No one could have predicted how distressing and downright awful the past few months have been. The health anxiety of Covid-19, the financial insecurity millions of Canadians are now facing, and the racial trauma the world is trying to navigate right now are just the most obvious things people are coping with every single day. It’s hard enough to deal with one of those things, but when there are so many upsetting and stressful things happening at once? It’s pretty difficult to stay optimistic about anything.
To help you find healthy ways to cope, we asked therapists to share their best tips for finding hope in difficult times—specifically, in the middle of a pandemic and a social justice movement.
Take time to breathe
“When you’re stressed or anxious, your breathing can get irregular, and shallow breath affects our autonomic nervous system (ANS), which can make us feel anxious and negative,” says Roseann Capanna-Hodge, an integrative and pediatric mental health expert in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Breathing deeply and intentionally calms down the nervous system, which tempers the stress response in the body that makes us feel anxious and unsettled. Capanna-Hodge suggests trying the 4-7-8 breathing technique—simply breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds, and then exhale for 8 seconds. This rhythmic breathing is great for calming down your body and brain.
Find a cause to rally behind
Taking action against injustice, in whatever way you can, is a great way to be fully present and reignite a sense of hope. LaQuista Erinna, a licensed clinical social worker and owner of THRIVE Behavioral Health & Consulting, suggests finding a cause to rally behind. This can help you feel more in control of what’s going on around you, and hopeful that change will happen. “In particular, Black people have found a renewed sense of purpose by participating in protests, advocating for change, and demanding equality,” Erinna says. “Many white allies have taken the time to recognize their privilege and have taken action by showing up in meaningful ways for those who are less privileged.”
Lean on your support system
“Collectively, we are all going through unprecedented times of uncertainty and trauma,” says Erinna. Talk to the people who you trust, and let them know how you’re feeling. “You may find that you are not alone in how you are feeling and can find some sense of solace by leaning on your support system.”
It can also help to simply reach out to others and ask them how they find hope during these times, says Kathleen Murphy, a licensed marriage and family therapist and executive clinical director at Breathe Life Healing Centers. “You can even ask that question of social media and inspire others to look within and share what works for them. It can feel so good and hopeful knowing that you have prompted a search that brings hope and possibilities to others.”
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Move your body
The power of exercise as a tried-and-true stress reliever cannot be understated. “Movement is an excellent grounding technique for self-regulation and can help to clear an activated fight-flight-freeze response,” Erinna says. Moving your body—even if it’s just going for a walk or changing positions throughout the day so you’re not just sitting still all the time—is a great way to calm down and refocus your mental energy.
Let go of feelings of guilt
“It’s important to not feel guilty if you think you are ‘not doing enough’ to help fight racial injustice,” says Siobhan D. Flowers, a licensed psychotherapist in private practise in Dallas and adjunct professor at New York University. “Not everyone’s role is to be out on the ‘front lines’ protesting. There are many other ways to make a positive impact, including spreading awareness via social media, donating financially to worthy organizations, educating yourself, and having real conversations with family and friends who may have differing opinions.” Instead of feeling guilty about what you can’t do, focus on what you can do and know that it’s valuable, too. You can also support Black-female-owned businesses.
Take advantage of learning opportunities
“From the pandemic, financial insecurity, and increasing racial trauma, there is an overwhelming sense of uncertainty and anxiety about the future,” says Erinna. But despite—or rather, because—of all of this, many organizations and individuals are offering free or reduced-priced training, certifications, and support in many different areas, Erinna notes. So, research the thing(s) you’re looking to become more knowledgeable about and find the resources out there that can help. Use this time to become a better ally to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour), seek financial support, sign up for career coaching, or take advantage of teletherapy options.
Schedule “worry time”
Annie Miller, a psychotherapist in private practise in the Washington, D.C. area, suggests consistently setting a specific time each day to watch the news and let yourself worry. “Acknowledge anything you are worried about and make plans for addressing any issues,” Miller says. “Choose a time that is far enough away from your bedtime so that your brain has time to settle before you go to bed.” Once “worry time” is over, try to put the stressful things aside and remind yourself that it’s no longer time to focus on them. “Scheduling worry time in this way trains your brain to have a contained time to think about difficult things. This may lead to lower stress levels,” Miller says. (Here’s how to know if your worries are a deeper problem.)
Set personal and professional boundaries
To give yourself space to cope with everything from racial trauma to pandemic stress, Flowers suggests setting boundaries around what you will allow yourself to talk about and have access to. “Place limits on the amount of information you are consuming and be selective about what news sources and social media outlets you engage with,” says Flowers. Picking your battles, disconnecting, and reserving your emotional labor for the tasks you truly want to put effort towards is a form of self-care, she adds.
Spend time in nature
Nature has the power to completely transform our minds and souls, says Renee Exelbert, a psychologist and founding director of The Metamorphosis Center for Psychological and Physical Change. “It creates a sense of stillness, wholeness, calm, and beauty. Nature and its bounty are a testament to all the storms that have come before us. We find the trees still standing, and the canyons richer and deeper, from these storms,” Exelbert says. In fact, an April 2019 study published in the Frontiers in Psychology suggests it takes just 20 minutes of nature time to noticeably reduce stress hormone levels.
