2020 is one for the history books. Years from now, children will be learning about all that took place this year. Since March, much of our time has focused on COVID-19 and how to deal with its repercussions. Most North Americans had to pivot on a dime when it became clear that this was indeed a severe pandemic. So much stress. So much anxiety. So much uncertainty.
And now those in the U.S. are on the brink of an election. One that is also riddled with uncertainty, even with a long history of elections to draw on. This one is different. People are more polarized politically than before. In 2016, those who wanted a different outcome were devastated. It became a tension point for an array of relationships. Spouses, siblings, friends, co-workers became overwhelmed by the impact of this election. Emotions ran high, dividing friends and family members in an unprecedented way. Many unfriended their social media connections over it. Some considered calling off their weddings.
As a marriage and family therapist, I witness the anxious thoughts around this election, holding space for the uncertainty and likely delay as ballots tally past election day. Most of my clients feel like it is "hard to breathe right now." One person describes feeling like "a balloon where someone is slowly releasing the air." Self-care has sunk to a level that feels out of reach for so many. And yet, it is more important than ever to engage in healthy habits. The duality of a pandemic and a major election has raised us to a new level of "OMG."
One kind of certainty, wherever your politics fall, is that only one party can win the presidential election, and those results will be unwelcome by many. The initial reaction will most certainly resemble that of fight, flight, or freeze. In fact, many declare they will move out of the country should their party lose. It is not that simple. Uprooting one's life is complicated, costly, and can have unforeseen consequences that are not as "wonderful" as one can imagine.
Whatever the outcome of the election, we must find healthy ways to manage our feelings around it. Remember, we are still in a pandemic that has already raised our anxiety and cortisol levels to new levels. The election's uncertainty will linger past November 3rd as the country and world-at-large wait on the edge of our seats for final results in the various elections. On top of that, the tensions of COVID continue to hang in the air. Couple the election with a pandemic where the numbers are still growing, and your outcome is anxiety and depression, an understandable response to feeling a lack of control.
It is hard to sit with the discomfort of anxiety and depression. You may feel on edge most days and have trouble sleeping. How will you handle the outcome if your candidate loses? It may be unimaginable to think of four years with an undesirable candidate. This year alone has taken such a toll on us. We have changed how we live, work, socialize, and function in our communities. Individually, each of these is enough. However, when they all converge, we are facing significant mental health concerns.
Now more than ever, we must pay attention to our stress, managing what we can, and letting go of what is out of our reach. Reminding ourselves of the stages of grief can be helpful. The powerlessness felt when we lose someone near, and dear to us is similar to other losses. At some point, we move to acceptance but not without experiencing denial, anger, bargaining, and depression first. If we try to skip these stages, we become stuck and, in turn, lose out on the simple day-to-day life moments that can give us joy. In any kind of loss, acceptance doesn't mean we are no longer grieving; it means we have come to accept that things can never exactly be as they once were, and we can re-engage in life more fully.
We can enact certain behaviors to manage our anticipatory grief around uncertainty in the pending and post-election period, along with our COVID concerns. Here are some tips for managing pre- and post-election stress during the pandemic.
1. Set Reasonable Expectations
Make sure that you are setting reasonable expectations for yourself as well as others. If you know that someone in your life differs from you on political lines, don't expect a different outcome. Set your expectations to a level that allows you to manage your anxious feelings. For example, if your loved one is unabashedly open about his/her/their political beliefs, do not expect anything but just that. In such situations, I tell my clients to "zero out your expectations."
2. Set and Maintain Boundaries
Establishing boundaries with others is the key to emotional balance. When you set a limit, you let others know what you can or cannot handle emotionally. Keep in mind that you are not asking someone for permission; you are clearly stating what you need to feel safe. Concerning political beliefs, be sure to pay attention to how you feel about participating in anything that feels triggering. If, for example, you have a friend or family member who historically disregards your boundary, you can say “no” to situations that he/she/they are attending.
3. Practice Self-Care
While self-care may look different than in the past, it is essential to emotional well-being. With so much anxiety in the air, you may find it hard to keep up with the practice of self-care. Start with self-compassion. These are unprecedented and difficult times. A few self-care items that can improve your mood include drinking enough water, going for a walk, listening to your energy needs – don't overdo it right now. If you need to rest, take a nap, or aim to be in bed at a reasonable hour. Rest and proper hydration are essential to survival. If you can do more, do it. Self-care is about knowing what you need at various times in your life. It may look different during trying times.
4. “Name it to Tame it”
In the therapy room, I often tell clients they need to "name it to tame it." This technique helps with learning assertive communication. By externalizing our concerns, we provide an opportunity for discussion. In the case of heated political issues, it helps to respectfully state concerns. If things get too complicated, use your boundaries to let someone know the conversation no longer feels emotionally safe.
