Common Emotional Experiences Explained, and How to Feel Better
Common Emotional Experiences reported by many during COVID19
- Frustration due to Difficulty Concentrating
Many people are reporting difficulty concentrating, difficulty completing simple routine tasks, and “cognitive fog”. This can be explained in part by “cognitive dissonance” and “working memory.” Regarding cognitive dissonance – What is happening in the world does not “fit” into our brains and anything we have experienced before, which is why you are repeatedly hearing the word “unprecedented.” Or it does not fit into what we want to do. Cognitive dissonance is when we have two opposing thoughts, and we feel the resulting discomfort. For example, you may have a thought that you want to go to your favorite crowded restaurant with indoor dining, or hug your friends when you see them. This is dissonant with the thought that this behavior might be harmful. We are constantly adapting to our beliefs and what we believe to be true, and then seeking information to support that belief, and this takes mental energy, whether we realize it or not.
Another reason is because often when we are working on something, it requires working memory. Yet we may be all tapped out with our working memory. New behaviors, such as social distancing and wearing masks have not yet become habits and a well-adopted social norm, causing us to have to make decisions and planning, which requires mental effort. New studies indicate that this is related to working memory, making it difficult for other tasks that require concentration and working memory.
As an example, has there been a time when you left your house and forgot a mask, only to be in a place where it is required? Or maybe you brought your mask to the car, and then forgot to wear it as you approached the store or doctor’s office? Just some examples of how it is not yet a habit or something we do effortlessly with little mental energy.
In addition, there are also many other new thoughts or concerns that take up your mental energy, making simple routine tasks more difficult. For example, you may be driving home, and realize you need to make a quick stop at the pharmacy or grocery store. You may have difficulty making your simple list because you are also having thoughts about wearing a mask, is the store going to have what you need because the last time the store was all out, will someone get too close to you, and other similar thoughts.
- Intensified Grief regarding past losses
Often when we are going through a difficult emotion, it brings up memories and experiences of a similar emotion. This happens often with grief. This is because our memories are often encoded through our emotions. So when we are experiencing a particular emotion, it may bring up memories that were encoded with that same emotion. We are going through many losses right now, big and small. Loss of life, loss of finances, loss of celebrations, loss of trips, etc. This grief may trigger or intensify grief related to a previous loss. This is common and normal, and it does not mean that you have not healed from previous loss. It means you are human.
- Anxiety at bedtime/difficulty falling asleep/waking up
Many people who have never had difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep are experiencing difficulty now. Anxiety can be heightened at bedtime or in the middle of the night upon waking. It is common to experience anxiety at night because our defenses are down, leaving us vulnerable to our negative thoughts. We are also not distracted by other behavior and thoughts demanding our attention, leaving us with our worries of the day, or worries related to the upcoming day. When there are no other distractions and we are left with our own thoughts, for many people, this turns to intrusive negative thoughts. One study found that 80% of our thoughts are negative (National Science Foundation, 2005). Negative thoughts about the past often lead to anxiety, as well as depression, or a combination. People play through their minds all of the things they think that they said “wrong” or did “wrong”, judging themselves, or highlighting or exaggerating a perceived negative comment from someone. These negative thoughts can also show up as “what if” thoughts about the future.
- Feeling emotionally and physically exhausted
Our brains, and therefore our bodies, are responding to a perceived threat. We are bombarded with subtle and not so subtle messages and reminders about the existence of the virus all day long. For example, you may be watching your favorite television show, and the commercial from a national company talks about how we are “all in this together.” They may not mention COVID19, but you know what they are talking about. Or maybe it’s a quick scroll on Instgram or Facebook, and people are wearing masks – another reminder of the existence of the virus through a visual image and the absence of words. Our physiology is then affected in response to the perceived threat. This is a normal and healthy reaction that typically serves us well and keeps us safe. However, during this pandemic, the threat is not going away, and it is constant, resulting in our sympathetic nervous system being in “overdrive”.
