By Bailey Andersen, L.M.S.W.
If you are like me and the students I see for counseling appointments at Detroit Mercy Dental, you might be feeling a heavier dose of stress, anxiety, panic or fear these days. And as you reflect on what has been a year full of the unexpected, the unimaginable and, at times, the unbearable, you might notice another feeling—exhaustion.
That exhaustion might feel palpable to you and present in an acute, intense way. But it could also be muted. Perhaps it feels more like a numbness, like you are walking around in a hazy detachment. Or maybe you feel it in your mind and in your heart—for example, you are thinking more slowly, and are quicker to anger.
“Noticing your emotional state in a curious, non-judgmental way, is the heart of mindfulness…”
If any of this rings true for you, don’t worry. In fact, it is almost a good thing! It means our brains and bodies are responding to our environment the way they were built to respond. All those emotions I mentioned—stress, anxiety, panic, fear play an extremely important role in our lives. The presence of any of those emotions should trigger an alarm for your brain to notify you that something in your vicinity is off, and you may need to be prepared to take flight, put up a fight, or simply freeze.
In an everyday sense, the presence of these emotions can indicate that perhaps a change is needed in your personal or professional life. If we can effectively take in the data our emotions are signaling to our brains, then these emotions can actually be helpful to us in indicating that something is wrong.
Here is the problem though: For many of us, the source of our current stressors are not in our control. We can’t simply will away COVID-19 or heal the fractured discourse present in our political system. Our bodies have been telling us since at least March that something is very, very wrong, but what can we do? For many of us, the problems we face are simply too large, too broad and too complex to fix. So the emotions stay there, the alarm bells ring over and over until our bodies are simply worn out. Hence, the exhaustion in whatever form you are experiencing it.
The first step to feeling better is acknowledging how you feel now and why you feel that way. Noticing your emotional state in a curious, non-judgmental way, is the heart of mindfulness practice, an evidence-based strategy for calming overstimulated minds and bodies. This sounds easy, and it is! Take a moment at various times in your day to ask yourself “How am I feeling in this moment?” Note the answer, and accept it for what it is.
The second step is making space for three things, every day—nutrition, sleep and movement. Remember the alarm system? It takes a toll on our bodies every time it goes off. We treat eating, sleeping and moving as if they are negotiable, as if they are the things we can cut back on when time is of the essence. In reality, they are some of the few things in our lives that are non-negotiable. If you are feeling particularly exhausted or irritable, that is the first place you should look. When was the last time you ate something nutritious, moved your body in a way that felt good, or allowed yourself to rest?
The third step? Find the people you love, and tell them so. Use the various technological tools at our disposal to stay close to those you care about. The antidote to panic and fear? Love and connection. Offer up empathy to strangers, and words of affirmation and support to loved ones. We can’t control or fix all of the problems facing us right now, but we can focus on
getting through them together.