Mental Health in 2021

By: Amy Marschall, PsyD., Freelance Columnist

We are less than three weeks into 2021, and WOW. Although the new year did not automatically reset or end anything that was happening in 2020, December seemed filled with hope that January would be better.

On January 6, I finished a session and checked Twitter to see that “Civil War” was trending. My first thought was that it had something to do with Captain America, but instead this was in reference to Trump supporters rioting and attacking the Capitol, causing lockdown protocol that has not been necessary since September 11, 2001. In the days since, social media posts have alleged that more violent riots are to come, causing Twitter to permanently ban Donald Trump from their platform.

After a year of uncertainty from COVID-19 lockdowns, people are exhausted, and with inauguration days away, many are more anxious and scared than ever. How do we protect our mental health?

Mindful Media Consumption

In the era of the internet and the 24-hour news cycle, we have access to all of the information all the time. Although it is important to be informed, there is a tipping point where consuming news or “doom scrolling” on social media starts to do more harm than good.

Ask yourself, “Is this activity giving me new information? And is that information helpful? Is it important for me to learn this information, or any new information, right now?” If not, it’s a good time to unplug.

Check in with your body. What’s going on for you emotionally? Are you tense, tired, or overwhelmed? Even if there is new information that you need to know, it is okay to decide to get that information later. It does you no good to further push yourself toward a breaking point, and learning something in a few hours when you are in a healthier headspace will not change the outcome.

Focus on What You Can Control

Most people have very little power over the larger world in their daily lives. This has come up for a lot of people in my area (Sioux Falls, South Dakota) over other people’s choice not to wear masks. Understandably, this has caused a lot of distress and anger, but unfortunately, unless I want to start a brawl at HyVee, I cannot force anyone else to wear a mask.

In the same way, there is not much that I can do to affect what happens in Washington, DC, over the next few weeks. I can choose good self-care in my own life, check in on my loved ones, and stand up for what’s right when I see something happening around me.

Give Yourself Permission to Rest

Sleep is a challenge for a lot of people right now, but rest is about more than just sleep. If you find yourself laying awake, ruminating about all the terrible things you saw and heard about during the day, please remember that your body still benefits from that rest even if you are not able to fall asleep. It is not only okay but essential to let yourself rest, even though it is tempting to get up and “do something” with that time. My favorite thing to do when I know I need rest but my body will not fall asleep is to pull up a guided meditation or visualization, like The Honest Guys on YouTube.

A guided sleep meditation can lull you to unconsciousness, but even if you are still awake at the end of the video, the visualization technique can lower your blood pressure and heart rate, promoting a sense of relaxation.

Sometimes we feel guilty about relaxing when bad things are happening, but taking care of yourself is so important. Ruminating will not change the outcome, but giving yourself the rest that you need will give you the energy to take action when there is an opportunity to affect change.

Take Steps to Ensure Your Physical Safety

In psychology, we talk about the hierarchy of needs. All of these needs are important, but they vary in urgency. It is difficult and often impossible to take steps to improve your mental health if you are not physically safe. This is especially true for Black and non-black people of color who are most likely to be the target of hate crimes by white supremacist groups, as well as anyone who is high-risk for complications if they contract COVID-19. It is okay – and necessary! – to stay safe at home.

Honor Your Emotions – But Don’t Let Them Own You

I have talked a bit about how guilt can affect our willingness to engage in self-care. The same is true for anger, sadness, grief, and a whole host of other negative emotions that you have likely experienced recently. You might feel guilty relaxing when so many bad things are happening, or you might feel angry or sad, leaving you unable to recharge. In my clinical practice, I often say, “Emotions charge interest.” This means that, if you bottle up feelings, they will come back bigger. Emotions demand to be felt, especially unpleasant emotions, because even negative emotions serve a purpose. Anger tells us we need to respond to an injustice; anxiety tells us we need to take steps to keep ourselves safe.

Be aware of what you are feeling, and let yourself experience your emotions. Consider the message they are sending. Some people feel comfortable addressing the emotion like it’s another person: “Hello, Anger. Thank you for helping me stand up for myself. I acknowledge you, but in this moment, you are not productive to have around.” Then let the feeling move past you. The emotion might decide to stick around for a while, and you can engage in self-care and coping skills that boost your mood as long as you are not repressing or “bottling up” that feeling.

What a year the last week has been! We do not know what will happen next, but please take care of yourself and your needs in whatever way you need.

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