about what’s going on; they may even be grateful you started the conversation. If you’re having trouble thinking of who you can reach out to, PEERS is offering weekly check-in calls Monday through Friday, and the counselors at the California Peer-Run Warm Line are offering 24/7 support.
  • Listen. Give the people around you space to feel what they need to feel, and to express what they need to express. You can provide a helpful and necessary service to others just by letting them talk things through in their own way. And don’t worry about knowing “the right thing to say” – non-judgmental listening, acceptance, and validation can be more helpful than any amount of advice.
  • Speak for Yourself. Whether you’re talking, venting, or listening, try to stay grounded in your own experience. When we’re feeling stressed or anxious, it can be easy to slip into complaints about what other people should be doing, or thinking, or feeling, and easy to judge others for reacting in ways that are different from our own. Try to remember that just as your own feelings are real and valid, so are those of the people around you, and that while our reactions may be different, our fears are often the same. That reminder can help you to communicate both clearly and respectfully, so you can stop yourself from saying anything you might regret later on.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the current crisis is that it can feel like the changes and upheaval we’re experiencing will never end; but they will. One of our most valuable traits as humans is our ability to adapt to change. We’ll get through this. Staying mindful of our own mental and emotional needs along the way, and learning new skills to manage them, can help make the journey easier.