Behind the scenes, and likely not noticeable by you, your nervous system is reacting. Physiology changes. This “fight or flight” reaction can result in an increase in the stress hormone cortisol and high blood pressure. We feel emotionally and physically exhausted because the nervous system is constantly responding to this threat. The good news is that there are things we can do to employ the parasympathetic nervous system, such as deep breathing, meditation, yoga, stretching, to help induce relaxation and counteract the sympathetic nervous system being in overdrive.
Here are some methods that you can use to feel better using your thoughts
1. Remind yourself how strong you are. Think about a time in your past when you overcame something difficult. You are that same person. Whatever qualities that got you through that difficult time you still have within you. Take out a piece of paper and write down all of the factors within you that helped you. Consider perseverance, strength, intelligence, empathy, resourcefulness, grit, courage, and more. You STILL have these within you.
2. Gratitude. One of the most effective ways to help yourself feel better is to look for what you can be grateful in a particular situation. In some situations, it may be really hard to find. If you cannot find something in the current situation, think about something unrelated that you are grateful for. Focusing on what you are grateful for immediately shifts your mindset and energy into a positive direction. An added bonus is that when you do this on a regular basis, you are retraining your brain to be a more positive thinker by forming new neural pathways in your brain.
3. “It starts with me.” This is a great phrase to remember when you are feeling that you are lacking in something. If you are feeling lonely, reach out to another person. If you are seeking comfort, then comfort someone else. There are several benefits for doing this. First, you are making someone else feel good, which can help take the focus off of yourself and your pain. Second, what you put out into the world comes back to you. Eventually, you will find that you are receiving exactly what you are giving to others. (Just remember to accept it – sometimes givers have difficulty receiving). Third, it is one way to take action and feel powerful when you might be feeling powerless.
4. Remember that everyone suffers. When you are going through a difficult time, it is helpful to remember that you are not the only one who experiences difficulty or emotional pain. Feeling that you are the only one contributes to feeling lonely, and this can intensify pain and suffering. The point is not to be glad that others have pain, but to simply help you recognize that you are not alone.
5. Hope. When going through any difficulty, it is helpful to have hope for a brighter future, and to remind yourself that whatever difficulty you are going through, it will not last forever. You are not going to feel this way forever.
6. Remember that your ability to allow yourself to experience and process sadness is in direct proportion to your capacity to experience joy. Be mindful of not numbing yourself to emotion pain because in doing so, you unwittingly close yourself off to the fullness of happiness and joy. Allow yourself to experience and process the uncomfortable emotion, whether that be sadness, grief, disappointment, guilt, betrayal. Then be prepared to engage in some of your favorite ways to help yourself feel better. It can be helpful to have a mental or physical list of these activities so that you do not have to give it any thought at a time when you may feel emotionally depleted.
7. Do not take things personally. Often what contributes to an undesirable or uncomfortable feeling is that we have taken someone else’s words or behavior personally and allowed it to affect our well-being. Check in with yourself to see if this is contributing to how you are feeling, and then work on releasing it if you are allowing someone else’s words or behavior to affect you. This is hard to do, and for many people, requires repeated attention. A great book to help with this is The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. Read the chapter, “Don’t Take Anything Personally.” This book has helped me and my clients so much that I designed a Four Agreements Bracelet. For a little bit more on this, you can read this article. https://drpeggydelong.com/dont-take-things-personally/
8. Stop projecting negatively into the future. Sometimes when we are going through a difficult period, we project into the future and imagine that this uncomfortable or painful feeling/situation is going to last forever, or get worse. Exercises in mindfulness can help bring you back to the present moment. Pay attention to your thoughts. If you are engaging in future-thinking that is causing distress, give yourself permission to release those thoughts. Work on being more “mindful” or focusing on the present moment. One simple technique is to use your senses. What do you smell, hear, feel, see? Here is an article with some methods that you can utilize as you go about your day. https://drpeggydelong.com/mindfulness-exercises-for-teens-and-tweens-and-adults-too/
9. Remind yourself that uncomfortable feelings are related to an underlying value. When you are experiencing an uncomfortable, painful, or undesirable emotion, it is helpful to uncover what your related value is. For example, you may be feeling guilt in parenting related to spending time working for your business and not with your children because you VALUE being present with your children. You may be experience betrayal or disappointment because you VALUE trust and honesty. Focus on the positive value is helpful. You would not be hurting if you did not have that positive value. Celebrate the positive value.
