It has been almost a year since it started. These past few months have been challenging times for everyone. We are witnessing frustration on many different levels, and we have all experienced a number of emotions: anger, fear, isolation, anguish, love, anxiety, solidarity, grief — with anger and anxiety being the most powerful ones over the summer.
Now, as we begin the transition from autumn to winter, depression is positioning itself to become the frontline emotion. With dissatisfaction from a lack of activities and face-to-face encounters, negative current events and a generalized sense of loss, we may face an increased risk for situational depression. The opportunity for situational depression to creep in becomes even greater as the days get shorter and we spend more time inside and in the dark as winter approaches.
In light of our current situation and these potential threats, understanding our emotions and recognizing the symptomatic behaviors of depression will be key to avoiding the creation of habits that could have long-term negative consequences. Instead, let’s focus on turning our emotions into positive actions that can build our resiliency skills.
Understanding your emotions
Everyone reacts in their own way to the events we are experiencing, but the emotions of anger and anxiety are common to almost everyone. We may be angry because progress in the area of race relations seems painfully slow, because of the rioting and looting we have witnessed, or because the government response to all of these things was not what we wanted or expected. Many people are experiencing anxiety and emotional fatigue due to all of the restrictions that COVID-19 brought to us this past summer, which limited our ability for recreation and recharging. Many are also experiencing exhaustion from all of the cultural changes that have taken place in just a few months but that have seemed to drag on for decades. Let’s take a closer look at these emotions.
Anger is often called a secondary emotion because we tend to resort to it to protect ourselves from or to cover up other vulnerable feelings. We almost always feel something else first before we get angry. We might first feel afraid, attacked, trapped, offended or disrespected. If any of these feelings are intense enough, we think of the emotion as anger.
What to Do
First, answer the following questions: What types of situations set you off? Are there people, situations or events that you simply need to avoid?
Second, check your thoughts. Be sure to take a step back and identify how you might need to change in your prejudices and in your interactions with others. Anger is a feeling, and it tells us there has been an injustice; that we are being denied something we should have. It provides its own justification. But it is an emotion that impairs critical thinking. There may be other elements that need to be considered before we act in anger.
Finally, focus on what matters most: love. After witnessing so many recent and ongoing tragic events, it is important to identify how we can respond to what is happening in our world in a positive way. It is most effective to connect through empathy and positive actions.
Fear and anxiety
Fear has a purpose: to keep us alive. When being chased by a lion, it is a natural and healthy reaction to feel afraid. Fear triggers the release of adrenaline and gives us the push to keep running. However, when we fear irrationally, we unnecessarily trigger cortisol, and this can have a negative effect on our physical health.
Almost everything about the coronavirus pandemic is uncertain: how many more people will become infected and possibly die, how much more the economy and job market will be impacted, how soon things will return to “normal.” Uncertainty can cause feelings of extreme discomfort and activate irrational fears that hold us back from fully experiencing life. It might also interfere with our ability to solve problems or prevent us from being objective in finding solutions. Even worse, elevated levels of anxiety can actually compromise our immune system, making us even more vulnerable to the virus.
What to do
First, replace fear with strength. The presence of the coronavirus does not have to become a traumatic and overwhelming experience that marks us for life. On the contrary, it can be an excellent opportunity to exercise our resilience. The ability to handle adversity will be a critical component to our success moving beyond COVID-19. Maintaining an optimistic attitude is essential to supporting recovery. Being optimistic helps make your thoughts and emotions much more positive, which in turn gives your immune system a boost.
Second, have an action plan. Having a plan of action allows your brain to feel in charge. The next time you experience an attack of anxiety, write down your worries and identify your options. Examine your worries, aiming to be realistic in your assessment of the actual concerns and your ability to cope. Identifying what worries you and then focusing on what you can control will calm the nervous system and provide a feeling of inner strength.
Third, focus on the future. This will move you from paralyzing anxiety to action. Remember, anxiety comes from not knowing what will happen, and depression comes from believing that there is nothing we can do to change it.
Imagine yourself coping and adapting. Studies have shown that religious individuals involved in tragic circumstances often reported finding hope, peace and even increased joy in the midst of the experience. This consequently led them to report high satisfaction in their lives. “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed … struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9). We can all benefit from this kind of optimism.