Actively practise positivity
“It is a lot more work to focus on positive things and it takes practise,” says Miller. “Our brains are wired to protect us from danger and have an inherent negativity bias and are thus more attracted to troubling information.” To pull yourself out of the negativity, actively practise finding something positive to focus on.” What’s something you’re looking forward to? What are you grateful for today? Capanna-Hodge suggests visualizing something that’s relaxing, like a walk on the beach, to foster positive feelings. “See yourself there and feel yourself there; bring in those sensory elements. Taking a few minutes every day to practise seeing the positive has an incredibly positive effect on your mood and behaviour,” she says.
Make time for self-care
“Placing self-care as a priority is not a ‘selfish’ thing to do, especially during these difficult times,” Flowers says. “Disconnecting and taking a break to recenter yourself is a form of self-preservation that is much needed for your own long-term sustainability in avoiding burnout. Give yourself permission to take a much needed break if you need to,” she says. Taking time every day to care for our brain and bodies helps us to ground, connect, and stay positive, which ultimately improves our outlook and overall well-being, says Capanna-Hodge.
Turn to books and art
Murphy suggests reading something inspiring, like Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, to learn about how other people have found meaning and light in dark times. Exelbert notes that all types of art—poetry, music, and more—can help us process complicated human emotions and both inspire and enlighten us.
Do a random act of kindness
“As Gandhi said, ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world,’” Exelbert says. “If you want to see the world in a better, more hopeful way, it starts with you.” In addition, kindness triggers the release of the neurotransmitter serotonin, a chemical in the brain that can improve your mood and make you feel happier. And feeling useful can help foster feelings of gratitude and reinstate a lost sense of hope, says Exelbert.
Find ways to laugh
There’s some truth to the old adage that “laughter is the best medicine,” says Dayry Hulkow, primary therapist at Arete Recovery, a Delphi Behavioral Health Group facility. “Humour could help to relieve fear, rage, anger, anxiety, stress, and tension; it could alleviate symptoms of depression; reduce feelings of isolation; improve social competence; decrease negativity; and increase a sense of mastery,” Hulkow says. This doesn’t mean forget about what’s going on and make jokes about it instead. Rather, take some time each day to do something that you know will make you laugh—watch your favourite sitcom or stand-up comedy routine, or schedule some time to talk to your funniest friend. That brief reprieve, even if it’s just for a few minutes, can really help lift your spirits.
Meditation is an incredibly effective tool that’s also free. You really can’t go wrong. “Meditation can calm both your mind and body and restore a sense of groundedness and balance,” says Capanna-Hodge. Download a meditation app that can guide you, like Headspace or Calm.
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“Anxiety and stress have a direct effect on sleep,” says Miller. “When you worry, it’s harder for your brain and your body to settle at night when it’s time to sleep. This is particularly true when you are worried about not sleeping or not getting enough sleep.” If you aren’t sleeping well, chances are you’ll be more prone to feelings of stress and sadness. It can be a vicious cycle. Miller suggests a few things to get more sleep. First, if you can’t sleep, don’t lie there trying to do it. “If you can’t sleep, get up and get out of bed. Find something quiet to do, like read or watch TV—though nothing too upsetting or stimulating. When you feel very sleepy again, get back in bed,” Miller suggests. You might have to do this a few times. Second, establish a sleep schedule. “It is important to keep your wake-up time consistent and understand that you may be tired in the short term, but this will build up sleep drive and eventually allow you to fall asleep faster at night,” says Miller. Last but not least, give yourself time to wind down and relax your mind before bed.
Reflect on previous obstacles you overcame
“Each time you have overcome an obstacle, it is like putting a deposit into your bank account,” Exelbert says. “When you are feeling low, check the piggy bank to see that there is actually money in there. It shows your brain that you have gone through difficult things before, and have overcome.”
“Idle minds can create worry in times of stress,” says Capanna-Hodge. Focusing on a task or project will help give you a sense of purpose and prevent negativity and worry from hijacking your brain. “Concentrate on a project you have been meaning to do,” Capanna-Hodge suggests. “Maybe it is a work project, or cleaning one drawer every day, or even reading a book that you have been wanting to dive into. Diversion is a great way to stop upsetting thoughts from flooding in.”
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
There’s a lot happening right now that can contribute to mental stress, sadness, and feelings of hopelessness. It’s important to find healthy ways to cope. “A lot of times it is necessary to ask for help from trusted sources, including supportive family and friends, or even experienced professionals,” Hulkow says. “Empirical research as well as many years of experience, have shown that talking could help to reduce internalized feelings of blame; it could allow us to receive emotional support and guidance; it could help to increase resilience to stress, instill hope, enhance motivation, and satisfy those love and belonging needs we all have.”