In our new series, From Dr. Frock’s Desk, we sit down with Dr. Frock to gain a psychiatrist’s perspective, anecdotes, and tools on a variety of topics. This month, we are exploring how to cope with large-scale events that can bring out big emotions like lack of direction, hopelessness, grief, anger, and stress, just to name a few.
The last two years have been incredibly hard on us collectively, we’ve all faced a plethora of events that have been out of our control and elicit a big emotional response. What is your best advice for maintaining groundedness?
During these times, I think it’s important to at first, acknowledge that everything happening in this “new normal” is actually abnormal. Experiencing stress, experiencing a dissociative-type feeling, feeling numb, none of these feelings are inherently wrong when something very dramatic is going on around you.
Your negative feelings are part of human existence. When people start struggling with stress, the things that fall by the wayside first are the basics. It sounds really simple, but you might notice you’re staying up too late or doom scrolling social media, for example. This leads to feeling tired the next day, so you might eat something less healthy, or you don’t exercise. This cascade of forgetting the fundamental basics (which are within your control), like sleep, exercise, and diet, can take a stressful event (which is out of your control) and turn it into a deviation from your normal behavior, which can compound the overall stress you’re experiencing.
What tips do you have for some people who are suffering from feeling like they don’t have any control, or for those that are experiencing a lack of autonomy due to systems in place that are much larger than who they are?
It’s important to note that there are always going to be shifts in the energy that you’re dealing with, and that energy can be inherently positive or negative. So when people have a lot of positive energy, I think we’re very good at devoting that towards healthy reinforcing behaviors, like self-care. But when we have negative emotions and energy, sometimes we’re not the best at re-directing that energy into something productive.
For example, if you find yourself feeling uneasy and stressed by a political issue, you could choose to be angry and ruminate, but you’ll never feel better by going down that destructive path. Alternatively, there are a lot of opportunities for channeling that energy into something positive, like advocacy. There are many startup organizations throughout the social and political spectrum that can be very rewarding to get involved with. So while world events might be out of your immediate control, you do have the power to control and choose how to channel your energy.
Another thing to remember is to not beat yourself up for not being able to “fix” everything. Keep yourself grounded by recognizing what is within your control and what you can realistically accomplish.
Professionally, have you noticed a collective shift in emotions, stress response and a feeling of a loss of control?
No question. In my practice, I see a lot of different types of people, and I’ve actually been really surprised with how uniform the stress response seems to be. Whether it’s acknowledging how it feels to be living in these very strange post-pandemic times, or the political divisiveness and the stress of how we’re starting to define people by what they believe.
I will routinely ask people how much time they’re spending on social media. There’s productive stuff on there, like positive communities, but a lot of times, it’s not productive, and more often than not we’re being constantly bombarded with worst-case scenario headlines. We aren’t supposed to be able to handle this information overload, all the time, all at once.
In general, many of us seem to be on social media too much, after all, it’s designed to be addictive. I think that limiting your exposure to that kind of media model is probably going to be better for you long term.
What do you recommend for people who are feeling like they’re overwhelmed, or just “off”, without being able to pinpoint the cause of their uneasy feelings?
I mentioned this a little bit before, but don’t forget the fundamentals. Sometimes when people feel really overwhelmed and stressed, it can be common to shut down, when in fact, you want to do the exact opposite. You want to be around people that you care about. You want to do something that you enjoy. I think exercise is like one of the most underutilized, under-appreciated stress reducers of all. It’s almost a guarantee you’re going to feel better afterwards.
Sometimes people can feel intense emotions they don’t understand, and it often manifests in anger or isolation. In treatment, what I try to do is say, alright, you’re feeling this way, we need to figure out a way where you reflexively decide, “Oh my gosh, I need to go for a walk”, or “I’ve gotta go connect with people that I care about.” You almost want to retrain your habits. Rather than shut down, you teach yourself to do the opposite.
What is one way to notice the burnout without spiraling deeper into the feelings?
Two things that come to mind are normalization and validation, reminding yourself that it’s probably okay to feel what you’re feeling. Step back a little to gain perspective by asking yourself, “If 100 People were put in this position, how many of them would likely feel the way I feel?” Often the answer is that 95+ people would feel the same way.
This is often very apparent in workplace wellness today. I find that a lot of existing workplace wellness programs don’t do a very good job of acknowledging and validating those feelings. There’s a band-aid approach of prescribing a yoga class, or group meditation to feel better- which may help for the duration of the class, but it doesn’t dig deeper and address the root of the problem. Maybe employees just need to hear: “Yeah, this is a really hard job, and this was a really hard time. It’s okay to feel this way. How can we better support you?” Think of it from the perspective of, if you didn’t feel this way, that would actually be kind of weird.
Any advice for someone beginning to establish new stress management habits?
I would say some of this information, as simple as some of it sounds, is extraordinarily difficult to actually do. Even the simplest advice, like “just going for a walk”, is not always easy to do. Habits and thought patterns are not easy things to change, and that’s what you have to take into consideration. Any behavior change is not going to be easy or natural the first time, and it takes practice to get into it completely.
COVID was a challenging time, because a lot of things we took for granted, or didn’t view as self-care, were ripped away from us. For example, if you were someone who went to church every Sunday; this was a place to be social, to sing, and to tap into your spirituality. When that all just went virtual, it makes sense that you likely felt a little bit more alone. It’s times like these that it can be helpful to recognize which habits comprised your self-care before. What filled your cup? How can you take steps to get back to that?
Would you also recommend breaking down those habits to help identify them?
If you enjoy eating outside with friends, for example, you can break down that experience into individual components, like being with friends, eating new food, trying new restaurants, and being outside. That way, if going out with a group isn’t possible right now, you now have identified 4 bite-sized components to choose from. So if you can’t see all your friends, you can still try a new recipe and eat outdoors.
Once you’ve got an inventory of things you enjoy and that fill you up, it’s important to get them scheduled. If you don’t take decisive action to make them happen, there’s a good chance they won’t get done.
The content of this blog and book recommendation are for educational purposes only. Neither is prescriptive, nor a substitute for a therapeutic relationship.
Dr. Frock’s Book Recommendation
If you enjoyed this topic and would like to explore it further, Dr. Frock recommends the book, Silence: In the Age of Noise, by Erling Kagge.