In This Together During "Mixed-Up" Times

The holiday season is a time for people to come together, take time off, and recharge. Unfortunately it can also be a time of conflict, busyness, and stress. During "mixed-up" times like the COVID-19 pandemic, people have a greater need of the former — but a greater chance of the latter. James Anderson, PhD, offers this reminder that in difficult times like these, everyone benefits from self-care and being patient and understanding with others.

In This Together

As we move through our brief time on earth, we experience a broad range of emotions — joy, sorrow, anger, excitement, and anxiety, among others. Occasionally, we are enveloped by a single, strong emotion; more often, we experience multiple emotions at once. "Daddy," says my nearly five-year-old daughter when she recognizes this strange collage of emotion, "I am feeling mixed-up."

We live in mixed-up times.

As fall continues, we grapple with the weighty challenges of this persistent pandemic. This strange period has offered some of us positive things: renewed closeness within our households, and new ways of connecting with loved ones from afar (hello, "ZOOM!"). However, for most of us, these slivers of good are mixed-up in unpleasant feelings — financial stress, loneliness, health concerns for ourselves and those we love, and many more.

Many of us hoped safe and effective vaccines would bring decreased death rates, fewer hospitalizations, and a return to normal. Instead, people's feelings about the vaccine have been a new sort of "mixed-up." Science and public health have become entwined in politics. Some people are more scared of the vaccine than they are of COVID-19. Some people resent being mandated to put something into their bodies. Some people feel angry at others for not taking a vaccine that science is telling us is safe, effective, and our best path out of the pandemic.

Many parents are anxious about sending their children back to school. Some worry that COVID-19 mitigation protocols will be detrimental to their children's social and academic development; others worry that the protocols aren't enough to protect their children from illness, hospitalization, or even death. Meanwhile, some of us are grieving the loss of loved ones, whether they're victims of COVID-19 or other causes.

As a psychologist, but even more so as a neighbor, colleague, relative, and friend, I wish that there was a bit of advice, an exercise, a therapy, or a medicine that I could offer to take away the emotional pain this pandemic has wrought on each of us and our community. The best I can do, though, is suggest some tools to help to soothe the pain and find perspective:

  1. Find time for yourself. Whether that time is for physical exercise, meditation, time in nature, listening to music, or something else, value yourself enough to consistently keep up the activities that revive you.
  2. Assume people have good intentions. Even when people take a position that is very different from your own, remember that most of us want the same things. We want to be safe. We want to be free. We want to be secure. We want the best for our children. When somebody argues against the vaccine, they almost certainly do care about their neighbors and their children — they believe the vaccine is not safe or sufficiently studied. When somebody argues for the vaccine, they almost certainly do value freedom — they ardently wish to restore our freedom to move and operate without risk of serious disease. Assuming good intentions does not mean adopting another's position. Rather, it means momentarily standing in someone else's shoes and understanding their perspective. You can believe someone is wrong without thinking they are a bad person.
  3. Cut people some slack (including yourself). We are all very stressed and have been for over 18 months. Stress affects how we interact with others. Perhaps a coworker snapped at you. Perhaps an employee made a mistake. Perhaps some days you can't engage your kids with the same level of energy you normally would. Nobody looks great if they are judged on their worst days or worst moments, and we are all trudging through some of our worst days and moments.
  4. Reach out for whatever help you need. While all of us experience times of sadness and stress, some of us experience a different level of emotional challenges indicative of mental illness. If you receive treatment for a challenge like depression, anxiety, or a problem with drugs, please continue to follow your treatment regimen. Remain in contact with your treating clinician so that together you can determine if changes are needed. If you are struggling to get out of bed on multiple days, having persistent negative thoughts about yourself, struggling to regulate your use of alcohol or other drugs, having panic attacks, or having thoughts of suicide, please seek help. Options include your primary care practitioner, Bassett Healthcare Network's outpatient Psychiatry clinic, your county mental health clinic, and countless others. 24/7 free phone support is available by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or texting GOT5 to 741741.

Remember: we're all in this together. Be kind to one another. This, too, shall pass.

James B. Anderson, PhD, is a practicing psychologist and the medical director of Behavioral Health & Integrated Services at Bassett Healthcare Network.