Emily Corbin is a native of Alexandria, Louisiana. She currently lives in Dallas, Texas, where she works as a therapist. She’s completing her PhD in Marriage and Family Therapy with a specialty in Interpersonal Neurobiology.
As a mental health professional, I’ve gotten used to saying things like: “Survival mode is a coping response, not a lifestyle.” Or, “Survival mode is not sustainable.”
Yet here we are. Just livin’ it up in survival mode. Braving a global pandemic to advocate in the streets for black lives. All while cautiously keeping an eye on the Weather Channel – a common pastime during hurricane season. Oh, and then something about murder hornets. And UFOs. To put it mildly, 2020 has been a tad… stressful.
But stress isn’t always bad. Stress is our body’s natural response to a threat. It motivates us to overcome obstacles, make difficult decisions, or focus our attention on the task at hand. Left unchecked, however, chronic stress can leave us in a constant state of hyperarousal – leading to other issues like high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, or heart disease.
These issues, which already seem to affect a disproportionate number of Louisianians, also contribute to a weakened immune system. And no one wants a weakened immune system during a global pandemic.
As a response to the effects of this global pandemic, social unrest, and the constant flow of distressing news, our country’s mental health is rapidly declining, and anxiety, depression, and addiction are on the rise. Unemployment, frustration with the political climate, concern for our loved ones, and a newfound obsession with sanitization have left us in a constant state of panic for the past few months.
We are officially in survival mode.
As we navigate the re-opening of the country, the lack of consensus between our political leaders and the medical community has left people feeling distrustful, stranded, and afraid. While the impetus seems to lie primarily on our own instincts for what we can and cannot do, we also understand that reopening the country before it’s ready is basically like blowing a 28-3 halftime lead in the Super Bowl.
In order to defend yourself against the negative effects of this perpetual stress, you need to be intentional about protecting your mental health.
Stick to a Routine
Chances are, you’ve already established a quasi-routine that works for you during quarantine. Whether you are fortunate enough to be employed working from home, an essential worker braving the front lines, your child’s newly-appointed 24/7 playmate, or you’ve been unable to work since the beginning of lockdown, you’ve had enough time in this weird new reality to fall into a groove… or rut.
Human beings are creatures of habit and our brains like to follow the path of least resistance. Is it because we are lazy? Actually, the opposite!
Our brains want to preserve our energy for the more important and complex decisions of the day— like how to construct a bridge that doesn’t crash into the water, where to invest your retirement account, or what’s for dinner tonight (seriously though, why is this always so hard?).
When we follow a daily routine that provides stability and predictability, we remove the unnecessary mental energy spent on thinking “What should I be doing right now?” and the tremendous willpower necessary to stop scrolling through social media apps and get some *actual* work done. Especially during times of chaos (e.g., global pandemic), we need to rely on what we can control. Plus, establishing a daily routine makes it more likely you’ll incorporate other healthy habits throughout your day – like eating healthy, exercising, and getting enough sleep. Which leads me to my next point….
Eat Healthy, Exercise, and Get Enough Sleep
It turns out that after nine years of graduate school and 10 years of working in the mental health field that the best and most important advice I can give to promote mental health is the same advice we learned from Sesame Street. But the unfortunate (and boring) truth is, you really should eat healthy, exercise, and get enough sleep.
Ever wonder why you get butterflies when you fall in love? Or nauseated when you’re about to give a presentation? Or feel like you got punched in the gut when your favorite TV character dies (I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones)? It’s because our bodies are equipped with a sensitive gut-brain axis that connects the activity in our brains to our digestive tract.
When you eat foods that support gut health (think fruits, vegetables, anything you can grow in your backyard— unless you are like me and plants hate you), this can regulate your physiological stress response. It also helps you tune into your “gut feelings”— which, in turn, might help you figure out what you want for dinner tonight.
We all know we should be exercising, right? I’ve never heard a client tell me, “Oh, exercising? I never thought about that! I will start now! Here is my money in exchange for this wonderful, novel advice!” Just mention the word “exercise” and it can trigger all sorts of feelings – from dread and shame to delight and elation (ask anyone who just got a Peloton, they are obsessed).
Working out doesn’t have to be dreadful, as long as you find something you actually enjoy— or don’t hate. Taking a walk outside promotes cardiovascular health and can increase your capacity for concentration. Yoga incorporates mindfulness to your workout routine, helping your brain to regulate your fight-flight-freeze responses. Dancing alone in your living room counts as aerobic exercise, while also providing free entertainment for your neighbors.
