Illustration by Paige Stampatori
2020 has not been the best year, broadly speaking… and a lot of days, it feels like the hits just keep on coming. There are, of course, the big stressors—the pandemic that has killed at least 200,000 people in the United States and fundamentally reshaped our daily lives; the presidential election; the ongoing lack of accountability for violence against Black people; the wildfires ripping through huge swaths of West Coast; the death of a Supreme Court justice. But these events are compounded by the more personal stressors that are by no means on hold this year—things like breakups, job loss, a pet getting sick, having to move out of an apartment, and friend and family drama. Taken all together, it can all feel incredibly bleak, and increasingly difficult to cope with.
How to Stay In is a series about redefining "normal" life in order to take care of ourselves and one another during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The current events that have happened since the beginning of the year have taken a cumulative toll on most people,” Araya Baker, a therapist and educator based in Houston, told VICE. “Whether we're talking about the pandemic of racial injustice, or the COVID-19 pandemic, people have lost a lot.” “I often remind people that one of the core criterion for trauma is that an experience outstrips or overwhelms your capacity to cope, and I think that’s what’s happened to a lot of folks in our nation,” Baker said. “The cumulative toll of everything that's going on has dismantled people's support systems, it’s uprooted their routines, it's put a financial strain on their household budget. It's made their social life more complicated. People aren't even able to have funerals for the loved ones that they've lost. So everything has changed, and I think it’s a lot to process.”If you’re feeling sad or hopeless or overwhelmed by it all and aren’t sure what to do, here are some things that might help a little bit.
Naming your experiences and emotions is powerful. It’s also just practical—you simply can’t take care of yourself if you don’t know what’s wrong or what you need. As hard as it can be to say “I feel scared” or “I feel sad,” I’m often surprised by how relieved I feel the moment I simply let myself acknowledge that reality.
Admit that you aren’t doing OK—first to yourself, and then to others.
It can also be helpful to simply remind yourself of everything you’re dealing with at the moment, e.g., “I just lost my job unexpectedly and have no money in savings. My family is 300 miles away and I hate all my housemates. I’m terrified of getting COVID-19 and dying. I feel worried about my safety, for one reason or another, every single day. I’m worried that democracy is done for.” Putting it in such plain terms can help you put things in perspective, too; like, of course you’re not doing OK right now, given what is happening around you.From there, it’s a good idea to let other people know you’re struggling—because putting on a brave face when you’re definitely not OK is exhausting, and makes everything that much harder. (If you’re dealing with a more significant life event, like job loss or a breakup, you might want to consider my tried-and-true method for communicating it: enlisting other people to do it for you.)
As tempting as it can be to switch into problem solving mode or avoidance mode the moment things turn to shit, feeling bad when things are bad is, well… not good, exactly, but correct. “A lot of people get caught in a rut of, ‘I'm feeling hopeless, and I shouldn't feel that way.’ Or ‘I'm angry, and I shouldn't feel that way,’” Ryan Howes, a Pasadena-based therapist and the author of Mental Health Journal for Men: Creative Prompts, Practices, and Exercises to Bolster, told VICE. “And people need to have permission to feel whatever they're feeling in this moment. If you feel like you need to cry, then take some time and cry. Let it out. If you're angry, then, you know, go into your car and scream.”
Don’t fight your bad feelings.
If you’re really hesitant to express your emotions—maybe because you’re afraid that once you start screaming or crying, you won’t be able to stop (just spitballin’ here!!!)—Howes suggested letting yourself be 10 percent more emotional than you normally would. Just going a little further can help a lot.
You do, in fact, need to eat, drink water, go pee, rest, move your body, and bathe with some regularity. If these are the first things to go when you’re feeling overwhelmed, or if it’s been a while since you’ve bought groceries, changed your clothes, looked away from your screen, or washed your hair, start there, and consider setting some reminders to help you stay on top of this going forward. Feeling like a garbage slug and not being rested or nourished makes completing other important tasks—like, say, making a budget, job hunting, or finding a therapist—way more difficult.
Prioritize meeting your most basic needs.
“A lot of times, people's natural response to a hardship like a breakup, job loss, or other difficulty is to turn inward and to try to suffer through it alone,” Howes said. “And that's kind of the opposite of what we want. We really need to reach out for help and look to our resources—whether it's people or therapists or books or chat groups or whatever it might be—to help us know that we're not alone in this.”
Ask for and accept help.
If you’re worried that people will judge you or shame you, know that right now, more than ever, they will probably get it—because there’s a good chance they aren’t doing so great either. “We're all grieving,” Baker said. “We're all anxious. We're all overwhelmed. We're all exhausted. We're all feeling unsettled about the uncertainty of what's going to happen for the rest of the year, and then on into 2021 We don't know if we're ever going to get back to normal. Everyone around you is processing.” And if you could use a little support—whether that’s advice, sympathy, apartment or job leads, or a hug—don’t wait until things are dire to reach out. Baker compared it to being in college. “Students often ask for an extension, and the professor rejects the request, but tells them this actually would have been permissible if they had requested it [further] in advance,” he said. “I always stress to people that anticipating the need for help is very important as it relates to staying afloat.”
Pay attention to instances in which you’re doing what therapists call catastrophizing—that is, when you’re in an “everything is so bad” mental spiral, and can no longer imagine a positive outcome. “There’s definitely some good to preparing for the worst,” Howes said. “Having some money in savings, having some food on hand. But catastrophic thinking for a long period of time is really a negative. All it really does is send you to a dark place and makes it difficult for you to dig out of it.”
