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Harvard Health Blog
Easing stress and seeking normalcy in traumatic times
- By Kelly Bilodeau, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch
For most Americans, 2020 has already been a rough year — and it’s not even half over. A pandemic, natural disasters, economic decline, and, for many, the loss of a job have taken a toll on their mental health.
“Stress is particularly acute when you’re experiencing a situation that is outside of your control,” says Dr. Kerry Ressler, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “You may feel stuck, frozen, or helpless.” After a traumatic period, even when things settle down, it can be difficult to move on and regain a sense of normalcy.
Reducing stress and regaining your footing
So, how can you reduce your stress and regain your footing after going through a bad time, whether that’s the result of a large-scale national emergency or even just a personal patch of bad luck?
Step back. When traumatic events are occurring, whether it’s a natural disaster, pandemic, or mass shooting, you need to stay abreast of the news, but at the same time avoid retraumatizing yourself by becoming immersed in round-the-clock coverage, says Dr. Ressler. Limit the time you spend in front of screens or reading about the events of the day. The goal is to stay informed without increasing your anxiety level. Turn off the notifications on your phone, and be particularly wary of spending too much time on social media. “People have the tendency to amplify each other’s panic,” says Dr. Ressler. “Instead, limit your exposure to checking in on the news a couple of times a day, and then turn it off. Listen to an unrelated podcast, or go for a run.”
Take action. “What we do know from research is that one of the biggest precipitators of anxiety is a feeling of helplessness, when everything seems out of your control,” says Dr. Ressler. To take back some control, get involved in activities that can help others or address the situation. Volunteer, or help with food drives. Even helping a friend or a neighbor with a problem can make you feel like you are in an active, not passive, role in the face of uncertainty. Taking on a hobby or self-improvement project can also help you move forward. If you lose your job, use some of the unexpected time to take a class or learn a new skill you’ve always wanted to master. For example, there are a lot of great apps you can use to learn a new language.
Reach out. Social connections are crucial in difficult situations. If you can’t see people in person, then connect with apps and technology, such as videoconferencing or even a simple phone call.
Get rose-colored glasses. While advice to look on the bright side in the face of hard times may seem trite and unhelpful, don’t scoff. Evidence shows that positive thinking and having the ability to reframe a situation in more positive terms can help people become more resilient in the face of problems, says Dr. Ressler. Look for silver linings whenever you can. A job loss, for example, may lead to new opportunities.
Be patient. Moving on from a traumatic event takes time. Give yourself permission to grieve. Grief doesn’t just occur when you experience a death; rather, people experience grief in many situations, says Dr. Ressler. This may include the loss of an opportunity or missing out on something you were looking forward to doing. Allow yourself time to grieve, but eventually try to ready yourself to move past it. “You can get into the habit of grief,” says Dr. Ressler. So, set small goals. Use behavioral rewards, and strategies such as deep breathing, mindfulness, aromatherapy, and physical activity to reduce your anxiety and start pushing yourself to move forward.
Seek help for depression
Get help. Make sure that sadness and stress don’t cross over into depression. “The symptoms of depression overlap with normal symptoms of stress and grief,” says Dr. Ressler. But if you start to experience significant alterations in appetite, energy, or motivation, or if you begin to get sad or tearful without knowing why — and these symptoms last for more than a week or two — these may be warning signs that you are experiencing depression and need to seek medical help.
“If you have a period of sadness that goes on for more than a couple of weeks and it’s really getting in the way of you moving on or functioning at work or home, it may be wise to reach out,” says Dr. Ressler.
Call your doctor, or healthcare plan, to learn about options. Additionally, in the US, the Disaster Distress Helpline (800-985-5990, or text “TalkWithUs” to 66746) offers emotional support and resources to people struggling in the wake of disaster, and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (800-273-8255) offers free support for people who are in emotional distress or a suicidal crisis.
About the Author
Kelly Bilodeau, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch
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No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
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