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Ways to get "unstuck" from difficult emotions during the pandemic

Ways to get "unstuck" from difficult emotions during the pandemic

5 min read

If you feel like you’ve hit an emotional wall in the past month or two as the COVID-19 pandemic has continued, you’re definitely not alone.

In her now infamous tweet, Dr. Aisha Ahmad explains that in any sustained crisis, it's completely normal at the six-month mark to feel like you no longer have energy or motivation to continue to try to make the best of the situation. Now that we’re seven months in, the lack of motivation may have gotten even worse.

All this can be true no matter your life circumstances, but especially if you’ve struggled financially or emotionally — or if 2020 was supposed to be a big year of planning for kids or trying to conceive.

In this article, I’ll explain why things might be feeling extra difficult right now, and what you can do to get “unstuck” from negative emotions and keep moving forward.

3 reasons why everything feels extremely hard right now

If you find yourself feeling extra sensitive, emotional, or stressed out right now, there’s no shortage of explanations.

1. COVID-19 changed our ability to plan for the future.

We feel safe and secure when we have the ability to plan for our most important life events. Planning allows us to weigh pros and cons, communicate with loved ones, and come up with a strategy.  

Though initial data indicates some reassurances regarding fertility and COVID-19, it can feel downright impossible to plan for the future when the research is still ongoing.  

There continues to be tremendous uncertainty regarding how long the pandemic will continue, which can lead us to feeling out of control, insecure, and unsafe. As we continue on under these conditions, heightened anxiety and emotional distress are common experiences.

2. We’re grieving and mourning many losses.

Many of us have had to grieve the loss of loved ones due to COVID-19. These losses are tragic and profoundly impactful.  

And all of us, to some degree or another, have had to mourn the loss of life plans as we expected them. Many of us will downplay our losses because they’re “not as bad” as others. While comparison is a common practice during periods of prolonged hardship, we still deserve to grieve these smaller losses.

Maybe you finally became pregnant after trying for years, and you can’t celebrate or get support from loved ones in the ways you wanted to — this is a legitimate loss. When we downplay our emotional experiences, we don’t allow ourselves to move through the emotions and toward healing.

3. We’re experiencing physiological effects of the pandemic.

Collectively we are experiencing symptoms related to living under these stressful conditions. Memory, brain fog, ability to pay attention, sleep, and emotional regulation can all be impacted by living during a prolonged period of extreme turmoil. It’s really difficult to operate from the higher functioning parts of our brain when we’re not able to sleep, think, or remain present.

In times of constant, continual stress, it’s difficult to consistently access patience, vulnerability, and resiliency — all qualities that can be very useful during a fertility journey or as you go after any important goal.

How to get “unstuck” and move forward, despite the hard stuff

We don’t have to wait for the pandemic to end to feel better, thankfully, but we do need to act in ways that signal to our brain that it’s safe to come out of the stress response. The stress response (think fight, flight, or freeze) is how our brain has learned to keep up safe in the face of emotional danger.

As Dr. Emily Nagoski and Dr. Amelia Nagoski explain, emotional turbulence and physiological symptoms emerge when we get stuck in the stress response. When experiencing a significantly difficult series of events, it becomes ever more important to fully experience our emotions and allow them to pass on. Behavioral change is necessary because emotions are stored in our bodies, and action helps us to release these difficult emotions. We can do this by changing our behavior, which signals to our brain that we are now safe and no longer need to operate from the survival mode governed by our stress response.  

So what can you actually do to move on from that stress response? Below are the six steps I recommend taking to change behavior and tell your brain it’s safe to keep going.

Six things you can do to get “unstuck”

1. Turn toward difficult emotions with kindness and compassion. Don’t try to shut them down or tune them out. Think about a time when you’ve been sad or upset and someone responded by saying: “Well,, just choose to not be sad!” How did that work out? For most of us, that type of response does not lead us to feel better. Treat your emotions as if they belonged to a dear friend or family member. When we feel understood and validated, even if we’re understanding and validating ourselves, emotions pass more freely.

2. Move your body. This can be a long walk, running, or boxing, or it can be movement that doesn’t require you to leave your house (or even your chair). If you’re reading this and feel daunted by the thought of starting a new exercise regimen, know that even the most basic movement will help when it comes to regulating your emotions. Walk around the block between virtual meetings, practice five minutes of yoga, or go up and down the stairs a few times. It would even help to just squeeze your muscles really tight, hold, and then let go.  

3. Laugh... but I mean really, really laugh. Provide yourself opportunities to engage in authentic, ridiculous, unencumbered laughter. Laughter increases oxygen to vital organs, relieves our stress response, and allows us to move through our emotions. Bookmark some videos that would count as “laughter porn,” or reach out to the friend who always makes you scream with laughter.

4. Nourish your inner child. When you’re feeling the enormity of your current circumstances or you’re feeling particularly raw, listen to that inner voice when it states a need. You could even ask your inner child, “What do you need right now to feel safe and cared for?” For me, the answer is usually macaroni and cheese. No matter how silly the answer may sound, try to fulfill the needs of your inner child. Often, doing so can lead us to feeling understood and cared for.

5. Recognize where you hold stuck emotions and breathe through them. When you’re feeling stress, where does it show up in your body? Do you feel it in your chest, or maybe your shoulders? Practice becoming aware of where you hold emotions. As you become more aware, send your breath to that place in your body. Make sure you exhale longer than you inhale as this signals to your brain that it’s safe to relax and feel calm. Along with body awareness, it can help to link breath work to other more established routines, like brushing your teeth or making coffee. Grounding techniques, such as the 5-4-3-2-1, can also help us feel release from the stress response.

6. Believe that you’re worthy of vulnerable human connection. We need to take care of one another, especially right now. A 20-second hug can temporarily change our hormone levels, lower blood pressure, and release oxytocin. As many of us are experiencing increased isolation, time together can bring comfort and camaraderie. But we don’t need to be physically near loved ones to experience the benefits of human connection. Interacting with others going through a shared experience is extremely beneficial. What may be an unintended consequence of this tragic pandemic is the opportunity to move away from relying solely on self-care and lean in to caring for one another.

Looking for a safe space to connect with others and touch base on your mental health? The virtual Modern Community has a dedicated channel for you (and many other channels, too) once you’ve joined us on Slack. If you join the community, send me a hello at @mf_Meghan Cassidy, LCSW-C!

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Meghan Cassidy, LCSW-C

Meghan is the staff mental health clinician for the Modern Community. She runs a private practice in Maryland specializing in trauma, social justice & family. Follow her @meghancassidypractice.

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