Try to focus on the present as much as possible.
If you find yourself catastrophizing, here are some suggestions from Howes you could try in the moment:
- Distract yourself—play a game on your phone, talk to a friend, or take a lap around the block
- Try to find at least one positive thing you can hold onto, like “I’m healthy right now” or “I have my family”
- Pause and connect with each of your senses, i.e., What do I see right now? What do I smell right now? Howes said that doing this helps bring you back to the present moment, and reminds you that you aren’t in crisis right now. “What catastrophic thinking does is propel you into this horrible future,” Howes said. “And you start to panic as if you’re there already. And we want to try to pull you back to, ‘OK, right now I’m fine.’”
It’s very easy to get trapped in a scroll/refresh/panic cycle on bad news days, or to find yourself in three different group chats where everyone is screaming about how dark things are. While staying informed and connecting with like-minded people are both good things, it’s easy to lose hours to this… time you could have spent taking care of yourself or taking action or doing literally anything else. “There are going to be some days where you can't be plugged into the news because you have very real life things going on, and that's OK,” Baker said. “In our society, especially among the younger generations, there's this pressure to know what's going on at all times. And it’s simply not possible to have one foot so far in the future, or in the past, with your attention divided in the present—it's not sustainable.”
So be honest with yourself about how social media, endless news consumption, and super-negative conversations are affecting you, and try to set some boundaries and guidelines for yourself. (It might also be a good idea to make a short list of alternate activities for the down time you’re likely to spend scrolling—options like calling a friend, putting on a specific playlist or YouTube channel, journaling, cleaning your bathroom, doing a crossword puzzle, cuddling your pet, exercising, etc.)
My friends who work in politics and community organizing have drilled this message into my head over the years, and they are 100 percent correct: action is an incredible antidote to hopelessness. “Part of the despair is helplessness,” Howes said. “Where we feel like, ‘There’s nothing I can do.’ And if you can just do something that [gives you] a little bit of control… any little movement can make a big difference in helping you feel less hopeless about it all.” He also pointed out that a lot of people in power want us to feel hopeless—because if we feel like taking action isn’t worth it or like there’s no point in voting or organizing or phone banking, then we’re more likely to simply give up. If you’re not sure what to do, Baker said to think about how you personally can best help the vulnerable people you’re worried about, or the political causes you care about most. “When we think about activism, we always think about someone on the front lines, who has a bullhorn, who is shouting, who has a sign,” he said. “But that's not what everyone is going to be called to do, and that’s not reflective of everyone’s skillset. Pay attention to your skillset, your talents, your personality, in order to maximize your gifts, and acknowledge that even if you're contributing in a way that's not front and center, that's still valuable.”
If you’re dealing with political despair, find some small way to take action.
“Tapping into local organizations, as well as plugging into local politics, is super important,” Baker added. “Because it's often a reminder that, while things at the federal and national level seem to be escalating constantly, there are smaller victories going on around you.”
Writing in a journal when you feel like shit is a classic coping mechanism for a reason—it really does help. So if you’re feeling frazzled, make a point to dump your thoughts into a notebook or Google Doc regularly. “Journaling forces you to take the 50 thoughts you have in your mind at any time and hone that down into a singular line of thought,” Howes said. “It helps you to express whatever's going on inside of you. And as you're writing it, and reading what you're writing, you tend to come up with other answers and other possibilities.” A journal is also a place where you can be your full self—as sad or as mean or as dark as you want to be. “One of the best parts of journaling is that it's for you,” Howes said. “You can write whatever you want, and you're not going to hurt anyone, you’re not going to piss off anybody. It's a great place to vent and work through whatever feelings you have without any repercussions.”
Make journaling a part of your routine.
Instead of assuming you’ll be able to go about your life as normal right now, consider the opposite: assuming that you’ll be able to do basically nothing for the foreseeable future. Instead of saying yes to every single invite, accept that you’ll want/need some extra down time. Say no or even “Can I let you know a little closer to that day?” Opt for super simple recipes vs. new and complicated ones, or get some prepared foods (frozen meals, canned soup, instant oatmeal) so you don’t have to cook at all. Instead of trying to force yourself to read a ton of books or be creative, put your side projects and personal goals on hold.
“Another important coping strategy is resisting grind culture,” Baker said. “I think a lot of people cope with stress in very socially acceptable ways—by that I mean activities or behaviors that seem ‘appropriate’ and ‘productive’ on the surface, but are really taking a mental toll and a physical toll on you internally.”“People need to be comfortable slowing down and realizing that now is not the time to try to kick it into overdrive,” he continued. It can be really difficult to watch your normal life and the things that you love and see as core to your identity slip out of reach, and it’s understandable to react to that by thinking, Oh, I just need to try harder then. But… no, you really don’t. So for now, give yourself time to grieve the losses that keep piling up, and be patient if you don’t feel better within a day or two. Try to think of this as a season (or a year) of rest, of simply getting by. A crisis is not the time for self-improvement; it’s the time for literal survival. Instead of trying to fix the things you simply can’t change, do what you can to make yourself—and others—a little bit more comfortable, a tiny bit less bad. Rachel Miller is the author of The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People. Follow her on Twitter.