• Kathleen Schofield, MA, LPC

How unexpected times affect our mental health

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

Written By: Kathleen Schofield

One of the commonly uttered phrases I have heard in my office since March has to be “I had no idea this year would go this way”.  As a therapist and a human being, I couldn’t agree more.  

This year has presented all of us with challenges that leave most of us experiencing some form of grief, loss, anxiety, and depression.  We are constantly challenged to adapt to new information and adjust our expectations of what the immediate future holds.  I don’t know about you, but this is growing increasingly more difficult as the months stretch on.  I feel that now more than ever, it is important to acknowledge that we are all experiencing moments of balance and harmony, but those are also followed by darker times of despair and hopelessness.  In the spirit of honesty, I will vacillate between both emotional states even throughout the same day, and that can often feel like a rollercoaster.

I realized something very profound last year about my own mental illness, more specifically anxiety. I have had anxiety since I was in elementary school, but it wasn’t until my mid-20s that I was able to recognize, accept, and understand the way that my brain operates.  Through therapy and intense work, I felt like I had achieved some stability and could manage my worries, nerves, and racing thoughts.  That was until two years ago when my anxiety came back with a vengeance.

It was shortly after graduating with my master’s degree - a time where I truly thought I would be ecstatic and elated at my accomplishments.  I had been dreaming of this day for years and expected to be happy.  In reality, my anxiety had resurfaced with an intensity that I had not anticipated.  Graduation presented me with an onslaught of changes, and I had not realized how much my anxiety would be affected.  To summarize, I expected to feel very differently, and the anxiety that followed was very profound, intense, and difficult to manage.

I hope that my experience and realization can be of some benefit and applicable to you.  I hear people remark at how intense and strong their emotions are right now, and I completely identify with that.  They are profound and intense, because we all had expectations for this year that have not been met.  In fact, our expectations have been lit on fire.  We thought and hoped and prepared for a very different year, and the feelings and thoughts that we are left with are hard to manage.  If we prepared for an expected outcome, we are left feeling exposed and vulnerable and ill-equipped for the reality.  We feel a loss of control and an inability to manage our current reality, and whatever feelings we are experiencing continue to grow and intensify.

I think it is very important to first acknowledge and accept that our anxiety or depression or whatever we are experiencing is strong and hard to tolerate.  It is perfectly alright to share that these emotions exist because we prepared and expected for something very different than what we presently have.  I would even go a step farther to acknowledge the grief and loss at what we all expected this year to bring for us.  Grief and loss often bring cycles of anger, sadness, and depression before we arrive at a place of acceptance.  Each expected thing that we lose or is taken away from us can bring about another cycle of grief and loss.  All of this is hard, and darker moments in this cycle can lead us to either judge our feelings or to be unkind and unforgiving of ourselves.

Instead of reaching for how we think we should be handling this, embrace where you are and how you are feeling.  I am a firm believer that the more we judge ourselves, the more we act out on the emotions that we are denying exist.  In my own personal experience, I have denied or judged the presence of anxiety only to then lash out at others around me.  Guilt and shame at my inability to manage or filter my emotions and feelings closely followed.  And the cycle of judgement and unmet expectations continues, only now the conflict is within me.  

The way through all of this is to talk about it and to remain connected with others.  Because here is the double-edged sword in all of this: none of us have ever experienced anything like this before.  We all develop coping strategies and techniques for getting through difficult times.  This is often done through prior experiences of what worked and what did not.  If I am going through a break-up with a significant other, I will reach back into the past and turn to what worked before as a natural coping tool and strategy.  I also possess the hope from prior experiences and the knowledge that these feelings and emotions will pass eventually.  I have been here before, I have felt this before, and I know that this will pass in a timely manner.

One of the hardest things to realize and accept is that none of us have coping tools and techniques right now.  We do not possess anything in the past that resembles what we are experiencing; we do not have anything to draw from.  We are in a challenging place mentally and emotionally, and now we are forced to develop new methods to manage through the unexpected outcomes that this year has brought us.

That is why giving ourselves the grace, kindness, and compassion are so important right now.  It is only in a place of acceptance, positivity, and hope that we are able to develop new methods to manage these difficult times.  Explanations have always helped me to better understand and accept the way I am feeling.  It is my hope that this knowledge resonates with you and helps you arrive at the realization that you are not alone in your intensity or its origins.  I believe that kindness and compassion towards other people first starts with ourselves.  If I treat myself with grace and acceptance, I find it easier and fulfilling to treat people in my life in the same manner.  I believe our world could use that right now, and that has become my primary source of motivation in the past few months.

What can you do in the meantime to develop new coping strategies?  Here are some things that I have found helpful:

If you are struggling with motivation, attempt the task for 10 minutes.  If you are not engaged in said task, stop after 10 minutes and switch to something different.  I have often found that I generate my own momentum and motivation by simply putting effort up front for 10 minutes, and 10 minutes does not feel daunting in the beginning.  If you do decide to stop, you will know that you tried and can come back to it in the future.

I encourage a form of artistic expression as a way to process emotions and feelings.  That could be anything from art to music to writing to painting to photography to building or sculpting – anything that provides an outlet for our senses and a time for the mind to relax and rest.

At the beginning of this, I think many of us did a great job of remaining connected with our social support.  As the months have waged on, I believe it has become increasingly harder to generate connection and conversation.  I hear my clients and friends alike who are holding back on video and phone calls because they do not have anything to talk about, anything to share.  They believe they need to bring something exciting to the table in order to justify a call, and that is simply not the case.  We crave companionship and connect over the common ground of experiences.  Make the calls anyway and connect over the fact that we all struggle to find words today.

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