Dealing with your emotions during the Pandemic
Updated: Aug 28, 2020
Social distancing, self-isolation, job loss, financial strain, health concerns: each of these things on their own can bring on heavy emotions. In combination, they can result in a very difficult mix of difficult emotions. During times of heightened stress such as during the Covid Pandemic, most people have struggled with some level of loneliness, depression, anxiety, grief, confusion, guilt, and uncertainty. For many, these feelings may be more intense or persistent than they have ever experienced.
So, what are we to do with these difficult emotions when they might seem really big? There are a few things that we can do upfront to help us begin to move through our emotions rather than to resist or ignore them.
The first is to recognize that our emotions are “normal”. This is a difficult time and it is absolutely ok to be feeling what you are feeling. There isn’t a right or wrong way to feel.
The second is to recognize that your emotions serve a purpose. In so many ways things are unfamiliar and uncertain right now. Each of our emotions is part of a system intended to move us into some kind of action. For example, we may find ourselves seeking security when we are feeling uncertain, or readying ourselves for a fight when we anticipate a threat.
Whether we recognize it or not, we are constantly engaging in emotional regulation. When we ignore or devalue our emotions, we often end up creating more distress by throwing our emotional system out of balance.
According to Dr. Paul Gilbert, developer of Compassion Focused Therapy, people have three types of emotion regulation systems. There is a threat system, a drive system, and a soothing system. Each of these systems plays an important role in regulating our emotions, but can cause us problems when they are unbalanced.
For example, the threat system is important for scanning for safety. However, when it is overactive and not balanced by the other two systems, our bodies are in a constant state of arousal and producing high amounts of adrenaline and cortisol (a stress hormone), which can have detrimental physical and mental effects over the long term. With all of the uncertainty and loss of security that can occur in a global pandemic, it’s likely that many people’s threat systems are working really hard right now.
The drive system is associated with the brain chemical dopamine and the “reward system” of the brain. There are plenty of pressures floating around social media right now to use any “extra time” to be more productive. For some it can create a sense of comfort to take control of what you can, be productive, and work towards a goal. However, for some those expectations can bring up guilt and shame, overwhelming the system and ultimately pushing someone back into the threat system.
For many, the threat and drive system are the ones theyknow best. They oscillate between the two to regulate their emotions and the soothing system only naturally takes over when there is no threat or no goal to pursue. When in a crisis like the one we are in, there are lots of extra stresses and lots of goals that present themselves. Without the balance of the soothing system, people can very easily get stuck in shame, defensiveness, and hostility. This impacts not only oneself but their relationships as well. By strengthening our third system to use it when we need it most, we can bring better balance to our emotions overall. This can help reduce stress in the body and can help the mind focus more easily, meaning an increased ability to be present with yourself and those close to you.
The soothing system is associated with a sense of internal calm and neurochemicals like oxytocin (the “love” hormone) and endorphins (natural pain killers). For many people the soothing system is misunderstood, underutilized, or even blocked by complex trauma1. Because of difficult experiences, even early in life, some of the important cues like warmth and closeness that are helpful for initiating the soothing system are misunderstood by the nervous system and brain as threats. This may mean extra support is needed to help process some of these difficulties with the support of a therapist. However, there is also lots you can do to begin expanding your awareness and capacity of the soothing system.
The uncertainty and stress that many may be experiencing during this pandemic means that their emotional regulation systems may be even more unbalanced that usual. With the financial pressures and potential economic difficulties looming, many people may be stuck bouncing back and forth between feeling overwhelmed (threat) and guilty for not doing more (drive) and ultimately ending up more stressed. Bringing some balance to your emotional regulation system using the soothing system can help to reduce stress and even help you be more productive in the long run.
So, what are some practical ways to employ the soothing system to help bring some balance to your emotions?
Self-compassion: Do you ever wonder what it would be like if we spoke to ourselves as we would to a friend going through a hard time? That’s the basis of Dr. Kristin Neff’s work on self-compassion. In her work she identifies the elements of self-compassion: First, being kind to and gentle with yourself in the midst of difficulty. Second, recognizing that you’re not alone; suffering and personal inadequacy is part of being human. Third, finding a mindful balance in acknowledging our negative emotions without over-identifying with them. The core of the soothing system is being able to be gentle with ourselves without ignoring our negative emotions. Doctor Neff’s website offers some very helpful resources for practicing self-compassion.
Mindfulness: Mindfulness is a skill that can be built over time to help practice the ability to be present with your thoughts, emotions, and physiology. This can be an important asset in being able to soothe our emotions without being reactive or easily overwhelmed. The website mindful.org has some very helpful tools to begin building this practice in your daily life.
Breathing: Because our emotions don’t live only in our brain but are informed by the whole nervous system feedback loop, we can use our breathing to change our physiology and soothe our mind and bodies. Here is a fantastic article that outlines some different breathing techniques that can help support the soothing system.
If you are feeling depressed, anxious, or overwhelmed, one of the best ways to begin exploring how to bring balance to your emotional regulation system is with the support of a therapist. In the safety of this relationship many people find the space to discover what some of the blocks or imbalances are and are able to see changes in their mood, relationships, and ability to cope with stress. At Therapy Place we offer compassionate and confidential therapy over secure video online or over the phone. We offer sessions ranging from 30-80 minutes for individuals or couples. Get in touch to book your session by clicking here.
Remember... this is a legitimately difficult time. Your emotions are legitimate and valid. Attending to them can help you to move through them in a healthy way, rather than getting stuck in an unbalanced system. Be gentle with yourself and those around you, and stay safe.