We’re all struggling to settle into a “new normal”—one that includes a lot more fear, anxiety, transition, and vulnerability than we might be used to dealing with. This is why it’s more important than ever to talk about how we’re feeling, says licensed professional counselor Jill Dawson, MA, LPC. “As we move back into the world, things are feeling more intense. When we’re not able to orient toward the familiar, anxiety can creep in,” she says. “But it’s important to remember that while we can’t necessarily make uncomfortable feelings go away, we have a choice in how we work with them—and what we let those emotions teach us.” Here’s how to work with what comes up for you as we collectively chart a new path forward.
Acknowledge your fear. It’s OK to be scared right now. Most of us are. And while you don’t want to perpetuate your fear or get stuck in it, it is important to recognize when it’s there—and what message it’s trying to deliver, says Dawson. “I think of fear like a direct beeline to something that really matters to me—something I value a lot,” she says. “If I get scared of my kids getting sick, it’s because I’d be devastated if I lost them. If I’m scared of losing my job, it’s because I value security.” Rather than dismissing your fear, try to get curious about what it’s telling you about what’s most important to you. “By doing that, you have an opportunity to have a different relationship with your fear,” says Dawson. “You’ll notice it doesn’t have to be this giant monster to run from or fight against. You might start to realize that comfortable or not, feeling afraid is part of what it means to be human. In fact, the emotions behind fear are what give our lives meaning.”
Learn how to feel your feelings. We all do our best to avoid negative emotions. We distract ourselves from our discomfort by bingeing on TV, drinking too much, or turning to other go-to vices. Yet actually noticing your emotions and steeping in them—even the ickiest ones—can be a game-changer, says Dawson. “We’re hard-wired to avoid pain and seek pleasure, and that leads most of us heading straight for our go-to bag of avoidance strategies,” she says. “But when we turn away from the sadness, grief, or whatever it is we’re running from, it only prolongs the experience—and actually tends to add more layers of discomfort.” So, how can we actually slow down enough to notice we’re experiencing something that feels icky, and then sit with the ick instead of pouring an extra-large glass of wine? It’s simple, says Dawson: You’ve got to name it to tame it. “Once you put a label on the emotion—say, ‘I’m feeling angry right now’—you’re in a different position to relate to it,” she says.
Be honest about what you need to feel safe. After weeks of hunkering down in our homes, we’re starting to figure out how to socialize again—and this can create a lot of angst, says Dawson. Which is why it’s important to check in with how you feel, and wade into those waters slowly and with intention. “For many weeks, we were under the impression that socializing isn’t safe. So, as we start to connect with others, it’s important to check in with ourselves. You want to keep your nervous system regulated so that when you do have social interaction, it feels nourishing.” While forcing yourself into interactions with others isn’t going to feed you, staying at home to avoid feeling nervous isn’t helpful either. To find the middle path, take baby steps, says Dawson. “As you start to return to pre-COVID-19 activities and events, ask yourself: Does this feel safe to me? Am I overwhelmed? The more honest you are with yourself, the better you’ll be able to meet your need to connect with others and stay safe as you do.”
Remember your resilience. Here’s a truth that might surprise you: For most people, the most common response to trauma is resilience. This just goes to show how powerful our thoughts are—and how what we choose to focus can influence our experience of reality, says Dawson. “If we’re optimistic and focus on our resilience and strength, that’s the world we’re going to see and experience and even create,” she says. “While we don’t have a choice about what happens to us—none of us opted into this pandemic, after all—we do have a choice when it comes to how we respond.” Resilience might take some time to develop, sure. But knowing we have the option of choosing courage and strength as the lens through which we view ourselves and the people around us? Well, that can offer a big dose of hope—no matter what we’re facing or feeling at the moment.
While we don’t have a choice about what happens to us—none of us opted into this pandemic, after all—we do have a choice when it comes to how we respond.
Stop a Downward Emotional Spiral in its Tracks
There’s nothing worse than spinning into a dark place, swept away with grief, anxiety, or another emotion that isn’t helpful. To interrupt that emotion, overwhelm so you’re able to feel grounded again:
STOP what you’re doing. “While you won’t actually be able to stop your thinking, telling yourself to ‘stop’ is the first step toward interrupting your thoughts,” says Dawson.
DROP into your body. Because it’s impossible to stop your thoughts, redirecting them to your body can be a good diversion tactic. “This could be simply slowing down your breath, noticing how the air enters and exits your body, or feeling the sensation of your feet on the ground,” says Dawson.
ROLL—an acronym for Relax, Open, Laugh, and Love. Relax some part of your body, perhaps loosening your jaw or dropping your shoulders. Open something—your heart, your mind—to a different perspective. Laugh at something; just thinking of someone or something that makes you smile or giggle will often do the trick. And remember the love in your life, whether it’s a person, pet, place, or thing that inspires you connect with a sense of tenderness and gratitude.