10. Give up control. When you are feeling uneasy, it may be because things are happening that are completely out of your control. This can be quite unsettling. Use your thoughts and figure out what is within your control, and what is out of your control. If something is out of your control, spend some time processing that (disappointment, grief, or whatever related emotion is involved), and then give yourself permission to let it go. (Later in this article I will discuss what you can do behaviorally to focus on what IS within your control).
11. You cannot get today back. How can you make the best of it? The day may not be going as planned or the way you want your life to be. After processing disappointment, use your thoughts to think about the best version of yourself. Then use those thoughts regarding that best version of yourself to plan out the rest of the day’s thoughts and actions. Think about how you would like to look back upon the day years from now.
12. Living your best life for the people no longer here. One technique is to remember a loved one who has passed who loved you dearly, and imagine that person wanting you to live your best life.
13. How can you make your children proud? Think about what you would want your children to learn from your behavior. Yes, children learn from our words, but they learn in more powerful ways through our behavior. What can you show them about resilience? This does NOT mean that you need to be stoic or ignore painful emotions. On the contrary, you can teach them about healthy mental health functioning by showing them that it is OK to be sad, angry, or disappointed, express it, how you moved through it, and your coping skills that helped you.
14. What would you tell your best friend? When you are going through a difficult time, think about what you would tell your best friend. We often demonstrate more compassion for others than we do for ourselves. Have compassion for yourself. What comforting words would you say to your best friend? Now say them to yourself.
Methods using your behavior
1. Focus on what brings you joy. Sometimes joy comes naturally. Other times, joy needs to be cultivated. I call this “practicing” joy, because it is not a one and done deal. It needs to continually and intentionally be “practiced”. All “practice” means is 1) focused attention, 2) repetition.
One method of cultivating joy is to make time every day to do something you love. “Do what makes your soul happy.” This is important because doing what we enjoy is related to happiness. On the flip side, not doing what we enjoy can lead to depression.
During times of stress, you may have difficulty finding or creating the time or energy to do what brings you joy. You may feel uncomfortable, or even unworthy.
Uncover any negative thoughts that are contributing to you thinking that joy is selfish, that this is not the “right” time, that joy during times of suffering is disrespectful, or any thought that might be getting in the way. It is important to examine these blocks, and to flip them. If you find yourself having any of these thoughts, remind yourself that experiencing joy fosters happiness, and you carry that happiness into your interactions with other people. Then through “emotional contagion”, you can have a positive impact on others through your happiness and positivity. That is not selfish. That is functioning at a high vibrational level, and you bring that goodness to others.
One activity that I used with my monthly membership community, “Feeling Good with Dr. Peggy” is to make a list of some of the things that bring you joy. Yes, write it down. Take out a piece of paper and create 3 columns. In the first column, write things that bring you joy that only take a few minutes, such as reading or writing a letter to someone. In the middle column, make a list of things that take more time. In the right hand column, make a list of things that require a half a day or a full day. Writing these down makes them more likely to happen, and gives you something to look forward to.
In thinking about what brings you joy, consider what brought you joy as a child. Are you doing those things? If not, why? Consider doing an activity that you enjoyed from your childhood that you gave up years ago. One example is kneading playdough. When was the last time you dug your hands into some playdough? Or colored? These are both relaxing activities that are helpful in decreasing stress and anxiety. Here is a link to making your own playdough: https://www.momswhothink.com/playdough-recipe/
Here is a link to some coloring books: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=relaxation+coloring+books&rh=i%3Aaps%2Ck%3Arelaxation+coloring+books
What is something new that you could try? Is there anything you have been interested in doing or learning, but felt that you never had the time? Or other responsibilities got in the way? What makes you feel alive? What activity makes you forget about your worries or problems? If you cannot do it the way you would like, can you do a modified version? Do you need to ask for help? Make time to do something you enjoy every day. Yes, every day. Even if you are going through a difficult time. Especially if you are going through a difficult time. Doing what you love not only brings you joy in the moment, but helps you be better able to cope with any difficulties. Make the time for it, even if it is just for five minutes.
