The past year has been, and continues to be, emotionally exhausting so how do you know if you’re experiencing poor mental health or a normal response? It’s difficult to watch the news any given day without hearing a story about increasing occurrences of poor mental health. Often, the slant of the story is geared to support a particular policy objective.
I find this rhetoric dangerous and unhelpful. It increases the chance that we will begin to catastrophize normal responses that are, in fact, temporary and healthy. This is especially true if we are already isolated and lacking support. And it’s hard to dismiss worry about our mental health when we’re bombarded by emotionally taxing events one after the other: pandemic, insurrection, natural disasters, infrastructure failures, police shootings, and mass murders.
We know we feel different. Many of us have never been through an extended period of disruption and trauma. If an expert appears in front of us and says these feelings reflect poor mental health, we’re going to believe them. The reality is much more nuanced. and nuance is not the forte of news reporting or social media.
Most of us cling to the idea that if we can just get back to normal, we’ll feel relieved and joyful. But an ongoing experience of trauma is not that easy to shake. Knowing this can help alleviate excessive worry about our state of mental health.
One thing that can provide perspective is to view the effects of trauma as wounds. Think of them like a sprained ankle or a broken bone. If you sprain your ankle, you expect it to swell, bruise, hurt, and prevent you from walking normally for a significant period of time. In order for it to heal, you understand and accept that you’ll have to do things differently for awhile.
This doesn’t usually mean you’ll be crippled for life or never be able to wear those cute heels again. It just means that it is normal and reasonable to change your daily routine to facilitate healing.
If viewing an emotional wound as a physical wound doesn’t work for you, try thinking of a friend who is grieving. Would you be alarmed if they get choked up at unexpected times or don’t have the emotional energy to hang out? No, you’d understand that they feel sadness and loss and need time to work through that before they’re ready for fun and frivolity. And, most likely, you’d understand that their capacity for joy may be temporarily hidden beneath a flood of tears.
The point of all of this is to remind you that certain “negative” emotional states can be a normal and reasonable response to circumstances beyond our control. They are not problematic or signs of poor mental health unless they become chronic, or we use poor techniques for dealing with them.
For example, depression is a normal response to change. Think of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, DEPRESSION, acceptance. Depression is an expected, normal phase that represents great progress through the process. But watch the news and you’ll think any amount of depression is a reason for desperation.
The quicker we become aware, acknowledge, and allow ourselves to feel so-called negative emotions, the quicker we can release them and return to a positive state of equilibrium. It is more difficult to do this if we view such states as catastrophic or as signs there is something wrong with us. All of us want to avoid feeling that we’re defective.
We’d often rather hide our distress than acknowledge it. And there may good reason for that. Expressions of vulnerability can make the receiver of the message also feel vulnerable. To avoid that feeling, they may turn away from us when we share our deepest feelings.
If you’ve ever experienced this, you’ll be less likely to attempt to share again. This cycle can result in a significant lack of support for those who are experiencing trauma and attempting to express its effects. And unfortunately, the research of Dr. Brené Brown has indicated that most of us are not comfortable in a vulnerable space.
That means many of us will find that we must be our own best advocates in the arena of mental health. So where do we start? In any moment that I am struggling, I like to first examine what is going well for me before deciding what needs adjustment. This helps give me perspective when determining what I need to do next.
The easiest way to do this is to view myself as a close friend, then ask myself a series of questions: Am I sleeping well and on a regular schedule? Am I keeping my environment clean and uncluttered at the level I would when I feel I am functioning well? Am I eating regularly? Am I making reasonable food choices? Am I making time to move on a regular basis – walk, run, swim, lift weights, row, do yoga, bike, etc? Has my alcohol consumption increased? Do I rely on medication more than I did before? Am I doing too much? Am I able to feel or am I numb? Am I making forward progress at work? Am I able to be alone and feel content? Am I able to connect with at least one person?
If my answers to those questions wouldn’t concern me if they were a friend’s answers, I let go of the idea that I am suffering poor mental health and address anything that may need to change from the point of view of thriving. If I’m not sure, I reach out to someone I trust to help me gain insight.
Mind you, I’m not suggesting that anyone avoid professional help. In fact, I’d encourage you to seek the advice of a professional in lieu of assuming you fit some profile you saw online. My purpose here is simply an attempt to provide a path to find balance to the rhetoric that has become increasingly pervasive and alarmist.
I can’t determine whether you are responding normally, adaptively, problematically, or in the best possible way given a particular set of circumstances. But I know it’s always worth believing in yourself and asking questions before accepting someone else’s take.
If you feel pain over something, that pain is real. If you feel sad about something, that sadness is real. If you feel angry, it is a signal that you feel a need to protect yourself. Accepting that these feelings may be normal and not an indication of anything other than a response to the circumstances in which you find yourself, can be a great start toward thriving.
In this cultural moment when we are all experiencing trauma and there is the cancel culture tendency to only accept a narrow range of beliefs and behavior, it is important to step back, take a moment, and give ourselves permission to feel how we feel even if it’s out of step with the majority. If you are an introvert and enjoy being able to work from home, it’s okay to relish in it just as it’s okay to feel sad about the loss of breakroom chats.
Trust yourself. Trust your process. Just because the world is falling apart doesn’t mean you are. Give yourself some time and space to learn whether you’re experiencing poor mental health or a normal response to a difficult circumstance.