Story by Jesse Campbell, Red Cross Communications Volunteer
The past few months have been challenging, frustrating, and at times, heartbreaking. Have you asked yourself, “how am I doing, really?” As we navigate our way through months of unforeseen challenges of an ongoing global pandemic and the sharp pangs of civil unrest, how can we find ways to cope and develop resilience? While we are focused on what’s happening around us on the outside, we aren’t generally aware of what’s going on inside.
Taking stock of our own mental well-being can lead to insight and a sense of peace. It allows us to feel empowered to develop the fortitude to face these challenges. It’s time to pause for a moment and check in with ourselves.
Dr. Sonia Bhatia, a Doctor of Psychology, licensed marriage and family therapist, and American Red Cross disaster mental health volunteer, believes that introspection can mitigate the feelings of helplessness and crisis fatigue that are being experienced by many. For months, our attention has been primarily turned outward, beyond the self. These influences affect the self, but to learn how, we need to make a habit to look inside frequently.
Victoria Baum, a licensed mental health counselor and Red Cross mental health volunteer supervisor, agrees, adding, “the most important relationship you have with anyone, is yourself.” Self-care and introspection are vital in normal times and are especially crucial during times of uncertainty and crisis.
Here are some simple and readily available tools Dr. Bhatia and Ms. Baum have shared for us to check in with ourselves and increase our psychological awareness. The best part about these tools is they are always with you and easy to use.
- Routinely ask yourself “How am I doing, really?” Giving yourself a chance to be honest with what you’re thinking and feeling is the first step to recognizing burnout and crisis fatigue, and will allow you to strengthen your own self-awareness. Next, ask yourself “What do I need right now?” You might discover you need a break, or that you’re thirsty, or there’s simply too much stimulation and you need to slow things down. Dr. Bhatia says these questions are a way to immediately regulate yourself and are a simple way to check in.
- Breathe. Dr. Bhatia asserts, “the antidote to stress is deep breathing. It’s impossible to be stressed with deep breathing.” A technique she suggests is “Five Finger Breathing.” To do this, take the index finger of one hand and use it to slowly trace along the outline of the other hand. Inhale gently as you trace toward each fingertip and slowly exhale as you trace toward the palm in the space between the fingers. Allow your breathing to slow. Repeat with the other hand if you need to. “This exercise can be done discreetly anywhere,” she says,“ at your workstation, during a meeting or before you get out of the car.”
- Remember that you are human. As part of increasing your self-awareness, acknowledge your thoughts and emotions. “Recognize that we are mere mortals and that nobody walks on water,” notes Ms. Baum. Resilience to these challenges is achievable and while it’s not built overnight, know you can persevere.
- Actively look for hope and positivity. “Know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” Ms. Baum says. With ongoing challenges, the light can become obscured, but know it is there. “Keep your eyes on the eventual prize,” says Dr. Bhatia. This gets us beyond the current moment and instills hope for the not-so-distant future.
- Limit your intake of news and social media. It is important to know what is happening, but once you’ve received that information, turn it off. “Create a boundary for news,” Dr. Bhatia says. “It’s like watching the news about a hurricane. Once you know about it and how it affects you, that’s generally all you can learn from it.” Anything beyond that can have a negative effect on our perception and well-being.
- Learn. Take steps to educate yourself to learn more about what’s going on. This doesn’t mean watching more news, rather, read more and begin to converse with like-minded people. This leads to action, which is empowering. “Talk with people you trust,” Dr. Bhatia continues. “Know that like-minded people can work together to make a difference.” This helps remind us that we are not alone.
- Be active. Dr. Bhatia says “Physical exercise is essential. Physical release is essential to discharge negativity.” This works to expel frustration and anxiety on a physical level to make chemical changes in the nervous system. In the current environment, many people haven’t been as active as normal. It’s important to schedule time to get up and move around. Movement inherently causes a shift in perspective.
- Be grateful. Something that can be paired with breathing exercises is a meditation on gratitude for the good things in your life. In addition, “say thank you more often. Tell people you appreciate them more,” Ms. Baum says. This encourages another change in perspective and allows the mind to shift focus and remind us that there is goodness and hope, despite the current challenges we face.
These tools are remarkably simple, yet they have extraordinary benefits. Dr. Bhatia and Ms. Baum agree that these tools are the first steps to building the resilience needed to get through this time.
It’s important to know that as social beings, we generally aren’t equipped to get through such extended adversity on our own. Check in with yourself and then reach out to speak with someone as well. Know that it’s expected and normal to have psychological responses in a time like this. Ms.Baum points out, “Anybody who comes through something like this unscathed is unusual. Don’t quit five minutes before the miracle. As long as we keep breathing, we will get through this.”
In times like these, we can all benefit from learning techniques for supporting mental health. The Red Cross offers a free online course called Psychological First Aid: Supporting Yourself and Others during COVID-19. This course was specifically designed to help individuals build resilience, support themselves, and lend support to others in this pandemic environment.
If you, or someone you know, is experiencing overwhelming emotional distress related to current events, free counseling and support is available 24/7/365 from the national Disaster Distress Helpline. Call 1-800-985-5990 to be connected to a trained counselor or text ‘TalkWithUs’ to 66746.