Why do I feel this way? I feel like an emotional pinball!

One of my clients shared the following story: “After two weeks without leaving my apartment, I decided to go out to buy some groceries. At first, I was wary and concerned about being exposed to the coronavirus. Then, at the store, I immediately became anxious. I was told I had to do all sorts of things: wear a mask, don’t bring my reusable bags, wait in line to enter the store, wipe down the grocery cart, follow arrows on the floor, stand on the X’s at the check-out, and social distance in the parking lot. All of this made me feel totally frazzled. And while I was in the store, I felt like people were looking at me as if I were radio-active by carrying the damn virus.”

She continued, “In a store full of people, I felt lonely and isolated. Having watched so much news, I was afraid to touch anything for fear it might have the coronavirus. I had a grocery list, but item after item was out of stock. I accepted that toilet paper was not to be found, but this time I could not find chicken, eggs, berries, flour, yeast, cheese, and several other items … not even cashew milk! Who the hell needs so much cashew milk that it would be sold out?! I felt resentment at the store and at whoever it was I imagined was hoarding my cashew milk.

“I felt angry that the store cannot keep these products stocked. I also felt angry that we have to be locked down because of this stupid virus. I was willing to face my anxiety to go shopping, but what use is it when I can’t get what I need. I felt drained, frustrated, angry, still anxious, and also a sense of loss of everything familiar.

“So, I drove to another grocery store. And again, I wore my mask, waited in line, and all the rest. And again, I couldn’t find many of the items I needed. By then, I was feeling a sense of sadness and hopelessness that overwhelmed me. How long will this last?”

Like so many people living through the pandemic and the lockdown, from moment to moment we are feeling like the ball in a pinball machine bouncing from emotion to emotion: anger, frustration, resentment, anxiety, loneliness, sadness, and hopelessness. And sometimes feeling overwhelmed by it all.

Does this sound like you?

What the client described in her story is an intense amount of stress caused by an extreme demand for change from her daily routine.

Change that exceeds our ability to adapt causes stress. We respond to stress using coping methods. Resilience is how well and how long we are able to cope with stress. We all have a reserve of resilience, like a well full of water, that enables us to cope with change, stress, and emotional demands over time. However, when the rate of change becomes too rapid or the demands exceed our abilities, resilience is diminished and our ability to cope decreases. This, in turn, makes us vulnerable to increased emotionality. We experience a game of emotional pinball bouncing from one emotion to the next.

The pandemic will continue for some time. But we don’t know how long. We do know, however, that every day the rules dictating our lives will change. In fact, the rate of change, and the resulting stress, will increase as each city and state experiments with ways to relax the lockdown.

How can we survive the game of emotional pinball?

Suggestions to build resilience and coping to regulate emotions:

  1. Respect your feelings. “Feel the feels.” Be aware of your feelings. When you have a feeling allow yourself to feel it.
  2. Do not avoid your feelings. Know that emotions are waves of electrical energy going across your brain. They will end, and the feelings will pass. You will not be swallowed up by your feelings.
  3. Express your feelings and maintain your social network. Expression validates your feelings, confirms that you are not alone and others are experiencing similar feelings, provides context and perspective for what you are feeling, and allows others to share coping suggestions.
    • Reach out and talk to friends and family; best to use video so you can see their faces.
    • Talk to yourself, even out loud. Talk to yourself in the mirror, in the shower, in your car.
    • Journal about what is going on in your life (events). Next, write out your thoughts and feelings. Finally, write out what you believe is causing them (for example, your interpretations and assumptions of the events).
    • Talk to your clergy, deacon, rabbi, pastor, priest, or imam.
    • Find a counselor or therapist with whom you feel comfortable and supported.
  4. Practice self-soothing:
    • Slow, deep breathing
    • Speak to yourself in a gentle, compassionate voice (as though you are calming a young child.
    • Mindful meditation
  5. Remove yourself from stressors:
    • Start by scheduling short periods of calm and quiet, then increase them.
    • Distract your mind with music, yoga, books, movies.
  6. Maintain a healthy lifestyle:
    • Routine sleep schedule with a set bed time and wake-up time
    • Daily exercise
    • Healthy diet

Working with a Therapist

If you’ve decided to seek help from a therapist, make the most out of technology. I encourage the following:

  • Hold sessions using remote video teletherapy: Zoom, Skype, FaceTime and other applications are options to connect to your therapist while sheltering-in-place. Find a quiet space away from others where you can speak openly.
  • Between sessions, use an electronic journal application with HIPAA-compliant messaging. A journal application should use tags (brief terms for labeling journal entries) to enable you to label your critical thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and coping strategies so you can quickly locate the entries you want to share with your therapist.
  • Track your mood and anxiety levels on a regular and scheduled basis. I do this with my clients using CaseKeepers:  www.CaseKeepers.com. It enables me to setup pop-up questions that appear on their desktop or mobile device daily to check on their mood or anxiety level. Responses are saved and graphed for your review.
  • During session time, review the journal entries and your daily mood and anxiety levels with your therapist. This allows you and your therapist to address and reduce triggering events and build coping skills that will improve your ability to regulate your emotions

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