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The coronavirus pandemic. A nationwide viral death toll. Widespread racial injustice. Protests in the street. Devastating wildfires. Job losses. The 2020 election. Families struggling through remote learning.

It’s beyond doubt: We’re up against a long list of stressful realities playing havoc with our individual mental health right now.

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As the Los Angeles Times reported, in late July 44% of California adults described “levels of anxiety and gloom typically associated with diagnoses of generalized anxiety disorder or major depressive disorder,” according to regular U.S. Census Bureau surveys. The figure markedly rose throughout the summer with the spread of COVID-19.

There’s also the sheer number of ongoing stories detailing the graphic deaths of Black and brown people across the U.S. — stories with intense mental health impacts that disproportionately weigh on people of color.

Individually and collectively, we’re not OK right now. So KQED Forum spoke to experts about how you might personally manage what seems like an unmanageable amount of stressors:

  • Tracy Foose, psychiatrist with a focus on anxiety disorders and associate clinical professor of psychiatry, UCSF School of Medicine
  • Spring Washam, author of “A Fierce Heart: Finding Strength, Courage, and Wisdom in Any Moment”, and meditation teacher and co-founder, East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland
  • Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director of the Greater Good Science Center, UC Berkeley

If it feels especially difficult right now, there’s a really good reason

The world seems overwhelming right now … because it is.

A pandemic, racial injustice, wildfires, family lives turned upside down: What these things have in common, says psychiatrist Tracy Foose, is “a kind of cumulative uncertainty.”

Each one of these individual stressors, things “that we have no ability to predict and no ability to control at the individual level,” she says, are momentous in their own right. But put them all together, and the challenge can feel insurmountable.

All of this at once can also make you feel like you’re getting “compassion fatigue”: an inability to keep caring, to keep feeling loss and grief as more terrible things keep happening in the world.

This can lead to a person feeling a state of “just feeling exhausted,” says Emiliana Simon-Thomas of the Greater Good Science Center. “Feeling disconnected and hopeless, or what some might call callous, about the possibility of anything ever changing.”

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If this description is reminding you of your own feelings right now, you’re not alone.

And it’s not just the number of things that are happening right now, Foose says, but the fact that they’re taking place on a global scale and just don’t seem like they’ll stop any time soon.

When we compare current events to previous traumatic historical periods, with the benefit of hindsight we can see both how those events started and when they ended. But we can’t foresee the end of our own traumatic experiences right now.

It’s something she calls “trauma limbo.” That, collectively, “we’re going through a lot of unresolved, unfinished, un-closed traumatic experiences,” and have no way of knowing what we — and the world — will look like on the other side.

You’re going to need to approach your problems in a new way

Another thing that makes all of this seem so much bigger: the fact that the pandemic means we can’t manage these stresses in the usual ways.

We normally cope with stress in three basic ways, says Tracy Foose: connection to other human beings, physical activity and what she calls “meaningful, purposeful, intentional activity” — the sort of “solvable problems that we look for in our life.” (Solvable problems, she explains, are the kind of challenges that you can be pretty sure your skills can overcome if you have enough time: like work tasks, or baking, or gardening.)

But right now, you can’t see your friends like you usually would, because of the risk of COVID-19. You can’t go outside to exercise exactly as before, because of the pandemic and wildfire smoke. And the kinds of problems you’re faced with are huge, and just aren’t solvable in the ways you’d normally recognize.

Emiliana Simon
In late July, 44% of California adults described “levels of anxiety and gloom typically associated with diagnoses of generalized anxiety disorder or major depressive disorder” (Gender Spectrum Collection)

So what do you do about that? First off, accept the truth that you “really do need these three things for wellness,” Foose advises, and then get into the idea of “some pursuit of adaptation.” How are you going to get physical activity? How will you find social connection? And how might you take a situation that “feels so out of control and uncertain” and break it up  into a kind of solvable problem that you can, in Foose’s words, “chew on every day”?

Breaking down the issues at hand into manageable parts and attacking them from new angles — while  recognizing that you’ve never really had to do it like this before, without your usual coping methods — is “the inevitable path to wellness, even during all of this uncertainty,” she says.

Stop judging yourself and expecting perfection …

The East Bay Meditation Center’s Spring Washam advises that self-compassion is “an ingredient that you could really cultivate right now.”

We’re all “kind of hanging on,” she reminds us. So acknowledging that you’ll have good days and bad days amid it all — “that you’re going to experience these highs and lows” — is surprisingly crucial, so you’re not blindsided when the bad days hit.

That’s because our emotions “are really triggered or activated where we’re experiencing things that we haven’t before,” Washam says — but knowing that the harder days are inevitable can soften the blow when they arrive.

“We may need a moment to fall apart a little bit or take a break or pull out,” she says, and we shouldn’t be shy about asking for help when it happens. “I think we need to just make space for that with each other and be really honest when we need support,” Washam says. “Like, ‘Hey, I can’t do this right now! Can you come over? Can you help, or can I call you?’”

… and start talking more nicely to yourself

We often criticize ourselves in ways we’d never direct at anyone else. Emiliana Simon-Thomas recommends “giving yourself that same supportive inner voice that you would give a neighbor or a friend who might tell you that they’re also struggling with this challenge.”

“We’re actually pretty good at supporting each other, but oftentimes adopt a much more critical inner voice towards ourselves. And this really just worsens the problem,” Simon-Thomas says.

Greater Good Science Center
Listen to how you speak to yourself. Are you showing the same understanding and compassion that you’d extend to a friend? (Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels)

And the thing about this “enduring, hyper-critical self-talk,” she says, is how it can make the challenges you’re experiencing feel exaggerated beyond proportion and, accordingly, can make your supposed failures feel huge.

So the next time you catch yourself using a harsh tone inward, remember: by doing that, you’re not seeing things for what they really are.

Don’t pretend you’re fine when you’re not

Many of us have a tendency to “mask a lot of things,” Spring Washam says. That is, to reflexively say we’re doing fine and “hide the levels of stress that we really experience.” And that’s not actually helpful right now, she says.

“I think really it’s a time to be very real with yourself, with our families and come together,” and to not attempt to shoulder your emotional burdens solo, Washam advises. “It’s too much for any one person,” she says. “We need to be more real about what’s happening.”

So if you’re struggling, don’t keep it to yourself: Speak up and call on your support networks. Putting a brave face on things won’t help, and might actually be harmful to your well-being.

Try to find the positive (even when it seems impossible)

This one might sound like it contradicts the idea of feeling your feelings. But at the Greater Good Science Center, Emiliana Simon-Thomas says staff encourage folks there with practices and exercises that “enable a different emotional profile.”

“So instead of getting kind of lost in that downward spiral of negative self talk, or complaining or worrying or feeling anxious about all the things that could go wrong,” she advises, be intentional about the kinds of thoughts and reflexive judgments that you’re making in each moment.

That means that if you have the possibility of engaging in a conversation with a friend about what’s going well in life — rather than badly — you might find you’re able to “just shift the balance a little bit and bring yourself moments of levity,” Simon-Thomas says.

It’s not about putting a “brave face” on things, or straining for a falsely positive spin. It’s about finding some feeling of safety, she says, to “balance the scales, so that you’re not always in fight or flight mode.”

Find more tips for managing stress and anxiety, including advice on mindfulness and resentment, in the full KQED Forum show.