Essential Conversations with Dr. Amy: Managing our emotions during the pandemic

In the first few months of the pandemic when we were all hunkered down, almost everyone was focused on responding to the situation at hand. We were channeling much of our emotional and practical resources and energy to adapting to the monumental changes in our day-to day-lives. This is what we do in crisis: we quickly focus our energy on the situation. However, we can’t live in a state of crisis for the long-term. It’s like trying to use the same techniques one would use to run a sprint for running a marathon. Not only would you not win the marathon, likely you’d not even get part way through the race!

As we move into new phases of the pandemic, many of us are trying to figure out how to shift from living in crisis mode to adapting to living with the pandemic as part of our lives for the foreseeable future. This can be a bumpy process. For some, the opening up of our provinces seems like it is happening too quickly; for others, it is happening too slowly. This can lead to strong emotional responses that may feel quite unpleasant. This is likely to continue as we live with ongoing uncertainty and move through different phases of our new normal.

The good news is, although we may not be able to change the pace of the re-opening or control the virus, we can manage our emotions so we experience less stress, anxiety and frustration.

Notice and name your emotions

Sometimes when we are experiencing an emotion we are like “fish to water.” We are so immersed in what we are feeling that we aren’t even aware we are having a strong emotional reaction. The first step is to pause, notice what we are feeling, and do our best to name it. For example, you might pause and realize that your chest or stomach feels a little tight and you are a little hesitant to leave your home or suite in your retirement residence. When you focus in, you realize you are feeling anxious or worried. When you stop and become aware of your emotions, you can better control your response to them.

Shift your feelings

Once you recognize what you are feeling, then you can focus on shifting to more pleasant emotions. There are many ways to take control and shift your emotions. Here are a few simple ways to do so:

  1. Find the facts: One of the best ways to counter challenging emotions is to do a fact-check. What do you need to know to help you feel better? For example, if you are concerned the procedures you are hearing about for re-opening are either happening “too soon” or “not soon enough,” find out the reasoning behind them. Understanding that there is a plan and logic behind decisions, even if you don’t fully agree with that reasoning, can help quell challenging emotions.

  2. The gratitude game: When we are truly feeling grateful, we don’t need to manage challenging emotions; they simply evaporate in the face of gratitude. To get those good feelings started, think about, and better yet write down, all of the things that are going well in your life, all the people who love you, the things you like to do, and everyone who has ever done something nice for you. Very quickly you are likely to start feeling your mood lift and you will realize that these challenging and uncertain times will eventually fade away.

  3. Phone a friend: There is a lot of research that shows having good social connection is a wonderful buffer to the difficult times in our lives. As we deal with the uncertainty of reopening, this would be a good time to increase your level of connection with others. You may not be able to hug them or be face-to-face right now, but thanks to FaceTime, Zoom and just the old-fashioned telephone, you can check in and feel the support of another person.

  4. Support someone else: Turning the focus away from ourselves to someone else can increase our sense of purpose and meaning. The quote, “We are all in the same storm, but not in the same boat” is a great reminder that, as difficult a time as we may be having, there is likely someone else struggling even more who we could reach out to. When we turn the focus to helping someone else, we often get a changed perspective on what is happening in our life.

  5. Focus on what you can control: It is human nature to focus on things we have no control over. When we realize we are thinking about the uncontrollable in our lives, we can remind ourselves to consider what we can control. When I am having an emotionally “off” day, my very wise sister will say to me, “What do you need to do between now and when you go to bed?” Suddenly, I have a focus on those things I can control and the world seems manageable again.

Consider following some of the steps I’ve outlined above to help regulate your emotions during this ever-changing time so you feel in control and can credit yourself with making rational decisions that balance safety with freedom.