What’s next? Grief and situational depression
The coronavirus pandemic is causing people to struggle with multiple types of mental health issues, including grief and situational depression. It is important to recognize the signs of grief and situational depression so that you can get the help you need.
Our new reality since the onset of the global pandemic has been marked by increased grief and a sense of loss. School, vacations, weddings, concerts, meetings, travels plans, social events and many other things have been canceled this year in the wake of the virus. It has forced on us an uncertain future and a collective grief.
We are mourning the loss of thousands of lives, and we are also mourning the loss of our “normalcy.” From going to work, to participating in community and religious gatherings, to engaging in the everyday routines that we previously took for granted, such as shopping or visiting with friends — everything has been impacted.
What to do
First, remember that your feelings are valid. There is no right or wrong way to feel after a loss. The shock and disbelief that have followed after all we have lost can trigger feelings of anger, regret, sadness and depression. All are common reactions. You may even be struggling with anticipatory grief, or the feeling that greater loss is still to come, because you may fear losing another family member or loved one.
Second, reach out. Although you might be tempted to shut everyone out in the midst of your grief, it is important to reach out. Talking about your feelings with someone when you are stressed or upset may not bring back what you have lost, but it can help you to feel better and less alone. Find ways to memorialize what you have lost. If you have lost someone, write a letter about your loved one’s life and their impact on you. If you lost a job that was important to you, write about all you learned during your tenure in that position.
For many, the rapid changes brought about by the pandemic have been as scary as the virus itself. Business closures, income reduction and the uncertainty of what might be ahead have increased symptoms of situational depression in a large number of people.
According to the World Health Organization, more than 264 million people worldwide experience different types depression: major depressive disorder, bipolar depression, perinatal and postpartum depression, and situational depression. Situational depression differs from other types of depression in that it is a short-term, stress-related type of depression. It is also known as reactive depression. It can develop after experiencing a traumatic event or series of events.
Symptoms of situational depression vary from person to person, but in most cases, they include sadness, hopelessness, constant worrying, feelings of anxiety or stress, difficulties sleeping, trouble carrying out daily activities, feelings of being overwhelmed, thoughts of or attempts at suicide, lack of enjoyment in normal activities, and regular crying.
What to do
First, accept the new reality. There is something “unreal” in the world of masks and physical distancing in which we now live. It is a world that sometimes keeps us from recognizing a friend who passes by or that makes greeting your relatives with kisses and hugs seem like an outdated custom from another era. However, it is important to remember that every storm passes. “This too shall pass.”
Looking at crises as opportunities to rethink and reorganize our priorities can prove beneficial. The analogy of a diamond may be helpful here. The beauty of the diamond comes about from the extreme experience of pressure and heat. The same can be true for you. By accepting your new reality and recognizing the opportunities it has brought you, you can emerge stronger from your situation and the complex challenges you have faced.
Second, focus on progress. In the mental health community, we have observed that when it comes to overcoming depression, even small changes in our clients’ daily lives can produce positive results. When people who were extremely depressed were asked to simply write down three good things that happened to them each day, 94% of the people in the study reported that they experienced some relief from their depression symptoms. Focusing on progress increases positive feelings. If you are suffering from depression, keep a gratitude journal with three good things that happen each day. This exercise will likely help you too.
Third, be kind to yourself; you are doing the best you can. The COVID-19 crisis has generated enormous distress for us as a society. It has served as a reminder that our emotions affect our physical and mental health — a reminder that our emotions are an expression of what happens to us and what matters to us. However, it is also important to remember that the feelings of hopelessness we may be experiencing are symptoms of depression, not the reality of our situation. You are not hopeless. There is hope.
Our current global crisis has brought an opportunity for us to influence one another for positive change. The solution for change starts with us, through our words and actions. So, as you think about the realities and uncertainties of our world during the crisis we are all facing, be mindful of the different ways that you can change your emotions into positive actions, starting with being kind to others and being kind to yourself.
Esther Scott is a licensed professional counselor in Arlington, Texas. She is a solution-focused therapist. Her specialties include grief, depression, teaching coping skills and couples counseling. Contact her through her website at positiveactionsinternational.com.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.