By Lexie Manion and Emma Demar
We are living in unprecedented times. The pandemic is a collective trauma, and with any trauma, feelings of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues may be surfacing. In this blog post, Lexie Manion, mental health advocate and future art therapist, and Emma Demar, LMSW, therapist on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, share some of the coping strategies they’ve been utilizing to help get through these uncertain times.
One thing I have found particularly helpful during this time period has been boundary setting. Boundary setting is always important, but especially when dealing with heightened levels of anxiety and with all of the noise going on around us. Since the start of the pandemic, I’ve been making sure to set solid boundaries with relationships and social media in specific. I know that when I don’t pay attention to my boundaries and how much I am taking in around me, I can become flooded with other people’s thoughts and opinions and it becomes difficult to locate my own. To set these boundaries, I take stock of each relationship and the accounts I follow on social media and make sure I’m setting proper limits surrounding how often and in what capacity I take things in.
Going along with boundaries, I have been practicing a lot of self-care. My self-care includes things like skincare, baths, yoga, journaling, reading, writing, and more. I do the things that make me feel most grounded within myself. I frequently check in with myself to make sure I have a solid sense of where I’m at. Self-care is especially important for me when I have long days of patient calls, because I know I will be expending a lot of my energy outward and less on myself. I make sure that before, between, and after my calls that I’m making the time to center myself and come back to my truth.
Another coping strategy that has been helpful for me during this time has been acceptance. So much of what is going on in the world right now is beyond our control, which can be especially challenging for those who struggle with uncertainty. An important part of my self-work recently has been acceptance of what is going on and what things are and are not in my control. I can then focus on the things that I CAN control (in a healthy way, of course) instead of ruminating on what I cannot. An example of this would be that I spent my 30th birthday in quarantine this year, and that I accepted and made the best of it instead of trying to fight the reality. Of course, I made space for myself to process the change, as that is super important, but once I had done my processing, I leaned into the new reality and it ended up being an extremely special and meaningful birthday.
When dealing with uncertain times, staying present is extremely challenging. I myself struggle with staying present, as I am always thinking about the future and planning ahead. This entire year has been a true practice of mindfulness for me, and I’ve noticed that leaning into the present moment has truly lowered my anxiety. Some of the ways in which I have practiced becoming more present is that when I notice myself starting to ruminate or get anxious thoughts, I tune into what is around me. I notice my surroundings and actually stop whatever I am doing and just breathe and look around. I ask myself if my overthinking is actually accomplishing anything, and if it’s not, I try and reframe or redirect my thoughts. In addition, when I cannot simply redirect my thoughts, I get curious about them. Sometimes, just the act of bringing in curiosity can help stop the anxious spiral because you are changing your focus from all the things that could go wrong to figuring out WHY you are worried about those things. It then becomes a process of self-reflection (journaling comes in very handy here!). Again, processing my emotions and really making space for them has been key for me during these uncertain times.
Beyond self-care, boundary-setting and mindfulness, I believe that finding meaning has really enabled me to move through this time gracefully. I am the type of person who always looks for what a certain situation is teaching me, and this time period has been no different. I’ve learned so much about myself and the world, and these lessons have empowered me and given me perspective. Instead of thinking things like “why is this happening to me?” which would just put me in a victim mentality, I ask myself “what is this teaching me?” or “can I find a silver lining?.” It’s important to note that just because you are looking at the positives does NOT mean that you are oblivious to any of the negativity and tragedy that this year has brought us. It simply means that you are finding meaning and allowing the negative experiences to help make you into a stronger, wiser person.
Lastly, I just want to highlight that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to get through a pandemic. I’ve found on social media and just in my personal life that many people are feeling like they “should “ be doing certain things or feeling a certain way. There is no “should” about a collective trauma. Be gentle with yourself and understand that these times are incredibly challenging. If you are not functioning at the normal speed or capacity that you are used to, IT’S OKAY. Try and find a way to get curious and make room for more self-compassion the same way you would for someone else. You can’t be there for anyone else unless you’re there for yourself, after all!
