With a new year underway, many dreamed of a life reboot, to leave behind at least some of the uncertainly and loss that characterized 2020. Not surprisingly, the deadly COVID-19 pandemic is still bearing down on 2021. However, on top of that came the events of Jan. 6 at the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., underscoring the nation’s political divisions.
What has resulted is a stressful start to what is usually a hopeful time of aspirational resolutions and future plans.
Emanuel Maidenberg, PhD, clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, offers some advice on navigating stormy emotions brought on by compounding tensions.
Allow yourself to feel your feelings
“The most helpful thing could be not to rush through the emotional impact or experience each one of us has,” Dr. Maidenberg says. “What I mean is: These events lead to an emotional reaction in most of us — different emotions, perhaps, but everybody responds very emotionally.”
We might feel upset that things aren’t going as we’d like, or anxiety about the fragility of medical and political systems.
“For all of us, this is something that we know deep inside but do not like thinking about, which is uncertainty. That’s where a lot of stress comes through. So that feeling is important to be experienced,” rather than rushed through to arrive at more palatable emotions such as anger, frustration or sadness, he says.
“Sadness has to do with the sense of helplessness, because there’s not that much that we can do,” he says. “And then anger and frustration — I think these are paradoxically easier to go to, because these are feelings that are easier to experience, these harsh emotions that are part of this whole thing, too. It’s good to be able to go through these reactions that we all have without rushing through it or shortening it for yourself because it’s difficult. There’s nothing unusual about feeling these emotions.”
Have honest conversations, particularly with children
While young children may not understand the specifics of the events at the Capitol, they are certainly sensitive to their parents’ emotional responses, Dr. Maidenberg says.
“They probably feel confused in addition to everything else,” he says. “It’s important to have these conversations with children, although they may not be as expressive about what they feel and what they think. It’s a good time to sit down and talk about the fundamentals about why we choose to live in the system that we do.”
Sharing thoughts and feelings with friends and loved ones can also be helpful, he says. While we may not have access to the social outings we’d normally turn to for comfort, expressing our concerns and ideas with those we trust can bring a feeling of community and calm.
Mind your thoughts
While it’s best to be aware of our feelings and not attempt to rush through them, we must also be mindful of recurrent thoughts that cause an inability to focus on work or other responsibilities, Dr. Maidenberg says.
Calm awareness of our feelings mitigates our tendency to seek distraction from uncomfortable emotions, he says. But thinking endlessly about upsetting feelings isn’t helpful, either.
“That’s more of an attention issue,” he says. “We all have to train our attention in some way, but it is a skill we can develop. The idea is to learn to observe your thoughts without being engaged with your thoughts. It’s something that’s very effectively learned through simple meditative practice.”
Smartphone apps such as Headspace can help beginners to cultivate the technique, he says.
“What it teaches you to do is to observe what happens in your mind without being emotionally triggered into the feelings these thoughts bring with them,” he says. “Once you do a little bit more of that, then it becomes easier to have more control over your attention. So you can say, ‘I’ve had this thought many times and it’s not something that I feel helps me because there’s no problem solving of any kind in this process. Let me see if I can focus on something else.’”
Limit consumption of news and social media
“The idea is that you determine for yourself — and you’re the only one who can know — how much information you need and want, and then limit your exposure to the sources of information for that amount of time,” Dr. Maidenberg says.
For instance, he limits his news consumption to 15 to 30 minutes in the morning and afternoon.
“You have to exercise control and not get triggered by some discomfort into pulling your phone and starting to scroll,” he says. “If that becomes a challenge, then you do whatever it takes to make it more difficult to have access to your phone, so you put it in a different room. We have to manage ourselves in these circumstances.”
Avoid escaping with substances
Many who had promised themselves a “dry January” of alcohol abstinence abandoned their plans on Jan. 6. Alcohol and other substances may effectively numb uncomfortable feelings, but it’s a bad habit to lean on, Dr. Maidenberg says.
“There is a lot to be lost by over-relying on one source of self-soothing,” he says. “Alcohol is very effective in breaking that thinking cycle that we do not know how to otherwise break, so there’s a great deal of potential in these substances to help us with some things. But then the price we pay is disproportionate to what we gain overall. Substances can lead to difficulties on the physiological level, interpersonal level and work-related.”
As with news and social media consumption, he suggests setting personal limits and sticking to them.
Practice ongoing self-care
Besides meditation and moderation, it’s a good idea to have other routine healthy practices in place that feel comforting and stabilizing, Dr. Maidenberg says. Physical exercise and spending time in nature are both free and scientifically proven to boost mood and health.
“It’s important to persist with it,” he says. “Nothing really changes or happens if you try it once, twice or three times. You have to decide what you want to work on and then make a commitment to do it regularly for two or three weeks. Then you will know whether it’s helping you and if you want to continue. But when we sporadically try different things and expect one to make a difference, it’s unrealistic.”