Managing Thoughts & Emotions During Self-Isolation

Let’s face it - the brain and heart are both our friend and foe. The brain allows us to enjoy free thinking, problem-solving, abstract thinking, and creative imagining. Thanks to our amazing brains, humans invented tools necessary for hunting more efficiently; we were able to harness fire and change the landscape completely when it came to how we eat and warm ourselves - and voila, here we are today surrounded everyday by countless incredible feats of the human brain. The heart, while perhaps more complicated, is said to carry the complex array of emotions that we humans experience. Feelings like love, heartache, frustration, joy, anger, sadness and hope can both motivate us and bring us to our knees, depending on what is going on in our lives from one moment to the next.

Not surprisingly, our thoughts and emotions can become more of a foe when we are grappling with life-changing transitions, external stressors, or new pressures. Considering this reality, it is likely that thoughts and emotions for many people are being impacted during the COVID-19 crisis - and not in a good way. Many people struggle with ongoing thoughts about what could happen next, how they will cope, who might be at risk, what do they stand to lose, how will they survive financially, how can they balance working from home and homeschooling the kids, and will the world recover? These thoughts can be overwhelming and can lead to increased anxiety and even depression-especially when coupled with a sense of being powerless over the pandemic and having very little control overall.

The good news is that overwhelming thoughts and emotions can be managed; there are things that we can do to stay mentally well and positive even during these strange times. The first step is to remember that our thoughts and emotions are connected. This means that how we think about a situation directs how we respond emotionally. For example, if you go to the supermarket and discover that all the toilet paper is gone, your first thought might be “Oh no! There is no toilet paper! I’ll never find any toilet paper ever again and I can’t live without it!” You are likely to feel panicked and highly anxious. If, however you respond to the same situation by thinking, “Oh well. The toilet paper is gone, but I can come back again tomorrow or check out another store” you will likely experience less anxiety and have more of a sense of agency about the situation.

To address negative and/or catastrophic thinking patterns during the COVID-19 pandemic, increased self-awareness is key. Spend time observing the thoughts that come into your mind, and practice replacing negative, self-defeating or hopeless thoughts with something more positive and optimistic. Remember that although these times are unprecedented, you will get through it and you will likely be stronger for it. Practice writing your thoughts down. Notice patterns of thinking, and make positive adjustments where needed. It won’t take long to notice that your brain has become your friend, and that you are feeling less emotionally overwhelmed.

Emotions can also be managed with a little attention and time. With emotions, it is important to become an observer of how you are feeling moment to moment, and to familiarize yourself with the different feelings that come up. It can be helpful to visualize your emotions as a raging river-and to position yourself as an observer, someone who is standing on the bank watching the current go by rather than actually submerged in the water, being bounced against the rocks and completely over-powered. Standing on the bank, you can be fully aware of emotional states while also knowing that the emotions will pass by and change into something else.

It is also important to have a list of things that you can do when feeling emotionally overwhelmed. Write a list of things you can do, and put it somewhere where you can see it often. The list may include activities such as taking deep breaths, going for a walk, listening to music, painting, cooking, having a bath, watching a funny movie or talking to a supportive person in your life.

Experiencing upsetting thoughts and emotions is valid during these times. It is important to be compassionate towards yourself and others, and to know that there are things you can do to manage overwhelming thoughts and emotions. It is also important to remember that this stressful time will come to an end, and that you will come out the other side stronger and more resilient.

Cherrie Carr, MSW

Walmsley EFAP