As times became less predictable and difficult during this pandemic, so had my ability to cope. I felt very overwhelmed when news began spreading about COVID-19. I felt worried for myself and my loved ones. I wondered how long we would be in this situation. Luckily, I do have many skills and self care tools I can turn to when I’m feeling a lot. At the beginning of the pandemic, the first thing I turned to was art. I began hand-lettering, drawing and painting more. It brought a sense of calmness to my life I didn’t realize I needed. As a future art therapist and someone who loves art, I love telling people that yes, you can do art; anyone can be good at art. The thing with art is that it is subjective. The experience of creating art and feeling accomplished with what I made is what matters most to me. You don’t have to be able to draw a perfect circle or be a master to enjoy it or utilize it. It can take time to improve on skills, which is what I’m finding in my creating right now, too. And that’s perfectly ok! Just as it takes practice to do be a competitive athlete, it takes practice to be an artist. I always encourage people to be artsy or crafty because it’s a helpful tool. Art is something I plan on using to help others heal as a trained art therapist one day.
Self care is so important at all times, but especially during the more stressful times, like the middle of a pandemic. It is important to hone in on our skills to self soothe. Besides creating art, writing, taking mindful showers and relaxing baths and meditating have been instrumental in my healing. I write poetry and articles, as well as journal and write parts of my future book. I’m in no rush to publish, so I’ve really been enjoying tackling new subjects and reflecting on my life while writing. It’s a bit fun, too, because while I share my life online, there is so much I don’t share! I’ll ask friends to read some excerpts or poems and it’s nice to get feedback, but in a more private way. Many people right now are working on those big projects — those “rainy day” projects because we have more time on our hands. I’ve found I’ve written the most I have for my future book right now with the extra time I’ve had! It’s been cathartic to spend time reflecting and healing while the world has seemed to be on fire this year. In addition to writing, I use an app called MyLife meditation that has a wonderful selection of guided meditations. I highly recommend it if you’re into meditations or even if you’re a beginner! The meditations truly soothe my system and ground me in moments I feel like my head is spinning from worry or stress.
Reaching out for help or support is so vital during this time, too. I urge those of you struggling to reach out to a trusted person in your life or to seek therapy. I notice I can sometimes let things build up in my head and all of a sudden, that thing I once thought was small, feels very pressing. In moments like this, just checking in with someone I trust can help set me back on the right path. As human beings, we need other human beings, so please know you are not weak for needing help. I used to think I was needy and wrong for needing support, but I’m learning it’s a true strength to know when I need support.
This year has given us new stressors and worries. Many have lost jobs or fear for their health or their loved ones health. We all worry about the future. The best thing to do when we worry about the future is to secure ourselves in the here and now; really try to work on feeling your best and taking good care of yourself right now. We’re worth it!
As Emma touched upon, boundary-setting is vital to our relationships as well as self care. To know our limits is to know and respect ourselves. Having perspective, too, can help us navigate difficult changes in life as we prepare for our next steps. For instance, I could hold onto the idea that I’m disappointed I am “behind” in my education because my peers from high school have graduated college and I am at the beginning of my journey. I now have the perspective that I am truly enjoying myself and my classes as I am happier and healthier than I was several years ago. I could be “ahead” in some ways if I pushed myself to continue pursuing an education when I was ill, but I feel like I am truly ahead now that I’m pursuing it through a healthy lens. It matters what we tell ourselves. The next time you “should” yourself, think of me and how I’m challenging how I view how my life turned out. Having perspective and turning down the volume on those sometimes self-deprecating assumptions hold the keys to your future.
In conclusion, we hope we have been able to provide you with some helpful coping strategies and ideas to help you throughout the pandemic and beyond. Most importantly, we want you to know that you are not alone. Whether you are a therapist, a future therapist, or know nothing about therapy or mental health, this time is incredibly challenging and we all need coping strategies to get through it! If you are struggling during this time and feel at risk in any way, please do not hesitate to reach out as we are both happy to support in any way that we can.