Battling Covid-19, economic hardship and racial injustice is challenging: these therapists provide ways to rekindle your optimism. No one could have anticipated how disturbing and terrible the last few months have been. The health anxieties of Covid-19, the financial insecurity that millions of Americans are now experiencing, and the racial trauma that our country is trying to manage right now are just the most obvious things that people are dealing with every single day.
It’s extremely difficult to deal with one of those things, but when too many disturbing and frustrating events happen all at once? It’s pretty hard to be positive about anything. To help you find healthier ways to cope, we approached therapists to share their best advice for keeping optimism in tough times—specifically, in the midst of a pandemic and a social justice movement.
1. 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 body’s stress response, making us feel anxious and uncomfortable. Capanna-Hodge recommends using the 4-7-8 breathing technique— just breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds, and then exhale for 8 seconds. This rhythmic breathing is perfect for calming the brain and body.
2. Find a cause to rally behind
Taking action against injustice, in whatever way you can, is a great way to be fully present and to reinvigorate a sense of hope. LaQuista Erinna, a licensed clinical social worker, and owner of THRIVE Behavioral Health & Consulting, recommends finding a cause to rally behind. This will make you feel more in control of what’s going on around you, and trust that change is going to 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.”
3. 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 genuinely reach out to someone and ask them how they can find hope during these times, says Kathleen Murphy, a licensed marriage and family therapist and 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.”
4. Move your body
The power of exercise as a stress reliever can not be underestimated. “Movement is an excellent grounding technique for self-regulation and can help to clear an activated fight-flight-freeze response,” Erinna says. “Blacks have always operated in the space of angst. As a nation, we have all been in a heightened sense of danger for an extended time.”
Changing your body — even if it’s just going for a walk or changing positions all day, so you’re not just sitting still all the time — is a perfect way to calm down and start focusing your mental energy.
5. 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 practice 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 for what you can’t do, reflect on what you can do and know it’s important, too.
6. 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 this, many individuals and organizations provide free or low-priced training, certification, and assistance in a number of fields, Erinna says.
So, research the thing(s) you ‘re looking for to become more educated and find the tools out there that can help you. Use this time to become a better ally of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color), try to obtain financial support, sign up for career coaching, or take advantage of teletherapy options.
7. Schedule “worry time”
Annie Miller, a private practice psychotherapist in Washington, D.C., has consistently recommended scheduling a regular time every day to watch the news and let you 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.”
When “worry time” is over, try to put aside stressful issues and reassure 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.
8. Set personal and professional boundaries
To give yourself space to handle everything from racial trauma to pandemic stress, Flowers suggests setting boundaries around what you’re going to be able 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. It’s a form of self-care, she adds, picking your battles, detaching, and reserving your emotional labor for the tasks that you really want to put effort into.
9. Spend time in nature
Nature has the ability to fully transform our minds and souls, says Renee Exelbert, a psychologist and founding director of The 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, the April 2019 study published in Frontiers in Psychology indicates that it takes only 20 minutes of natural time to significantly reduce the levels of stress hormones.
10. Actively practice positivity
“It is a lot more work to focus on positive things and it takes practice,” 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 practice finding something positive to focus on.”
What you’re looking forward to? What are you grateful for today? Capanna-Hodge recommends visualizing something that is calming, like walking on the beach, to encourage optimistic emotions. “See yourself there and feel yourself there; bring in those sensory elements. Taking a few minutes every day to practice seeing the positive has an incredibly positive effect on your mood and behavior,” she says.
11. 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 take care of our brains and bodies helps us to get ground, connect and stay positive, which eventually enhances our outlook and overall well-being, says Capanna-Hodge.
12. Turn to books and art
Murphy recommends reading something inspirational, like Victor Frankl’s Man’s Quest for Meaning, to hear how many people have found meaning and light in difficult times. Exelbert mentions that all forms of art— poetry, music, and more — can help us manage complex human emotions and encourage and enlighten us.
13. 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, compassion activates the release of the neurotransmitter serotonin, a brain chemical that can boost your mood and make you feel better. And feeling useful can help to foster gratitude and appreciation and restore a lost sense of hope, says Exelbert.
14. 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. “Humor 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 to forget about what’s going on and make jokes about it instead. Rather, take some time every day to do something you know will make you happy— watch your favorite comedy show or stand-up comedy routine, or plan some time to talk to your funniest friend. That brief recollection, even if it’s just a few minutes away, can really help lift your mood.
15. Meditate regularly
Meditation is an extremely powerful tool that is free, too. “Meditation can calm both your mind and body and restore a sense of groundedness and balance,” says Capanna-Hodge.
16. Prioritize sleep
“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.” When you don’t sleep well, chances are you’ll be more susceptible to feelings of tension and depression. This could be a vicious cycle. Miller suggests a few tips to get more sleep. First of all, if you can’t sleep, don’t lay 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 couple of times. Second, create 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 cool down and calm your mind before bed.
17. 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.”
18. Keep busy
“Idle minds can create worry in times of stress,” says Capanna-Hodge. Focusing on a task or project will help to give you a sense of purpose and prevent negativity and worry from invading 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.”
19. Don’t be afraid to ask for help
There’s a lot going on right now that can contribute to mental stress, sadness, and feelings of hopelessness. It’s crucial to find a healthy way 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.”