As we go about protecting ourselves from the Coronavirus — or the invisible monster — as some have called it, I can’t help but think about the other invisible monster we face: a mental health crisis of tremendous degree and complexity. It’s one we don’t hear as much about on the news, but indeed, it’s reached pandemic proportions.

We are biologically wired for connection and touch. A newborn baby can’t survive without being held and nurtured and loved and seen. We innately not only desire it; we need it to survive. Attachment theorists who studied infants have given us conclusive evidence that the need for emotional safety, connection, and human touch are vital for optimal brain development and a healthy nervous system response to stress. Facial gestures are key components in all of that. Non-verbal communication gives us clues to emotional safety with other people. Wearing a mask creates a barrier to that.

There has been an 891% increase in calls to the National Mental Health Hotline since the pandemic started. Depression, anxiety, addiction, PTSD, domestic violence, abuse, and neglect are rapidly increasing as we social distance and live in fear of the Coronavirus and all the resulting lifestyle upsets that have ensued. This neglected mental health monster existed long before COVID19… however, much like the invisible Coronavirus, emotional distress lives in an invisible realm behind one’s closed doors. 

The stigma around mental health has increased the spread of that invisible monster for way too long. And it is deadly. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. The CDC reported 48,344 suicides in 2018 up from 47,173 in 2017. (Overall the numbers have increased 35% since 1999.) Yet the National Institute of Health spent a significantly lower amount of money on suicide prevention in 2018 than on breast cancer. As of May 13th, 2020 there have been 83,953 deaths from COVID19 in the US. 

Clearly, the Coronavirus is extremely concerning and needs to be addressed, but let’s not forget the pandemic of mental illness that is also occurring at this time.

Prior to the pandemic pause, routines and distractions kept many people from clearly identifying mental health problems. Addiction, over-working, sleepless nights, financial pressures, and other stressors were mounting with no imminent solution for many. Despair, uncertainty, hopelessness, anxiety, and depression have been part of our hectic lifestyles forever. But the pause button on these distractions is now putting our mental health under the microscope. 

Today, there is much talk about the unfortunate shortage of PPEs (Personal Protective Equipment) in healthcare settings. Face masks are a part of what healthcare providers need to protect themselves and each other from contracting the virus. All of us can benefit from wearing masks and social distancing to help slow the spread. However, as I looked at all the masks that are now being offered everywhere and thought about all the visible signs of protecting ourselves, I couldn’t help but wonder how we can protect ourselves from the invisible impact this is having on our mental health. 

What came to me was the idea of PPEEs (Personal Protective EMOTIONAL Equipment.) Four PPEEs that will protect your emotional wellness during this pandemic are Practicing Presence, Playfulness, Excavating Emotions, and Expressing Emotions. Here are some suggestions for ways you can access each of these PPEEs for emotional safety…

Practicing Presence — 

Practice presence by taking a deep breath and reminding yourself to be in the moment, suspending judgment. This is difficult because our brains are wired to solve problems, and when faced with a situation that seems unsolvable it is hard to stop the mind chatter. One tool I suggest is The Fantastic Five. Pay attention to what around you is safe in the moment, so that the body can find some stability. List five things that feel safe and pay attention to them throughout the day when you are in fear. Daily meditation and mindfulness practices are also important every day. We need daily repetition to change old patterns to reduce stress and anxiety.

Playfulness — 

Brain research has discovered how important play is to emotional safety. When we are playful, we can’t be in fear. Look at toddlers when they are playing and when they are scared. Play and fear can’t exist together. Play allows the body to feel safe and helps rewire the brain and nervous system. Find some time each day to relax, laugh, and play. It is good medicine. Even if you feel there is nothing fun happening, challenge yourself to find at least a few minutes of playful presence.

Excavating Emotions — 

Part of the mental health crisis in our country today is the lack of skills to access our emotions. Prior to the 20th century there was a belief that uncomfortable emotions were bad and needed to be shut down. “Stop crying before I give you something to cry about” is a classic example of this belief system. We have to excavate our feelings, similar to an archeologist digging for artifacts of earlier life. One way I suggest you do this is by taking a deep-SEA dive into the hidden treasure of emotions. There are three parts to your deep-SEA dive: The Situation, The Emotion, and The Awe-Inspiring Action. When you are feeling stressed, write down the Situation in a few sentences using observable, countable, and repeatable language. Then look at a feeling word list to identify the Emotions you are feeling. Try to find words besides angry, frustrated, or sad. Although these are certainly appropriate, there are usually deeper feelings underneath, such as attacked, unloved, abandoned, and unappreciated. Finally, think of what might have felt better instead, and what you truly desire. This is your Awe-Inspired Action. The most important part of this exercise is to allow yourself to see the SEA of your emotional treasures.

Expressing Emotions — 

Find a safe way to express the emotions that you excavated in your deep-SEA dive using activities such as journaling, creative arts, singing, dancing, yoga, exercise, talking to a therapist or coach, and then, if you are comfortable, share your findings with another person. Give yourself permission to feel what you feel, and allow the emotions (Energy in motion) to move out of your body with some form of expression that does not harm yourself or anyone else.

Using one or more of these PPEEs to protect you from the invisible monster can help you stay emotionally well during this pandemic. We are all in it together, and we will get through it. Stay safe and know you are loved. You are doing the best you can.

Dr. Patti Ashley, PH.D., LPC. is a Psychotherapist, Speaker, Authenticity Architect, and author of Letters to Freedom.

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