Exercise increases circulation to your brain, promotes neural development and plasticity, and helps to maintain a strong immune system. It also normalizes the physiological response to stress as a state that is not potentially life-threatening. You ever notice that debilitating fear and running on the treadmill feel strikingly similar in your body (e.g., rapid heart rate, sweaty palms, the thoughts why am I doing this and when will it stop?)? When you work out you’re basically telling your body: “Don’t worry. This sucks, but you’re not about to die.”
The effects of sleep deprivation can mimic symptoms of clinical depression or anxiety – it can also be a symptom of clinical depression or anxiety. If you’re experiencing irritability, difficulty concentrating, or feel like you’re on an emotional roller coaster, you might want to consider your sleeping habits. OR you could be quarantining with a teenager. Yikes.
Times are hard. Just because nearly every person on this planet is facing the implications of a global pandemic does not make your experience any less valid. The effects of stress are cumulative, and many of us are started feeling burned out months ago. If you’re starting to feel like Anakin Skywalker after his fight with Obi-Wan on Mustafar, you might need to make time for a little more self-care.
Self-care is one of those terms that people like to throw around but no one really knows what it means. Like je ne sais quoi. Or Obamagate.
Can self-care mean taking a personal day, watching a feel-good movie, or letting yourself indulge in a piece of birthday cake? Absolutely! Is it three days of binge watching all nine seasons of The Office, eating nothing but cake, and dodging calls from your boss while thinking “I am SO good at self-care.” Sorry, but no.
Self-care is not always fun. It doesn’t always feel good. It’s any activity intended to maintain or promote mental or physical health. It might mean finally making that phone call to schedule a virtual doctor’s visit (you really should get that rash looked at…). Or forcing yourself to take a 10 minute break to go outside and breathe in some fresh air. Or maybe giving your kids a little extra screen time so you can hide in a closet and scream into a pillow. Or-and here it comes again-exercising, eating healthy, and getting enough sleep.
Get in Touch with Your Feelings
You know how the stereotypical therapist on TV always asks lame questions like: “And how does that make you feel?” Well, it’s actually for a really good, neuroscientifically-proven reason. Humans are emotional beings. If you paused right now and tried to identify a feeling or two, I bet you could (e.g., Overwhelmed! Exhausted! Appalled by how long it is taking to have social justice in this country!).
Beneath our level of conscious awareness, our brains are constantly scanning the environment through our senses and sending all of that sensory information to the amygdala. If the amygdala detects danger (and she can be a little dramatic), you’re immediately sent into fight-flight-freeze mode because thinking about how to not die might take too long.
If the amygdala deems everything safe, the information gets sent to the prefrontal cortex where you actually get to make some decisions about your life. In other words, all of the information that travels throughout our brain is first filtered for its emotional significance before we are even aware of it. The brain is so sneaky.
When you check in with your internal experience and identify what you’re feeling, neural circuits within your brain are able to integrate in very powerful and beneficial ways. By identifying the specific feeling words associated with your current state, you’re able to connect the emotional, nebulous right side of your brain to the left side’s logic and language.
Additionally, identifying feelings soothes the dramatic amygdala by harnessing the rational, responsible prefrontal cortex. And when you get the prefrontal cortex involved, you get to make decisions about what to do next. The stronger the connection between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, the more intentional you can be with your decisions, words, and behaviors.
So… how does that make you feel?
As a mental health professional, this is a major concern about the impact of COVID-19. Before this global pandemic, mental health professionals in the U.S. were concerned about another public health crisis – the epidemic of loneliness. Paradoxically, all of this wonderful, new technology that has provided us with so many new ways to connect with others has also left us feeling more disconnected than ever.
Loneliness exacerbates mental and physical health issues, and research has shown that it increases mortality risk by almost 30%. Human beings are wired for connection and belonging – our relationships are necessary for our survival. Although we might have parameters on how physically close we can be, we still need to maintain psychological and emotional closeness to the important people in our lives.
Stay connected to family and friends. Be open to creating new connections or finding a sense of community in new places. After Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana residents and evacuees established their own online community through the proliferation of post-Katrina blogs – providing them with a sense of unity and validation despite their physical distance.
Social distancing does not mean social isolation. Unfortunately, the characters on your favorite TV show are no replacement for real human connections (although I like to think that I could be best friends with David Rose from Schitt’s Creek in real life). Seeing faces through FaceTime or Zoom is better than calling on the phone, calling is better than texting, and texting is better than nothing!
