Feeling out of control and a sense of loss have become universal themes, whether it’s due to losing loved ones, getting sick, work and school going online or having weddings postponed or changed to a virtual setting.
Understanding these feelings, let alone processing them, can be daunting. But pushing them aside can lead to more trouble down the line.
There’s no need to process those emotions alone, says clinical psychologist Ronald Breazeale, a Portland, Maine-based member of the American Psychological Association’s Council of the Representatives.
With over 40 years’ experience helping patients get through difficult life situations like the death of a loved one, Breazeale shared advice on how to effectively process your feelings.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CNN: What is the first step to understanding your emotions?
Ronald Breazeale: Most people like to deny that they’re having any feelings: “Oh no, it’s not bothering me that much.” Acceptance is the first step toward doing anything about anything, emotionally or otherwise. You’ve got to recognize that you’ve got to accept it, rather than deny it.
Then you’re going to figure out how to deal with it and recognize what the emotions are that you’re having. With loss, ordinarily, it’s very simple for people to feel sadness. But they also often feel anger too, and it’s a mix of those emotions that sometimes vacillate back and forth when people are dealing with a loss.
Admit that you feel angry or you feel sadness or you feel confusion about how you should feel. Don’t say to yourself, “Well, you’re not dead with a pandemic so what are you complaining about? I shouldn’t be upset over this, this much.” Well, you are. Admitting that and recognizing that is really important.
CNN: For some, it can be difficult to express their emotions. How do they get past that?
Breazeale: Take some time with yourself. People are often so busy, or people often deal with a loss in their life by just throwing themselves into work or doing something else to distract themselves. We have a lot of good distractions in this society, and we can use them sometimes, that’s helpful, but we have fewer now. You can’t exactly go to the movies tonight or do a lot of the other things you would like to do.
Talk to someone that you feel like can be supportive of you and just listen. Because as you do that, you’ll become more aware that, I’m not just sad, but I’m also really angry and I’m hurt about all this and all the confusion about that. You don’t want someone who’s going to say, “Suck it up, it’s not the way it is.” Hopefully they’re going to let you express your feelings and get them out there.
CNN: Once someone has recognized their feelings, how do they work through them in a healthy way?
Breazeale: After admitting they’re there and recognizing what they are, figure out what you can do to express them. Talking them out is a good step in doing that. People can also write about them. Journaling is a good thing to be doing these days. Write about what’s going on in your life and how you’re feeling about what is going on today.
Also figure out some ways to vent some of the feelings, especially anger. Men in particular like to cover up their hurt or their sadness with anger.
Fear is behind so much of what people are feeling right now and the uncertainty of what is going to happen next. We need to figure out ways of discharging that as well. Think about what would help you to feel better. Anger is often like a cork in the bottle that keeps all the other emotions in and keeps them from coming out.
CNN: How often should people practice processing their emotions?
Breazeale: One of the things people need to recognize is that this is a continuing situation. You’re not going to do this one time and say “OK, I’m good. I’m not angry anymore, I’m not going to be angry anymore.” With this, you probably are, because this has been a continuing story, and more things are going to happen. So you’re going to have to go through this process more than one time.
The longer this is going on, the frustrations and reminders of the loss are going to continue. If you lost your job, that’s something you’re going to have to deal with for quite a while. And that’s true if you have friends or family who have died.
All of us have lost some freedom. Things that we enjoy like going to the movies or a favorite restaurant, we can’t do that right now.
CNN: How can individuals better equip themselves to handle the mental stresses of the pandemic?
Breazeale: People are going to have to get comfortable with a lack of control. We’re going to have to get comfortable with wearing a mask and doing other things we don’t especially like to do. Flexibility is going to be critical for people to get through this pandemic.
Dealing with strong emotions is another one of the skills we teach in resilience training. We’re talking about the resilience of the individual and being able to deal with adversity well in your life. A way of taking care of yourself is to be able to care for others and being able to take good care of yourself.
This is a time when everyone needs to be focused on their own welfare as well as the welfare of those folks around them. You can’t take care of other people unless you take care of yourself.
And realize that most situations are temporary, they’re not permanent.