Make time within the week to do something you enjoy that may take more time. Schedule a half day or a full day once a week, or every other week.
2. Limit social media. There are many reasons to limit social media. First of all, passive social media use is associated with increased symptoms of depression and anxiety. Often, we use social media to fulfill an emotional need. While it may feel good in the moment, it is fleeting. Connecting with people in real life will result in stronger and more lasting positive benefits. In addition, when you limit social media use, you will find that you have more free time to do other things that bring you joy. In Marie Forleo’s book, Everything is Figureoutable, Chapter Four is full of great inspiration and ideas for limiting technology and social media. My monthly membership community, “Feeling Good with Dr. Peggy,” will be receiving a summary and downloadable worksheet. You can join and receive that, along with 60+ exercises for “feeling good” that have been posted since January for just $5 for your first month here
Another resource for motivating you to limit social media is the episode “Dial D for Distracted” (6/1/20) from The Happiness Lab podcast. You can download that on your phone, or go to this website https://www.happinesslab.fm/season-2-episodes/episode-6-dial-d-for-distracted.
3. Connect spiritually. This can take on a different form for each individual. For some, it means connecting with religion. For others, it is meditating and connecting with one’s soul. For others, it is connecting with a higher power or the universe. What feels good for you? A great book is “Fire in The Soul: A New Psychology of Spiritual Optimism” by Joan Borysenko, Ph.D.
4. Allow yourself to feel sadness. When you experience an uncomfortable or painful emotion, resist the urge to push it away. Allow yourself to feel it and process it. My therapy clients and monthly membership community know that I encourage people to acknowledge, FEEL, and process uncomfortable emotions, because we simply cannot heal what we do not address, and it also paradoxically allows you to experience joy and happiness more fully. This could involve talking about your feelings with a therapist or trusted friend, or writing about it. Here are three great books regarding the therapeutic benefits of writing:
Opening Up by Writing it Down: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain by James Pennebaker and Joshua M. Smyth
Expressive Writing: Words that Heal by James Pennebaker and John Frank Evans
Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma and Emotional Upheaval by James W. Pennebaker
5. Breathe, be still, meditate, stretch, do yoga. All of these activities help quiet the mind and induce relaxation. One simple method of deep breathing is called “box breathing.” Breathe in to the count of four, hold to the count of four, breathe out to the count of four, and pause to the count of four. Here is Youtube video of a description and explanation from the person who created this breathing exercise. – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UJnJ4xTkEOY&t=151s
To use this exercise following a video – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aPYmZOhJF5Q
Another idea is meditation. Insight Timer is an app that you can download on your phone or on computer. www.insighttimer.com. There are thousands of guided meditations to listen to. You can choose male or female voice, topic, length of time, music or no music, and other sounds, such as ocean waves or forest sounds. Use the search bar to look for a topic of interest.
Tara Brach also has wonderful guided meditations – https://www.tarabrach.com/guided-meditations/
6. Exert control where you have control. When you are having a difficult day and particularly feeling that things are out of your control, focus your behavior on what you can control. You can choose healthy options that contribute to positive mood. You can control what time you set an alarm, what you eat, whether you exercise or not, how much alcohol you drink, if any, when you go to bed, etc. Decide what you can control, and then choose healthy options.
7. Visualize your positive future and take action. When you are going through a difficult time, or life is not as you would like it to be, focus on your future. Think about how you want your future to be. Visualize your future. This need not be a clear picture or photograph. It can be a feeling, or an abstract idea. A great book to help with visualization is Creative Visualization: by Shakti Gawain. After you have thought about and visualized your positive future, think about one goal or behavior change that you can make to get there. For more on this topic, visit my recent blog post: https://drpeggydelong.com/visualize-and-take-small-action/
Doing all of the above, remember self-compassion.