“Why am I feeling this way?” How dealing with on-going uncertainty impacts your mental health
As British Columbia moves into Phase 3 of re-opening, many of us are starting to resume normal activities, and life is starting to look and feel a little more normal. Even though you are under fewer restrictions and have more freedom than you have had for months, you may find that you still don’t feel quite right. You may feel anxious, depressed, and easily irritated. You may notice that you are tired, that you have poor memory and concentration, and that you have brain fog. You’re probably wondering “what is wrong with me? If things are getting better, why do I still feel bad?”
The answer lies in your nervous system. You are having a very normal reaction to a very abnormal set of circumstances. It is uncertain how long the COVID-19 situation is going to last, whether things will get worse again, or how you and your family will all be affected down the road. Your brain and your nervous system register these “unknowns” as threats. When you experience uncertainty and incongruency, it signals your brain that danger could be coming and that you need to be alert and ready to act. When you experience a stressful event, you are designed to respond with a burst of energy to meet the challenge. Then your stress hormones return to base-line, your blood pressure and heart rate lowers, and your breathing slows and deepens. You aren’t meant to stay in this stage of activation for a prolonged period of time, and when you do (as so many of us are right now), you may begin to notice both physical and mental/emotional signs of fatigue. Your brain staying on constant threat-alert uses a lot of energy, and the fluctuation of stress hormones is hard on your body. This is why you are so tired. This is also why you might feel spacey, light-headed, sick, irritated, anxious, depressed, sore, or numb.
Another factor that contributes to ongoing physical and mental/emotional fatigue is the energy of the people around you. People are social animals and your nervous system is designed to respond to the emotional states of others. This “group brain” has helped us survive as a species. When you see that others are calm, it signals your nervous system to be calm. But when you are exposed to people who are anxious, burnt-out and depressed your nervous system alerts to potential threat and puts you on-guard. The public feeling-tone is one of on-going uncertainty, fear, and mistrust. As social beings, we can’t help being impacted by the feelings of those around us and our community at large.
When you are feeling anxious, overwhelmed, or activated you think the goal should be
to calm down. However, the issues keeping you activated are on-going, and your nervous system continues to react to environmental stressors. The goal is not to try to force yourself into a state of calm, but to learn to connect to yourself and to create feelings of safety within yourself, so you can experience your feelings and work through them. Think of it as surfing your feelings, or feeling safe enough to feel. Feeling calm may be a by-product of this process, and wouldn’t that be nice? Self-compassion, self-care, and emotional regulation are all helpful practices when learning to create safety. Accept your feelings and give yourself permission to feel the way you do. Make sure that you are taking care of your basic human needs as well as your need for expression and connection, and be sure to honor extra need for rest. Make room in your day for emotionally regulating activities such as going for walks, being outside, breathing exercises, listening to music, mindfulness exercises, meditation, or exercise, and know that it is always ok to ask for help.