Newswise — The COVID-19 pandemic brought unexpected disruption and change into our lives, leaving many of us feeling helpless, anxious, fearful and at times heartbroken. From health risks and isolation issues to canceled plans and quarantined celebrations, we have suddenly found ourselves in unfamiliar waters. Three CSU experts share their thoughts on how to wrestle with these issues and help others who are similarly struggling, even if we can’t be physically together just yet.
What are some emotional or behavioral challenges with which people may be struggling?
Uncertainty is an anxiety-provoking challenge for many of us right now. Concerns about developing an illness, opportunities to connect with loved ones or going back to work are particularly difficult to manage when there are so many unknowns. Behaviorally, when people feel anxious, they typically respond with avoidance. Instead of facing meaningful challenges, it might seem safer to avoid them until anxiety declines. Avoidance might provide some short-term relief, but in the long run, it interferes with our ability to engage in activities that bring pleasure and a sense of accomplishment.
What are some ways people can manage their anxiety?
For long-term anxiety management, these three strategies tend to be most helpful:
- Identify “anxious fictions,” or beliefs that overestimate a threat and underestimate your ability to cope. Respond to these ideas with more realistic and useful ideas.
- Notice the urge to avoid meaningful challenges and respond with a commitment to problem solving, removing obstacles and taking action to engage in activities that boost personal control and mood—even if anxiety happens to come along for the ride.
- Learn to relate to authentic emotional experiences with acceptance rather than judgment. Anxiety is an uncomfortable, difficult emotion, but if we understand where it comes from, why it escalates and why it persists, it’s easier to respond with objectivity, patience, warmth and even humor.
For students, especially those graduating in 2020, anxiety around jobs and finances may be mounting because of the pandemic's economic ramifications. Do you have any advice for them?
It’s important to prioritize what you can control over difficult thoughts and feelings you can’t. Uncertain vocational and financial futures are scary. It’s helpful to respond to anxiety with objectivity and self-compassion before redirecting attention and effort to action (working on a résumé, applying for jobs, reducing nonessential spending or saving money) that increases the likelihood of a successful outcome.
Coping With Disappointment
Aleksandria Perez Grabow, Ph.D., CSU San Marcos, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology
The pandemic has forced many to change or cancel plans, like graduations, vacations and weddings. How might people respond to those changes?
Given the lack of precedence of our current situation, it’s fair to say that students, staff and faculty alike are experiencing disappointment from the many plan changes and concern for the unknowns in the future. It might seem strange to identify grief as something we’re experiencing, but it’s normal and natural to be feeling and experiencing the grieving process and related stages and emotions—shock, denial, anger, guilt, sadness, to name a few.
Are there ways people can deal with any resulting negative emotions?
For many, it’s important to acknowledge and validate these mental and emotional struggles to be able to move into a place of acceptance, hope and action. On the other hand, an interesting aspect of the current situation is that, on a global level, we are all affected by the pandemic, so to an extent we are sharing this collective experience, struggle or trauma. It can be helpful for people to see and know they are not alone in their struggles and disappointments.
Can keeping a positive attitude be helpful?
Depending on people’s situations, I think there’s a balance we can find between positive reframing and validation of our current struggles. When we experience negative thoughts and emotions related to our current situation, we can certainly try to think about ways in which the pandemic may have also allowed us to do things we may not give ourselves permission to do on an otherwise normal basis: spend more time with the family and pets we reside with, take a break from our fast-paced living style, practice gratitude for the small things we do have. However, for folks who may have experienced more serious consequences related to the pandemic—financial struggles, less-than-ideal or harmful quarantine living situations, triggered mental health concerns, loss of a loved one, etc.—positive reframing may feel invalidating. In these situations, we can allow ourselves to experience, express and move through these negative emotions (through talking, writing, art, movement, crying). Overall, I think all of us can benefit from finding a healthy way to soothe and express ourselves. This could look like reaching out for support, seeking professional help and practicing self-soothing, sensory and mindfulness exercises.
Dealing With Loss
Kurt D. Baker, Ph.D., Stanislaus State, Professor, Department of Psychology
We've seen and experienced a great amount of loss during this time: for some the loss of milestones like graduations and physical interaction with friends and family, for others the loss of health and the lives of loved ones. How can someone understand and work through the grief?
Rather than considering your own or others’ sense of loss as inappropriate, give yourself and others permission to feel the grief and to mourn. “I/You need time to work through this,” is a good phrase to tell yourself and others. The challenge is to find a balance between internalizing the problem and being calloused to the emotions elicited by the problem.
There are plenty of negative things to focus on during this time, so it’s less about avoiding negative feelings and more about developing resilience and learning to adapt. Our post-pandemic lives will not be the same as they were before. There will be some sense of loss for all of us. However, some positives could, with effort, emerge from this crisis, such as recognizing how much you value your family, or just how precious life is and that it should be lived more fully.
How can we effectively support those who are dealing with loss and grief?
Often just listening or hearing a person out is the best strategy. Let people grieve rather than trying to talk them out of it. Don't judge or even tell them it will be OK. Show compassion, patience and empathy. Of course, this will be much harder via FaceTime or Zoom. But at times when you can’t hug someone and cry with them, you can try little things, such as sending the person a text, letting them know you are thinking of them. With grief, sometimes the smallest things are emotionally the biggest.
Another struggle for individuals may be the inability to visit or directly care for family members. How can we manage the fear, anxiety or sadness that stems from potential feelings of helplessness or hopelessness?
When it comes to things like how the virus necessitates limited social interaction, we are all quite helpless. However, that does not mean we need to be hopeless. Looking toward the future, even when it is uncertain, is critical to our survival. When people lose hope, they stop being resilient. One of the best ways to clarify this difference between helplessness and hopelessness is to cite what, in Alcoholics Anonymous, is known as the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference” (Reinhold Niebuhr). In my clinical experience, the hardest part is the last phrase: “the wisdom to know the difference.” Focus on what you can control and let go of things you can’t control. Applied to the current situation, it would be good not to fight things like why you can’t see a loved one or whose fault it is you could not see your son’s commencement, and focus instead on what you can do to keep yourself and your loved ones safe—which sometimes may include not being with them.
If you’re looking for more online resources for dealing with anxiety, loss or other emotional challenges, you can:
- Make use of in-person and virtual mental health services through CSU campuses’ health and counseling centers if you're part of the CSU community
- Review the CDC’s guide for coping with stress and caring for others
- Try out free mindfulness and meditation practices with Mindful
- Find a therapist and COVID-19 anxiety tips from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America
- Get coping resources or self-help book recommendations from the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies