Boston residents dance and sing along to, "Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud" as the James Brown song plays during a Coalition of Black Youth march from Nubian Square to Boston City Hall on June 10, 2020
Photo: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe/Getty Images
Coping For The Best: How To Manage Mental Health During Social Unrest & A Global Pandemic
For several weeks after the pandemic began, a friend of mine heard a neighbor play the song “We Are The World” each night at 7pm during the applause for essential workers. The song and sound of thunderous clapping filled the Harlem neighborhood and provided a certain sense of comfort and connection, even if for only for a few minutes. But what about the other 23-plus hours?
During these challenging times, it’s critical that we find spaces of joy, connection, rest and comfort. Not only are we living through a global pandemic that has affected nearly every aspect of life, but we are also engaged in the fight against grave inequality and racial injustice in America. Additionally, there are looming fears and buzzing anxieties about reopening the economy — and let’s not forget, we’re in an election year, too. To say, it’s a lot is an understatement. During these unpredictable and heavy times, taking care of your mental health isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity.
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” - Audre Lorde
Managing your mental health is vital to your overall health and well-being. During these times when our lives have been turned upside down and every news headline is bordering on traumatic, it’s important to rest and recover.
If you’re like me, you might find yourself more fatigued than normal. You can’t produce at the capacity you once did. Doing the smallest tasks can seem like a chore.
In our culture that worships the art of the hustle, it’s easy to internalize this and feel bad. But if there was ever a time to cut yourself some slack, it's now. Here is your permission slip. When you’re hungry, you eat. When you’re thirsty, you drink. So why not rest when you’re tired?
"Give yourself permission to rest," says Licensed Master Social Worker Lindsay Bryan-Podvin. Resting can look different for people, so check in and evaluate what activities restore your energy.
"To truly show up for this revolution, you need to do it rested. Yin yoga, stretching, napping, reading, watching mindless TV, and sleeping are some great ways to restore yourself," notes Bryan-Podvin.
As the adage goes, "You can’t pour from an empty cup." It sounds trite, but it’s true.
“The fastest way to still the mind is to move the body.” — Gabrielle Roth
Your mind and body are interconnected. To manage your mental health, you also need to manage your physical health. Yes, that means that you should exercise.
If you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed, fatigue may make it difficult. If you’re like me and you suffer from depression, simply leaving the bed can be a feat.
However, moving your body, even just a little can help. Start with stretching.
"Practice getting energy out of your body. With all of the uncertainty happening, we tend to store the anxiety and tension in our bodies,” says Bryan-Podvin. “Research shows that we store trauma, specifically, in our hips. Make sure you are engaging in some sort of physical activity to dial down cortisol, get some endorphins flowing, and don't forget to stretch out afterward to keep that trauma from sticking around.”
You can check out these 15 hip stretches to get started. If you can do a bit more, commit to just seven minutes. That’s what I’ve been doing when I feel like exercising is a chore and something I can’t manage.
I commit to doing the signature seven-minute workout, which uses high-intensity interval training (HIIT). The exercises are 30 seconds, with a 10-second break. I know that I can invest, at a minimum, seven minutes a day to move my body.
Walking around your neighborhood (with a mask, of course) is also a good way to keep your body moving. Research has shown that a brisk 10-minute walk or meditation has a positive impact on your mood.
You can also take advantage of the many online exercise classes and do something like yoga or dance. Finding something you enjoy is paramount so that you can try and stay consistent.
Use music as your guide to get moving. Put on a playlist that inspires you to workout or one that you can’t help but dance to.
Like many people, I often lament about “needing to exercise”. It feels like an afterthought or something getting in the way. But I do know that I’ve never felt worse after a workout or regretted doing it.
Something I like to do is rate my mood before the workout and after it. I rate on a 1 to 10 scale. One is the lowest mood and 10 is feeling pretty good and five is just average. After doing a workout, I typically see my mood improve by a few points. Doing this helps me realize that exercise is helping. It reminds me to move my body in some way because I will feel better.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”― Viktor E. Frankl
One of the hardest parts to deal with right now is a lack of control. All of our plans went out of the window and circumstances changed overnight because of the pandemic — and for many people, for the worse. It’s disheartening.
And not having control over the pandemic, reopening, whether people wear masks or not, racial injustice, etc. only adds to the worry.
Finding peace, though, requires focusing on what you can actually control, not the things you can’t. “In times of high stress, it's helpful to take a step back and determine what things we can and can't control, both in the short-run and in the long-run. If you can't control it, worrying about things we can't control can lead to unnecessary stress,” explains financial therapist Derek Hagen.
“Life seems to go on without effort when I am filled with music.” – George Eliot
Music can also play a role in managing your mental health. You can find the perfect song to match your current mood or engineer your playlist to get out of a funk and feel better.
"As a singer-songwriter, music is life to me. Listening to the music of other artists and creating my own helps me to process my emotions, and experiences, especially the painful ones. Without a doubt music plays an integral role in my mental wellness," says singer, Kassandra Dasent.
This works well for me. As I was dealing with my own emotions related to the pandemic, I identified three songs that helped my mental health and played them on repeat. It was like a sonic cocoon, keeping me safe.
Music has the power to make you feel less alone. It can boost your mood and make you dance. It can also move you to tears. To maintain your mental health, identify one song that you can’t help but feel good every time you listen to it. Like this one.
"Crying is how your heart speaks, when your lips can't explain the pain you feel." — Unknown Author
It’s natural that we experience a lot of feelings and emotions given everything going on. But if you keep those feelings inside and don’t have an outlet for release, it can deteriorate your mental health.
You can journal out your feelings or call your best friend. Find online communities to connect with. But sometimes you just need to cry it out. Crying gets a bad rap, but everyone can benefit from crying. Crying actually releases feel-good endorphins and can improve your mood, while lessening the pain.
When managing your mental health amongst all the chaos, think about the things that make you feel good. Ask yourself what you really need, right now. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help, either. You can reach a crisis counselor by texting HOME to 741741 or find a therapist using OpenPathCollective.org.
To help ground you when anxiety spikes, focus on gratitude.
“Gratitude is important. When nothing seems to be going your way, try to find a way to pause and think about all the things in your life for which you are grateful... our brains have a negativity bias so it's important to counter our natural negative thoughts with the good that's all around us,” explains Hagen.
And finally, remember to try and stop dwelling on the things we no longer have (though it’s not easy!). Instead, focus on all the things we still do have and what kind of life you want to create moving forward. Remind yourself you are safe and healthy in this moment.