5. Reframe Stress by Looking for an Opportunity
The stress of so much uncertainty can be consuming while also providing a chance to be creative and learn something new. One way to cope with anxious feelings is through healthy distractions. For some, that can be cleaning, cooking, running, or painting. Whatever it is, make sure it is something that will bring positivity to your life.
6. Don't Consume Media Junk Food
We know that a healthy diet is good for us, and sometimes we eat the cake or cookie anyway. That is ok, as long as it isn't your everyday habit. The same is true for your media diet. Compulsively checking your phone or allowing yourself to get pulled into social media posts is not a healthy media diet. Checking the polls every 10 minutes will not change the outcome. Take breaks from your phone or computer and make sure you are reading from reputable sources.
Finally, if your feelings are overwhelming you and disrupt your life, reach out to a mental health professional, such as a marriage and family therapist, for support. Whatever your beliefs and preferences, we need to connect with others who can validate our concerns without judgment.
Mental health professionals have a unique role in tending to the well-being of others. The client is central to our work: we are part of people’s most intimate stories, and it is our job to show up and be present for every client we treat. It sounds impressive, and…it is never entirely possible. Therapists themselves have personal lives and challenging issues to manage. How then, do we do this work in a way that keeps our clients’ interests and concerns front and center?
As marriage and family therapists (MFTs), we receive rigorous training on how to join, build an alliance, and engage in best practices when it comes to working with clients. We receive intense supervision in both group and individual settings. We graduate with at least 500 face-to-face clinic hours, 250 of them working with couples and families. We feel prepared…until we realize the limits imposed on us by something like a pandemic.
As COVID-19 unfolded around the globe, many of us wondered if it would hit us too. The initial understanding of how far this would reach was fuzzy. Once it descended upon us quickly, most of us had to pivot from in-person therapy to telehealth. For those with little to no telehealth experience, this transition feels daunting. It means that our work has to move to a different platform when connecting with clients. All the while, we have our personal lives to manage in a new way.
We are experiencing an unprecedented shift, and it is history in the making. Much change is anxious and scary. We are grieving at least the temporary disappearance of normalcy and managing different degrees of loss, but also working to preserve a sense of stability and continuity. Like our clients, our hands are chapped from sanitizers and soap. As therapists, we must show up prepared for our clients while managing our uncertainty. None of us took a course on how to handle a pandemic, but we did learn techniques that we can apply to ourselves during this time.
Here are some tips from a MFT perspective for all mental health professionals as they navigate their emotional well-being during this pandemic:
Engage in Strength-Based Self-Care: Remind yourself of the strengths you already possess. While we can be acute observers and advocates for our clients, we may find it hard to apply this to ourselves. Your self-care matters, now more than ever. Remind yourself of the strengths that have helped you face adversity in the past and apply them to the present.
Make Room for Uncomfortable Feelings: Give yourself permission to feel your feelings during this transitional time. No one gave anyone a guide to the 2020 Pandemic. We are learning as we go, all of us. We are human first and that means feelings happen to all of us. It is unlikely you would tell your client to dismiss his or her feelings about what is happening in the world at large. We are no different – we, too, must sit with uncomfortable feelings.
Tap into Acquired Resources: Fellow MFTs, our greatest resource during this time, is our ability to think systemically. We know that nothing happens in isolation. Anxiety is an appropriate response to uncertainty. Everyone is feeling it, and you are not the exception to the rule. Remember that you are not alone, and don’t be afraid to tap into the support systems available to you, including your professional association.
Seek Therapy: We need to make space for our feelings during this time. All mental health professionals know that when life is hard, we need to be in our own therapy. Seeking therapy for the therapist is a best-practices item that will help you cope better, while also ensuring that the client’s treatment remains protected from the potential pitfalls that can arise out of transference and counter-transference.
Engage in Professional Consultation: If you are not already part of a professional consultation group, you might find that now is a perfect time to start or join one. Seeking consultation from other mental health professionals helps us process our concerns more clearly. Seeking consult is another way of making sure you are taking care of yourself as well as your clients.
Lead from Self-Compassion: In times of uncertainty, we need to cast a wide net of compassion, particularly for ourselves. It is not easy to do this with a limited personal and professional bandwidth. You don’t need to be perfect. We are all balancing our negative thoughts with gratitude for what we do have. By being compassionate with yourself, you give yourself permission to be where you are and that is okay.
For those of us fortunate enough to have work during the COVID-19 pandemic, we must balance gratitude with uncertainty. We are living through history in the making, and the massive sudden pivot to working from home can be overwhelming, particularly for those without prior remote experience.
Everyone's transition to a remote work schedule will be different. For those who already work from home, the change will be more or less seamless. However, for many, this transition has been abrupt and mind-boggling. Work-life balance has become more daunting than ever before, as it all takes place from your home. Each of us will have a unique challenge to navigate. For a working couple that lives in a studio apartment, for example, it will be more complicated than for those whose space provides more privacy.