Limit Media Exposure
This one can be a little tricky, especially when it’s necessary to keep up to date about current social distancing policies and curfews. The constant influx of frightening and discouraging news can exacerbate feelings of anxiety and distress, activating the limbic system to notify your body that things are not okay.
The dramatic amygdala tells the trying-to-be-helpful hypothalamus to trigger a fight-flight-freeze response, inhibiting necessary cortical processes such as rational thought, emotion regulation, and neural integration. All of a sudden, your body is preparing to fight off a hungry lion, even though you’re in your living room watching The Today Show.
Furthermore, if you’re constantly exposed to frightening stimuli, you’re teaching your brain that you live in a dangerous or toxic environment – leading it to be even more sensitive to any potential threats.
Limiting your media exposure might mean turning off the news at a certain time, setting boundaries for how long you stay on social media, or even being direct about how much you would like to talk about current news with your family and friends.
There is a difference between staying informed and retraumatizing yourself through constant and repeated exposure. This is especially important if you already struggle with anxiety, or if you have children in the house. Find an emotionally-neutral news source or email newsletter that will allow you to stay updated without being overwhelmed. Like the Bayou Brief.
Cultivate an Attitude of Gratitude
Because of the built-in negativity bias in our brains, we are much more likely to remember negative information rather than positive. That’s why it’s so much easier to remember insults rather than compliments – like when that one kid from middle school told you your head was too big for your body. Negative emotions are like a bad WI-FI connection on a Zoom call – it just takes over.
When you experience a strong negative emotion, the limbic system basically freaks out and fast-tracks this information to our memory stores. This is all done in the name of evolutionary survival – the ancestors who were more attuned to danger were the ones less likely to be eaten.
Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about saber tooth tigers lurking outside of our houses (but the way 2020 has gone so far, you never know… #knockonwood). Just as our brains tend to focus on the negative, we also need a little more encouragement to take in the positive. This is why it’s helpful to incorporate moments of gratitude throughout your day.
The more you pay attention to and savor the things that make you feel happy, inspired, or grateful, the easier it is be to feel happy, inspired, or grateful – even during difficult times. The more you activate those positive neural networks, the stronger they become, and the more easily they can be activated in the future. Yes, things suck right now, but I’m sure that you can still find things to be thankful for.
Do you wonder how Birdman felt when he donated $225,000 to help pay rent for residents in his old New Orleans neighborhood? Or how Drew Brees felt after donating $5 million to the state of Louisiana for COVID-19 relief? Probably really freaking good.
This is because altruistic acts have lots of wonderful benefits – for the giver as well as the receiver. Altruism, or any behavior that is aimed at benefitting another person, can increase feelings of well-being, positive mood, and a sense of meaning and purpose in life.
As if those benefits aren’t enough (please show me someone who does not want a sense of meaning and purpose in life), these acts of kindness also tend to be contagious. When you see someone showing compassion, empathy, or generosity, you are more likely to pay it forward as well. Now, there are a lot of other things going around that are also contagious ::coughcoronaviruscough::, so please, spread kindness, not germs.
If you need some ideas on how to give back, try these. See how you feel. You don’t have to donate 5 million dollars to get the benefits. But, I mean, if you can by all means please do.
Never has it been easier to access mental health counseling than right now. Therapists, counselors, and life coaches in Louisiana and all over the country are conducting virtual sessions – meaning you can go to therapy on your own couch. Will your therapist judge you if you’re showing up to your virtual session wearing pajamas? I mean, I’d like to say no, but honestly that depends on your pajamas.
If you notice that you’re having difficulty focusing, eating, sleeping, or meeting the demands of your daily life there are many resources available to support you. Sometimes just the act of addressing and talking to someone about your experience is enough to alleviate some of the suffering and improve your outlook. You also have the opportunity to identify and process feelings, which helps to integrate your brain.
If anything, connecting with someone else makes you feel a little less alone (and I already talked about how bad loneliness can be, yikes). A mental health professional can give you some helpful, personalized advice to get you through this – above just eating healthy, exercising, and getting enough sleep. Although I’m pretty sure they will say that too.
Mental Health Resources:
Louisiana Department of Health’s Office of Behavioral Health has established a hotline to help Louisianans cope with the stress of the pandemic. The Keep Calm Through COVID hotline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and allows Louisianans to speak to a mental health professional confidentially and at no charge.
Call the Keep Calm Through COVID hotline at 1-866-310-7977
Blush Life Coaching offers affordable and convenient online life coaching with mental health professionals across the country. Clients can chose from a chat plan or video sessions starting at $99/month.
BetterHelp is one of many online therapy services that matches clients with licensed professionals through a secure and confidential portal.