Written by Jessica A. Gold, MD, MS, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the School of Medicine & Faculty Scholar at the Institute for Public Health
“How are you?”
These three little words used to just be a casual greeting between friends, family, a doctor and a patient, or even casual acquaintances. They were a simple way to show interest in someone’s life without too much prying. Using them now and asking what used to be a very light question feels so much harder. It is as if those words carry a lot more weight during the Coronavirus pandemic.
But, that’s not because we do not care about the answer or the person that we asked. It is quite the opposite. We are worried what the answer might be and wonder whether they actually want to tell us. We also are curious whether we have the capacity to hear it and actually help. We know that our friends and family aren’t simply “ok” or “fine”—-how could they be?
The truth is: it is OK to be NOT OK.
We spend so much time trying to hide our emotions and get angry at ourselves for having them that we don’t give ourselves the space or time to just sit and feel them. Sometimes we need to learn to let ourselves be still and feel and right now is one of those times. Feeling angry or sad or scared or worried makes complete sense given how uncertain and upended the world is right now and denying those feelings won’t make them stop or go away. You might put a band-aid on them for a moment, but this is a marathon. Those feelings will catch up to you in the long run.
So instead, allow yourself to let go. Vulnerability is a strength and there is power in it. You might need to find ways to cope with the intensity of emotions or the physical reactions to them, but that is doable and manageable and just takes some planning and time. To do this, you can think about what things have helped you cope in the past and make a list that you can access when you feel distressed. Sometimes it is hard to remember in the moment, so having preplanned helps when our emotional brain takes over. If you have never thought about it before, you can start. Some ideas for things that work for other people include mindfulness (or really practicing being present in the moment and aware of your surroundings, senses, and body), journaling (it is best to do this time limited, like 20 minutes, and stop), exercise, deep breathing, or distracting yourself with socializing, reading for fun, or listening to audio books or podcasts. Of course, therapy can also be helpful and is an option for you as a support.
While you are learning new skills, especially deep breathing and mindfulness, it will take time. You may still have periods of feeling intense inexplicable emotions, and when you feel them, you should be nice to yourself for having them. You can practice self-compassion and ask “what do I need right now” and not think that is selfish in anyway. Sometimes you might even validate and support your own feelings and think things like “This is a really hard right now” or “I am really struggling” or support them with kindness and statements like “I am here for you” and “I care about you”. Sometimes people even write validating or kind statements on their mirrors or near their computers at work to remind them when they might need it.
In the end, perhaps instead of “how are you?” as our casual greeting right now, we tell our friends, “I care about you.” And leave the rest of the conversation up to them.
Read more about St. Louis community mental health resources.