Almost no one was ready to find themselves in a pandemic this year. The situation brought on by COVID-19 has been overwhelming for nearly everyone, but especially for people who struggle with low mood and anxiety. Mental Health America (MHA) talked to Aimee Falchuk, founder of The Falchuk Group, contributing writer for wellness magazine Goop, and MHA Board member about the challenges of living with a mental health condition during COVID-19.
Can the stress of COVID-19 make my mental health condition worse?
“Yes. Stress, especially persistent stress, can exacerbate symptoms of mental health conditions. For many, the ongoing stress of the pandemic has impacted individuals’ ability to use otherwise effective coping strategies, including self-care. And when we are unable to effectively use coping strategies, symptoms can worsen. However, for many living with mental health conditions, these established strategies—self-care, reaching out for support, mediation and mindfulness, exercise, journaling, etc. can help prevent the worsening of symptoms. If you are struggling with getting enough self-care, first try and give yourself some compassion and grace. Even though self-care is helpful, it can still feel hard when you're feeling overwhelmed. Try not to add more burden onto yourself with self-judgment or criticism. We are all doing the best we can. Also, slow it all down. Commit to one act of self-care you know you can deliver on. Maybe it is to eat a healthy meal or to get outside and get some fresh air or call a friend. Don't overburden yourself with tasks. Focus on one thing and see where that takes you.
“It is important to understand the impact of stress as a full-body experience. Stress effects our thinking and feeling. It can have an impact on our motivation and our ability to concentrate and get things done. It can take its toll on our physical body, sleep, appetite, and our overall energy.
“Stress releases hormones into the body. This is a good thing! Imagine if you were being chased by a bear. Your whole being reacts accordingly. Your breath shortens, thinking becomes more focused, feelings are limited, and the body becomes dedicated to doing whatever it has to do to survive. Once you’ve removed the threat and the bear is gone, your body can relax. With COVID it is as if we’ve been chased by a bear for almost a year. Our system has been in constant survival mode and all that comes with it. It would make sense that this could affect your symptoms.
“It is important to tune into how you are feeling, to notice any changes in thoughts, feelings or behaviors, and to reach out to your supports if you are struggling with a worsening of your symptoms. And most importantly, it is essential to show yourself compassion during this time. It is not easy.”
I think I’ve developed new triggers—do I have to start my mental health journey all over again?
“Not necessarily. New triggers can be challenging, but it’s important to remind yourself how hard you’ve worked along your mental health journey and all the ways you’ve developed strategies to support you—soothe you—when you feel triggered. When we are triggered, we often are in reaction, which can stir up a bit of trouble for ourselves. But as we get to know our triggers and when we take a pause – often times just a deep breath—we move from reaction to more of a thoughtful response. Recognizing and reminding ourselves of all the ways we have done that with other triggers is important in supporting us when new triggers arise.”
Is it possible to feel okay again despite so many bad things happening? How can I feel hopeful when it seems like there no end in sight?
“When we are faced with difficult things like loss and uncertainty – and when the loss and uncertainty is so persistent, as it is now—it makes sense that we may feel a certain sense of hopelessness. When I feel this way, I try not to fight it but rather let myself feel it. I think it can teach us something. For example, do I feel hopeless because life is not going my way and because its hard? And if that is the case, maybe the lesson is to learn to be okay with the truth that sometimes life doesn’t go our way and often times it can be hard. That maybe instead of hopelessness, the opportunity is to learn to be in acceptance of what is. And you don’t have to like it! Meaning when you feel hopeless see if you can move your body, express yourself in a safe way. Yell and scream “I don’t like this!” or “I want things to be the way they were!” - whatever it is, let the energy move. Hopelessness is form of feeling stuck or trapped. The energy isn’t moving. So when we move the energy, when we allow ourselves our feelings about a situation—without acting out—but rather having them in safe place with the support of others, we start to feel something. And if we are feeling something, we may feel more alive—and more hopeful.
“I find the antidote to hopelessness is gratitude and presence. Whether it’s being grateful for the cup of coffee I have each morning or the air outside, a song I love, or a conversation with a friend, being grateful brings us into the present moment, and in that moment we can find much hope. So I might invite you to practice gratitude and presence—any and all the time—but definitely when you are feeling that sense of hopelessness.
“Lastly, when we feel hopeless it is always good to lend your hand or heart to someone in need. There is so much need in the world and when we lend ourselves to meet that need, we feel we are part of something greater. That in itself can bring us hope. This can be as simple as offering comforting words to someone else who is struggling or donating to a cause you care about.”
We’re living through an incredibly difficult time in history and it’s okay to feel like you’re struggling to stay afloat. So much has changed in the last year and it has brought up a lot of new feelings and behaviors for many people. For more tips and articles on managing your mental health condition(s), check out MHA’s screening platform. Need someone to talk to? Text MHA to 741-741 to be connected to a trained counselor. If your feelings of distress or hopelessness become a crisis, reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.
Aimee Falchuk, MPH, M. ED, CCEP holds a B.A. in Women's Studies from Barnard College, a Master's in Public Health from Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, Master's in Education in Counseling and Psychology from Cambridge College Graduate School of Counseling and Psychology and Practitioner Certification in Core Energetics from the Institute of Core Energetics, NYC. Aimee has a private practice and is a faculty member at the Institute of Core Energetics. Aimee is the founder of The Falchuk Group, a personal and corporate consulting platform that uses cognitive strategies, body-oriented approaches and a variety of expressive techniques as a path to aliveness and consciousness. Aimee facilitates workshops and lectures around the country. Aimee is also a contributing writer for the wellness magazine Goop.