If you’re like most people, there seems to be a general consensus that the world’s events have, “taken a turn for the worse.” At every turn, it seems that there is a never-ending onslaught of negative news, from various crimes, to racism, natural disasters, and now, an unprecedented global pandemic. It can be difficult to know what you should focus on, what to care about, and where to allocate your time and energy. If you care about pollution, can you also care about children receiving an adequate education? Is it possible to be invested in equality for all and be an animal aficionado? Does caring about one relevant cause take away from potential work in another cause? The choices can appear to be maddening at times and can lead to compassion fatigue, ambivalence, or apathy towards any cause.
The world’s current climate and events in addition to months of uprooted routines and isolation during the pandemic have caused unprecedented rates of mental health difficulties. Many agencies and mental health providers are witnessing a surge in new cases and regressions in existing mental health cases. Studies indicate that COVID-19 is associated with increased anxiety, depression, and insomnia, as well as an increased fear of contagion in general. Research also indicates that health care professionals, including behavioral health specialists, are distressed and thinly stretched (Sher, 2020).
In addition to mental ambivalence regarding global betterment and strain in an era of rising mental health concerns, we often stumble upon well-meaning “toxic positivity” posts. Toxic positivity, as defined by The Psychology Group, is, “the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations, resulting in the minimization and invalidation of authentic human emotional experience.” Think about a time when you have felt anxious or upset about something. Perhaps you have shared your fears and concerns with a well meaning friend or family member only to be met with, “don’t be so negative! Think positively and all will be well.” This is an example of toxic positivity.
Although positive thinking is powerful and is a large component of many behavioral health treatment modalities, allowing negative feelings and fears to be validated and processed is just as important. I will often tell clients that one of the initial things they can do when they find themselves experiencing negative emotions are to check in with themselves about the feeling. I then ask them to acknowledge the negative emotion and attempt to assess where the feeling stems from. Have they had a particularly stressful day or is a negative experience from a while ago lingering and causing residual negative emotion? After the acknowledgement and validation of a negative feeling, it is then appropriate and helpful to challenge the negative thoughts or find ways to reframe them.
So what can be done in an era of a million causes where emotional restriction seems like the safest option? The first step is to prioritize self-preservation over all other causes. In order to work on self-betterment in addition to caring about global causes, active work must be done to ensure that your own mental health is secure. Self-preservation may mean not having the news on or constantly tracking the pandemic numbers. The saying, “you can’t pour from an empty cup,” is applicable here. Setting clear boundaries for helping, making time for self-care, and still being aware of global events are not mutually exclusive; it is acceptable and, even crucial, to take a step back. Additionally, in a time where social isolation is at its peak, utilizing virtual resources and support groups can be particularly helpful.
Sher, L. (2020). The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on suicide rates. QJM: An International Journal of Medicine, 1–3. https://doi.org/10.1093/qjmed/hcaa202
About the Author:
Suma Hiremath is a Licensed Certified Social Worker who has worked in a number of clinical settings including community wraparound work with adolescents and families, crisis work, school systems, and individual outpatient therapy with clients of all ages. She has experience addressing issues related to anxiety, depression, self-harm, ADHD, trauma, self-esteem, and women's health.
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