It was the tail end of a long day of small, stupid things that in normal times would have been tiny grains of sand to knock out of my shoe. But on that day, another pandemic day in a long string of pandemic days, those small, gritty things — the dog wanted too much attention, work was causing stress, the neighbor’s kid was outside, screaming, again — became boulders.
But I set those things aside, I thought, and got ready to do a tele-seminar for a few hundred strangers.
And then my recycling blew down the street.
“I can’t take it anymore!” I shouted from the middle of the road while chasing boxes and newspapers.
It’s not uncommon for the small to become the insurmountable right now. “There’s a lot more coming at us and fewer ways to discharge it than ever,” said Seth J. Gillihan, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of “A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life.” “A lot of us are taking on more than we can really process in real time and more than our nervous systems can digest.”
Your nervous system is in overload, so it’s no wonder you don’t know what you’re feeling anymore. This is called “experiential blindness,” said Lisa Feldman Barrett, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Northeastern University and author of “How Emotions are Made.”
Essentially, our brain takes cues from what our body is doing at any moment. If our heart rate goes up, the brain parses info about whether we’re running from a lion or merely walking up the stairs. From there, the brain reacts — often in the form of emotions. However, we rely on our memories to tell us that indeed, this is the drab flight of stairs to our walk-up. Most of us, however, have never been through a global pandemic. There are no previous memories for our brain to draw on.
Hence, my shouting in the middle of the street about a crushed beer can blowing in the wind.
Remember, however, that you don’t have to stay in that awful place for good. You can rebound. Here’s how.
Find a way to connect
“Humans need to be around other people, we’re social creatures,” said Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman, an urban anthropologist and an adjunct professor at Drexel University. Ms. Johnston-Zimmerman studies behavior in public spaces and says that even micro-interactions — like watching a rat pull a piece of pizza down the street with two strangers — enrich our lives. Most of us feel starved for that contact right now. Call a friend, do a video chat, or even just sit on your fire escape and wave at the person in the next building over.
But skip the punching bag or scream session
Venting your anger may actually make you feel worse, said Lennis Echterling, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at James Madison University. “Merely venting negative emotions by screaming or yelling does not have any health benefits,” he said, and the research on the topic seems to point away from venting diminishing our rage in any tangible way.
Find what you’re thankful for
A lot of things in the world are bad right now, but figuring out what you’re thankful for can help you bounce back.
Expressing gratitude for the people or things in our lives “can help us feel more connected and inspired to help others,” said Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., professor and vice chair of psychology at the University of California, Riverside and author of “The How of Happiness.” It can also lift you out of whatever sent you into a spiral. It “takes attention off you and directs it onto someone or something else,” she said.
The gratitude could be for small things, like getting a bag of coffee beans from your favorite roaster, or big things, like being safe and secure in your home.
You can express this gratitude by telling another person what you’re thankful for (about them or not) or by writing it down privately. However, gratitude needs to come from you. Don’t ask for it from someone else; just like telling someone to calm down inspires the reverse, telling someone why they should be thankful is most likely to inspire ire, not thanks.
For example, if you’re mad at your kids and someone tells you that you should be thankful for them, “in that moment, I’m thinking, I know that I’m grateful for my kids, don’t tell me what to be grateful for,” said Dr. Lyubomirsky. And if this is the thing that sets you off, well, take a breath and start over again.
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