There are so many considerations when it comes to navigating all of this "in place." Marriage and family therapists (MFTs) lead from the premise that nothing happens in a vacuum. All of life's demands still exist as you work from home. We are all coping with pre-existing stress on top of the uncertainty that comes with a pandemic. High anxiety about job security is a factor that keeps many of us from setting clear boundaries between our work and personal life. The geographical line vanished overnight, and most of us are scrambling and overextending ourselves to keep from engaging in catastrophic thinking.
As MFTs, we know that setting and maintaining clear boundaries are vital to protecting our mental health. In our field, we talk about boundaries as enmeshed, rigid, or clear, and transparency is the goal. Think of them as your safe zone. Boundaries are about asserting your emotional need for protection. They are not about asking for permission but instead are about letting others know what you can handle. And, as we shelter, work, and play in place, your limits will be challenged. It is okay to be precise about what you can and cannot handle. Others are unable to adjust their expectations and behaviors if they are uncertain about what you need.
Here are some tips for setting boundaries while working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic:
Hold Yourself Accountable: Setting clear boundaries is up to you. You are responsible for your own needs. It is not always easy to assert your needs, and even more so if you are worried and anxious about job security. However, you are doing yourself and others a disservice by ignoring your needs. Now is the time to use your oxygen mask first, and by doing so, you will be more available to those around you, even from a distance.
Communicate Clearly: Take advantage of the technologies available to you at this time. With so many ways to communicate, we need to make sure we are setting reasonable expectations with our co-workers and clients. It is okay to let your boss know that you are overwhelmed. We all are!
Set Your Hours and Maintain a Routine: When possible, manage your time as you would when going to the office. For mental health professionals, like MFTs, this means keeping a similar schedule to the one you do in the absence of the current pandemic. For other professionals, try to mirror the schedule you kept before the quarantine. And if space allows, create a designated area to work in your home.
Protect You Space: Having work overtake your home can feel bad—not because you don't like what you do but because it infringes on what usually is your personal space. Be sure to keep some part of your day sacrosanct for your own time.
Take Breaks: Just as you would do pre-pandemic, permit yourself to take breaks during the workday. Pushing yourself to be "on" all the time will only lead to additional exhaustion. Take time to eat, hydrate, and stretch.
Be Kind to Yourself and Set Reasonable Expectations: Lead from kindness; no one has done this before. It is a new time, and the rules are unclear. No one expects you to be perfect. Do what you can and let yourself rest when you need to. Keep your expectations of yourself and others within reason. We are all adjusting!
These are trying times for all of us. If you need additional support during the COVID-19 pandemic, please reach out to a mental health professional in your area. Telehealth services are available across the US and Canda. You can find support through the following sources: via the AAMFT therapist locator (AAMFT Therapist Locator),PsychologyToday(www.psychologytoday.com),GoodTherapy(www.goodtherapy.com).
By now, most, if not all, of us are practicing social distancing until further notice. For those with kids, they are homeschooling while trying to balance remote work schedules. For others that may be alone or have no kids or family nearby, or have been temporarily laid off of work, this time is especially challenging.
We must all do our part to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. Social distancing functions as a means of harm reduction by allowing time for tests and vaccine production. It is vital and requires effort. The timeframe on this remains unknown, and long periods of loneliness and worry can increase stress, anxiety, and depression.
Social distancing, while crucial, asks us to suppress our evolutionary hard-wiring for connection. Nicholas Christakis, a social scientist and a public health specialist at Yale University, told Science. "Pandemics are an especially demanding test…because we are not just trying to protect people we know, but also people we do not know or even, possibly, care about." (bigthink.com) And yet social distancing will be a way of life for several weeks, if not longer. It is a test of enormous proportions, and we all need to help each other as much as possible from a distance.
Breathe…we can do this! Before hitting the panic button, try to think of the opportunities that still exist at this time for creativity, care (self and others), and compassion. We are fortunate to have more ways to reach people remotely than at any other time in history. We have tablets, laptops, and phones that function as mini-computers. We can use these platforms to support people outside of our social restriction circle.
A helpful way to reframe social distancing may be to focus on social solidarity. It is a chance to reflect and expand our circle of moral concern. We are in a time of transformation, shifting away from an I-centric approach to one of collective effort and care. We are all in this together, and maintaining our emotional well-being matters.
For Marriage and family therapists, social distancing is part of a systemic response to managing the spread of COVID-19. The discordant nature of it is such that we are helping the more extensive system, our community at large, by intentionally conducting life via isolation. But to repeat…we can do this!
Here are some survival tips for managing life during this time:
During this time of social distancing, you will have ups and downs, and that is okay. Make room for the trying moments, and remember they are just that – a moment, not forever. Maintaining an attitude of optimism is more beneficial to your well-being than dwelling on negativity. Try to choose a healthy mindset day by day, and remember you’ve got this!