Just when you thought you had enough anxiety over all the novel coronavirus itself, there were all the issues it brought along with it. And if the personal, political, social, and economic fallout wasn’t enough, now there’s more, with the nationwide unrest sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“I think for almost everyone, there’s been a real expansion in terms of what our limits are regarding the number of stressors we’re processing at the same time,” says Drew Ramsey, M.D., MH advisor and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.
Why you're maxed out, and why that's natural
Still, if you’re feeling maxed out, that makes sense, says Dr. Ramsey. The pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime event, he says, “and we’re also now seeing events and protest we’ll remember for the rest of our lives.” In the past two weeks, he says, he and other therapists started hearing more despair and fatigue from people about quarantine.”
Now, with the protests highlighting racial injustice, “it’s like being handed a 50-pound backpack at mile 24 of a marathon. Except we’re not at mile 24 of a marathon. We’re at mile 24 of an ultramarathon,” he says.
So it’s natural to have a lot of feelings about it. And they’re not neatly compartmentalized. “People are telling me they’re exhausted, and they’re wondering if there’s something wrong physically,” he says. But if your health seems to be in place except for the exhaustion part, it’s understandable. “We’re experiencing these real splits. Just a few days after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket was launched. So you could be weeping because our country is so badly broken when it comes to race and cheering because we’re also heading out into the universe. It’s a profound zigzag for our emotional selves, and it’s very uncomfortable,” Dr. Ramsey says.
So exhaustion is coming from experiencing so many extreme emotions at once, as well as trying to pin what you’re actually feeling down to one particular thing. “It’s sort of a mistake to try to pin things down to one emotion—it’s a good day because we feel happy, for instance,” he says. People feel a kaleidoscope of feelings, and part of understanding them so that you can figure out how to cope with them is understanding that you’re probably not feeling only one thing. Give yourself some slack to feel all kinds of things crashing around at once. Thinking that you “shouldn’t” be feeling something doesn’t help you process and learn to manage it.
So how do you process all this?
“We all process emotions a little differently,” says Dr. Ramsey. And it’s worth recognizing that not all of those ways are necessarily available right now, so you may have to work harder to mimic them or they may not be tools you can use right now.
Take humor. “This is one of our healthiest psychological defenses,” he says. “And it’s hard to make jokes about any of this or have a laugh, since it’s such awful stuff.” So if that’s your go-to tool, you’ll need to replace it with another coping skill.
Similarly, community helps people process what they’re thinking and feeling, and the traditional ways people have experienced community have shifted. You can still experience community, it just will be in a different way than you’re used to.
Another source of relief is taking action, that is why the stress of early quarantine was easier for some. Taking action against racial injustice may feel less tangible at first than what you did to take action against the novel coronavirus, whether that was preparing your kitchen and figuring out your PPE.
It can be a useful starting point to “let your mind be with itself in a very private way,” he says. Go on a walk or write things down—that may help clarify things. “Really make a commitment not just for self-examination, but for what actions you can take in a daily way to do better in preventing racial violence,” he says. If you feel guilt over having not done better in the past, “there is good news that you can start to begin to get better at this today.”
He suggests reaching out to friends, especially among people in your circle who identify as BIPOC, or friends or family who have knowledge or perspective on race. Many people are having significant mental health symptoms being triggered. Don't hesitate to contact an advisor, a mentor, or a mental health professional, especially if you’ve had one previously. “That’s especially important if you’ve had depression or anxiety and your symptoms are coming back—it’s a good time to be proactive,” says Dr. Ramsey. “Every mental health provider I’ve spoken with lately has returned to treatment. They try to be ahead of the curve and take care of their own mental health.” So it’s a cue worth copying in your own life. (Check out Dr. Ramsey’s recent conversations about mental health with prominent cultural figures here.)
These are extreme times that breed a flood of emotions, often confusingly all at once, Dr. Ramsey acknowledges. And, he adds, “humans have an incredible capacity to tolerate stress and adversity.”
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