Understanding Emotional Wellness
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2020 has been quite the year. A year that everyone can benefit from understanding and practicing emotional wellness. I think we have all experienced the need for emotional wellness over and over again during the last several months of this “unprecedented” year. It’s been a crappy year, let’s be real. It’s been scary, traumatic, unbelievable, tragic, sad, infuriating, nauseating, looming, dark, overwhelming, exhausting, trying, stressful, uncertain, unsettling, challenging, etc.
We are living in a global health pandemic, while trying to navigate through all the uncertainties, dealing with racism on all levels, addressing historical and generational trauma, protesting or protesting the protesters, arguing with one another, canceling our plans indefinitely, parenting and educating our children, maintaining employment, becoming laid off, navigating through financial instability, caring for and worrying about our elders, learning what being antiracist means, making sure our household and loved ones have all basic necessities, preparing for the apocalypse, assessing our rights, fearing for our lives, etc. it’s all been too much.
We have been in crisis and survival mode for most of the year. Sure, there are times when we can kick back and forget about what’s been going on, by getting absorbed in movies and shows, and have a little normalcy back. But we still come back to reality, and, our brain is still functioning in survival mode.
There are many resources and articles that explain how the brain functions when it senses danger and the need for survival. To simplify things, our brains are not designed to operate from this place ongoing for a long period of time. When we do have to rely on our brains in this way for longer than intended, we start to develop symptoms of traumatic stress and our responses are exacerbated to match our brain’s understanding of survival. This includes responding in ways that are outside of our normal character, overreacting, overexaggerating, being overly cautious and critical, feeling attacked and threatened, yelling, hiding, attacking others, etc.
Let’s stop and absorb this for a moment. All of us are in survival mode and having these responses with ourselves and others. We each have our own stress response triggers that set us off and are using those to cope. That’s okay, and, it’s also not okay and we are currently feeling those effects as a country. Our stress responses are hurting others and ourselves, and now we’re kinda used to responding in these ways.
What can we do?
Understanding our triggers and stress responses is important so that we can identify and acknowledge when we are triggered and responding from a survival and protective place. As an example, if I am triggered by posts that I see on social media, I may want to take a break from social media, avoid seeing certain posts, or avoid commenting on certain posts. If I do comment when I am triggered, my comments will probably be out of character for me and I may regret responding under that stress.
Understanding the triggers and stress responses of those we care about is important so that we can proceed with caution. Staying with the social media example, if our social media activity is igniting stress responses from others and we want to protect ourselves and other loved ones, we may want to refrain from this activity.
Understanding our emotional capacity during times of stress is important so that we can best utilize our energy when it is most impactful. As an example with social media, if it is emotionally draining to post, read and respond, we may want to pivot that energy to be more aware and capable of interrupting racism that is happening in the grocery store, or somewhere right in front of us to reduce harm.
Finally, understanding that self-care and emotional wellness looks different for each person at different times is important, and we should not try to push our agenda onto others when they are communicating that it is not helpful for them. As an example with social media, encouraging all of our followers to do a particular self-care activity is likely oversimplifying emotional wellness and potentially dismissive of the larger issue. Emotional wellness is unique, culturally informed, and not a one-size-fits-all concept.
Article by: Jessica Boner, MSW, LICSW, CISW
Clinical and Education Programs Director