Emotional Support: An Additional Safeguard Against COVID-19
In the time of COVID-19, it is easy to feel like everything is more intense, like the volume has been turned up on every challenging emotion that I experience throughout the day. Both collectively and individually, we are facing some extreme circumstances. Whether your primary concern is financial stability, the health and safety of yourself or a loved one, the ability to hold on to your sanity while spending an overwhelming amount of time in the house or with family members, or one of the other numerous challenges in this new world, stress is all around us. It is understandable that in a recent survey, participants overwhelmingly indicated “that the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic is the most stressful time of their entire professional career” (Gavidia, 2020).
To treat their stress, many Americans have turned to pharmaceutical support. In fact, “more than three quarters (78%) of all antidepressant, antianxiety and anti-insomnia prescriptions filled during the week ending [on] March 15th (the peak week) were for new prescriptions” ("America's State of Mind Report", 2020). At an alarming rate, people are seeking supports to help navigate and tolerate the emotional distress created by the pandemic.
While it is easy to point out the major stressors and challenges, we often overlook the smaller, more personal experiences of fear or sadness. The intensity of the larger perspective does not need to overshadow everything else that is going on in our lives. Small losses can actually be an easier way to access the well of emotions building up right now. Letting myself feel sad that my favorite restaurant isn’t open or worry about whether a friend’s baby shower will have to be canceled is sometimes more tolerable than than worrying about the number of ventilators that are available in the state of Colorado, or whether or a family member is protected enough. And let’s face it, there are a lot of “little” things to be missed right now, from birthdays, to date nights, to graduations, or the ability to just give a hug to someone special.
Emotions, whatever size or intensity, are always valid. And right now, they are out in full force. Whether or not we are willing to face them is up to each of us individually. Of course, coming from a therapist, it is no surprise that I am going to advocate for emotional processing and getting mental health support for as many people as possible…but the reasons behind this plea may surprise you.
Yes, emotional wellbeing is certainly part of the equation. When we do not deal with our emotions in healthy ways, they remain with us. When we accumulate a build-up of these unprocessed emotions, they often come out in ways that are maladaptive, namely as behaviors or physical symptoms. Perhaps your unprocessed sadness comes out in the rejection of a loved one, which causes damage to the relationship. Perhaps your unprocessed fear results in impulsive decision-making which, again, may have consequences. Or, perhaps, your unprocessed feelings simply result in a lack of confidence in yourself and your ability to handle hard things in life. The good news is that learning to feel our feelings is a very manageable task. For each step you take toward allowing an emotional experience, you are also paving a path for yourself to be able to do it over and over again. Like anything else that is hard, it gets so much easier with practice.
Our mental heath, however, is not the only aspect of our lives being impacted by our feelings.
Did you know that “emotional stress, like that from blocked emotions, has not only been linked to mental ills, but also to physical problems like heart disease, intestinal problems, headaches, insomnia and autoimmune disorders?” (Hendel, 2018). Unprocessed emotions can have unintended, harmful consequences for our bodies. Once thought to be completely separate, it is being clearer and clearer that mental health and physical health are interconnected.
One area of the body with ample evidence suggesting its relationship to emotions is the immune system. In a compilation of research looking at the differences in health between those with factors of Psychological Ill-Being (PIB) and Psychological Well-Being (PWB), it was found that “chronic stress was one type of PIB that has an important role in lowering immune system” functioning. Other PIB factors they considered in addition to chronic stress included feelings of deep sadness or depression, acute psychological stresses such as those experienced in PTSD, and states of suffering. The physical results of these psychological stressors included lowered “antibody response,” a negative impact on “healing time of infection and process of wound healing,” “increase[d] suffering [in] somatic diseases,” and “increase[s in] the body’s susceptibility to disease” (Abdurachman & Herawati, 2018).
On the flip side, they also looked at multiple factors that can counter the states of stress and depression, and instead enhance the immune system. These factors included Autonomy, Environmental Mastery, Personal Growth, Positive Relationships toward Others, Purpose in Life, and Self-Acceptance. These PWBs, when present in the lives of the participants, had an incredible impact on the body’s ability to fight infection and to heal itself, as well as shortened durations of medical treatment and hospital stays, and lowered levels of inflammation in chronic conditions (Ibid., 2018). It turns out that finding ways to support our mental and emotional health is a powerful way to also support our physical health.
The reality of our world right now is that both physical health and metal heath are top priorities. While we do everything we can to protect ourselves and our loved ones from contracting COVID-19, we must also consider the levels of stress and grief that are a natural consequence of the pandemic. Furthermore, humans were not designed to live in isolation, and the reduction in social and physical contact is a very real threat to our wellbeing.
Now, I call all of you to take action. Please, make your wellness a priority. In these unprecedented times of heightened stress and loss, we cannot afford to sit idly by, watching our suffering become insurmountable. There are counselors in abundance who want to support you, who value your unique strengths and struggles, and who have the ability to help you navigate any and all challenges in your life right now. Don’t let this experience consume you. Please, please, fight for yourself. You are important. Your health is important. Your emotional experience is important. Now, more than ever, is the time to reach out. Seek support. Ask for help. Make your emotional health AND your physical health a priority.
The world cannot wait any longer to begin healing. The time is now.
Abdurachman, & Herawati, N. (2018, March 7). The Role of Psychological Well-Being in Boosting Immune Response: An Optimal Effort for Tackling Infection. Retrieved April 29, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5876785/
America's State of Mind Report. (2020, April 16). Retrieved April 27, 2020, from https://www.express-scripts.com/corporate/americas-state-of-mind-report
Gavidia, M. (2020, April 20). How Has COVID-19 Affected Mental Health, Severity of Stress Among Employees? Retrieved April 27, 2020, from https://www.ajmc.com/newsroom/how-has-covid19-affected-mental-health-severity-of-stress-among-employees
Hendel, H. J. (2018, February 27). Ignoring Your Emotions Is Bad for Your Health. Here's What to Do About It. Retrieved April 27, 2020, from https://time.com/5163576/ignoring-your-emotions-bad-for-your-health/