When COVID-19 emerged as a clear and present public health threat, most people felt the same range of emotions: somewhere along the spectrum of fear and anxiety.
People are still feeling this way of course. But as initial shock wears off, people are settling into a new normal. As new studies emerge predicting longer and longer periods of social distancing, we’re starting to strap ourselves in for the long haul.
In some ways, this is a step up from fear and uncertainty. But it also brings a range of new emotions—and all of them have an important mental health impact.
A major component of mental health is emotional awareness. If you don’t know what you’re feeling, it’s hard to do anything about it. Putting a label on your emotions helps put you back in control. During a crisis, it’s more important than ever to stop and think about what you’re feeling, why, and how to use that information to move forward.
Maybe you’re feeling lonely. You’ve read a million articles on how to stay connected with loved ones… but no amount of “how are you holding up?” texts or Zoom happy hours can quite match socializing in person. Or maybe you don’t have a strong social circle to begin with, and now it’s harder than ever to make new connections.
Maybe you’re irritated. Your family is driving you up a wall, and there’s nowhere to go to escape. The news is full of people making irresponsible decisions, making things worse than they need to be.
Maybe you’re feeling hopeless. The health system and the economy are grinding to a halt, disrupting millions of lives. The problem is so big the human mind can’t comprehend it, and no single person can solve it. You may feel like there’s hardly anything you can do at all.
You’re probably bored. No matter how many projects you have planned that you can do at home, sooner or later you probably just want to go outside and do something else—anything else!
And maybe you feel guilty for being bored. You have no commute, no social events to attend—isn’t this the perfect time to be productive? And yet all you can bring yourself to do is watch escapist TV. Or browse social media, where you see memes shaming you for not getting enough done.
Your instinct might be to avoid dwelling on these feelings. But when you acknowledge and label your negative emotions, they get less intense. If you say, “I’m lonely,” that loneliness will start to feel less unbearable. It will lose some of its control over you.
What about positive emotions? Those might be in short supply right now, but there’s good reason to cultivate the silver linings you do find. Focusing on positive emotions helps you make meaning out of chaos. It helps you build resilience and cultivate a problem-solving mindset.
Marc Brackett, founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, calls this type of emotional awareness giving ourselves “Permission to Feel.”
So maybe you also feel grateful. Maybe you’re more aware than ever of what matters most to you. Maybe things you took for granted before are starting to feel like real blessings.
Maybe you feel inspired to help. Maybe you have volunteered time or money to help someone less fortunate than you, or cultivated solidarity with others who are struggling.
Maybe you feel vindicated. This pandemic has highlighted a lot of existing problems that weren’t getting the attention they deserved. Maybe you feel hopeful that this will be the catalyst for some real solutions.
Emotional awareness is a useful tool at any time. In a crisis, it can make the difference between being paralyzed by your emotions and harnessing them to move forward.