Everyone is feeling the strain right now as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to sweep the globe. Lives around the world and here at home are impacted through illness, fear, changes in work and childcare, and even loss of income or stability.
If you are feeling tired and irritated, if you’re yelling at your kids and your partner, or having difficulty focusing on work and lacking your usual energy and motivation, you are not alone.
Stay-home orders have us all cooped up together at the same time we’re experiencing monumental change. It can be frustrating to shove a stack of toys or your partner’s papers out of the way of your kitchen-table workspace. Or to spend hours trying to help your child navigate an all-new online learning experience before getting any work done yourself. Or dealing with the stress of waiting for an unemployment check and alternating between frenetic energy and deep lethargy. In these situations, any small irritation throughout the day can become kindling for a firestorm of emotion.
The reality is that most of us are barely getting through the day.
Every one of us is facing challenges, uncertainty, and change. It is hard. We are all struggling. And life is not continuing on as usual.
The negative emotions that are arising in all of us as we forge on through this pandemic are significant and impactful. They need to be acknowledged. But they don’t need to consume us.
The following are a few tips for preventing burnout from negative emotions and adding a bit of hope to these trying times.
Acknowledge That We Are All Grieving:
This pandemic created a huge loss for all of us—loss of control of our life, loss of freedoms we’re accustomed to, loss of privacy (as we’re working remotely and coworkers have a daily window into our homes and families), loss of income or loss of jobs, loss of the ability to socialize, and a general loss of our usual lifestyle. Most of all, we have lost the sense that the world is a safe place.
The well-known work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross on the stages of grief seems to describe well what we are going through now. The five stages of grief and loss put forth in her 1969 book On Death and Dying are: 1) Denial; 2) Anger; 3) Bargaining; 4) Depression; 5) Acceptance.
These stages are universal and experienced by people from all walks of life across many cultures, and now we seem to be experiencing them simultaneously as a global community. First, we were in denial about how dangerous COVID-19 really is. Many communities were in denial about how far and how quickly it could spread.
When the reality started to, literally, hit home, many people became angry. We were angry we had to stay home, angry we had to change our way of life and lose some of the freedoms we enjoy on a daily basis.
Then we started to bargain—maybe we would mostly stay home, but still host a dinner party, or governors would restrict large gatherings but allow businesses to stay open. When restrictions clamped down further, we tried to make deals with ourselves—if we could only go back to work, we really would give it 100% every day, or if we could have childcare again, we would appreciate every second of it and be super productive.
Eventually, the panicked shopping and schedules full of Zoom calls subsided. Depression was setting in. It became harder to roll out of bed and open our computers for our first meeting of the day. Harder to keep the kitchen clean for the next meal. We didn’t know how long this pandemic and the changes and fear were going to last.
Finally, many people and communities have come to some form of acceptance. We’re keeping our heads down and pushing through this. We’re staying home and wearing masks for as long as it takes. This is the way things are for now, and we are managing.
But this managing doesn’t always look pretty, and it certainly doesn’t always feel good. In fact, many of us will cycle in and out of the stages of grief repeatedly as we continue to process the emotions involved.
If the days feel hard right now, it’s not that we’re unmotivated or not living up to our potential. It’s that we’re facing negative emotions. We’ve all been flooded with fear, grief, disappointment, anger, and powerlessness. In a lot of ways, media is feeding on them and ramping them up.
Negative emotions like these make us uncomfortable, so we try to fend them off. We distract ourselves with television, knitting and house projects, and Zoom happy hours. We choke them down with alcohol and comfort foods. But avoiding these emotions just increases our feelings of stress and overwhelm.
These may not be what you want to hear, but it’s important to remember you can’t tell fear you don’t feel it or anger that you aren’t angry. The only way to make negative emotions fade is to acknowledge and experience them.
How is this related to fighting with your partner, or yelling at your kids, or eating an entire sleeve of thin mints? Those are defences we’re trying to use to fend off our negative emotions. If we don’t acknowledge and allow ourselves to feel the uncomfortable emotions, we end up nagging, criticizing, fighting, and stress eating or drinking in an effort to suppress them—and these behaviors affect the people around us and the energy in our environment.
Facing Negative Emotions
The Only Way Out is Through
Once you’re feeling an emotion, the only way out is through.
Try to allow the sadness and grief to wash over you, acknowledging the losses of all kinds that you’ve suffered. As you allow yourself to weather grief, the storm passes. It’s true that after a major storm, life is forever changed.
When you feel overwhelmed with your negative feelings try the old Stop, Drop, and Breathe technique. One fMRI study found that suppressing negative emotions caused a rebound effect. On the other hand, the same study found that reappraisal and changing the way we evaluate the emotional situation had a positive effect on negative emotions. It’s like trying to cover a volcano that’s ready to erupt. It will only make the explosion stronger. If you suppress your negative feelings, you may end up exploding at your kids or your partner. But if you allow the explosion to be released in a safe, healthy way, it releases the underlying emotions.
Name that Emotion
Research shows that the simple act of identifying and naming your feelings calms the nervous system and regulates painful and difficult emotions (Liberman, 2007). As mindfulness expert and psychologist Dr. Dan Siegel says, “What you can name, you can tame.”
The act of sharing your experience of life during COVID-19 with others can help both of you realize that you’re not alone. Many of us are feeling overwhelmed with negative emotions and daily challenges. Shared experience alleviates some of the pressure and isolation that we find ourselves dealing with.
Focusing on the strength of your relationship with your partner can strengthen your ability to weather negative emotions. When feeling anxious or worried, turn to your partner. The bond with this partner offers us a safe haven to regain our emotional balance. In fact, a strong, supportive relationship has been proven to have a calming effect on our nervous systems (Weibe & Johnson, 2016). And the best way to regulate your negative emotions in a love-relationship is to share them. Confiding in your partner helps you reorganize your thoughts, get clearer about priorities, and feel comforted and calm (Johnson, 2008).
If you are feeling so overwhelmed by negative emotions that you would like to talk to a trained professional, Dr. Irena offers online counselling to those who live in Texas and New York. You don’t have to face negative emotions alone. Email Dr.Irena at [email protected] or call (281)-267-1742 to schedule Free 10-minute video consultation.
- Gross, J (2002.) Emotion Regulation: Affective, Cognitive, and Social Consequences-Review, Psychophysiology
- Johnson, S. (2008). Hold Me Tight. New York, NY: Little, Brown Spark.
- Lieberman, M. D., Eisenberger, N. I., Crockett, M. J., Tom, S. M., Pfeifer, J. H., & Way, B. M. (2007). Putting Feelings Into Words. Psychological Science, 18(5), 421–428. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01916.x
- Markham, L. (2020, April 2). Overwhelmed? How to get a grip. Retrieved from https://www.ahaparenting.com/blog/how-to-calm-corona-pandemic-lockdown
- Wiebe, S.A., and Johnson, S.M. (2016). A Review of the Research in Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples. Fam Proc, 55, 390–407.