Navigating life’s ups and downs can be tough. But there are ways to strengthen your mental fitness and build the emotional resilience to deal with whatever life throws at you.
The human psyche is complicated and complex. And, for most people, the pandemic has been an ongoing test of mental and emotional fortitude. At the start, our lives as we knew them were upended. People had to safeguard themselves and others against the virus, refrain from seeing loved ones — and mourn the loss of others — limit trips outside the home and, for those who could, bid farewell to an office environment, among many other things.
Fast forward more than a year and a half later — and many of us are still taking some of these same precautions, with a few exceptions. Now that vaccines are widely available, more people feel safe venturing outside their home and gathering in groups. Others who began working from home during the pandemic have returned to the office or are preparing to in the near future.
But as we begin to re-adopt our pre-pandemic routines, it’s possible these changes are impacting our emotional and mental well-being in new ways — especially as health protocols continue to shift to address new variants of the virus.
To understand this better, we spoke to Dr. Emily Anhalt, a clinical psychologist and co-founder of Coa, an online gym for mental health that prioritizes people’s emotional lives as a vital part of wellness. We chatted with Anhalt about common mental challenges people may battle at this stage in the pandemic, why humans have a tough time with change, tactics for dealing with social anxiety, and more. Here’s what we learned.
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SG: What is emotional fitness?
Dr. Anhalt: Emotional fitness is the ongoing, proactive practice of taking care of your mental health. Think about it less like going to the doctor and more like going to the gym. Being emotionally fit goes beyond just practicing the basics — it means exercising your self-awareness, empathy, curiosity, mindfulness, playfulness, resilience, and communication skills. At Coa, we answer the question: What is an emotional pushup? And how do I do them every day?
Emotional fitness strategies are not a replacement for clinical care, and we always suggest that folks connect with a licensed therapist if they’re struggling and need more support. But weaving mental healthcare into our daily lives will strengthen our mental health and prevent mental health issues down the line.
SG: Right now, people are still navigating a lot of uncertainty. What are some common emotional challenges you see people battling at this point in time?
Dr. Anhalt: As a species, human beings are remarkably good at dealing with most things — but we are not good at dealing with uncertainty. There’s something about not knowing that feels deeply intolerable to most people. This uncertainty can fuel the feelings of anxiety, depression, and burnout that we’re hearing a lot about lately — and can also lead to people making drastic changes in an attempt to regain a feeling of control.
In the U.S. alone, more than 4 million people quit their jobs in April. We called it “The Great Resignation.” But not all of those people were leaving bad jobs. Many were likely looking for external ways to take control of their lives amid the pandemic, and they may find themselves equally unhappy a few months down the line. This is why self-awareness and self-exploration are so important.
SG: At the start of the pandemic, experts talked a lot about the grief people experienced as they navigated quarantine and social distancing. What could people expect to feel as the world continues navigating the ups and downs of Covid-19?
Dr. Anhalt: Well — that’s tricky, right? We love to try to expect or predict our emotions, or what will happen with this pandemic, but it’s impossible to predict the future. You’re absolutely right that there will be more ups and downs, so the question becomes, “How do we build resilience that allows us to adapt and be flexible when planning for a future that feels so tenuous?”
The best advice I have for people is to start with letting yourself fully feel what’s going on right now so you can process it healthily. We all experience grief, loss of control, and anxiety. How is yours expressed? By listening to your emotions, and understanding them as information from your body, you can approach them with curiosity and hopefully learn how to honor them in healthy, emotionally fit ways. This leaves you better equipped to manage difficult emotions when they come up in the future — and that is the root of resilience.
SG: Many people had a hard time adjusting to working at home full time (though this was certainly a privilege for those with the option). Now that some people are returning to an office, can they expect a new kind of emotional or mental adjustment period?
Dr. Anhalt: Definitely. We all have different boundaries and levels of anxiety around Covid. Some folks may feel safe as long as they’re following guidelines. Others may remain anxious about sharing physical space with other people again, particularly as Delta leaves us with more uncertainty.
I think it’s good advice to go into the office with a healthy approach to boundaries. Know how to respect and communicate your own, and be willing to listen to and respect others’ boundaries. And also be patient with yourself — we’re all kind of learning to walk again, and it will take time to get used to a new and ever-shifting normal.
SG: Have you seen an increase in social anxiety among those who are re-entering offices full-time?
Dr. Anhalt: Yes, I have, as we’re so used to being in our own small bubble right now. Here are a few tips for managing those anxieties:
- Take your time! It’s completely fine if you’re not ready to go back to crowded concerts or indoor gatherings.
- Explore and communicate your boundaries so you know that you and your social circle are on the same page.
- Know that everyone else is also feeling confusion, anxiety, and uncertainty. You’re not alone there, and it’s okay to name what you’re feeling.
- Have some self-compassion — you’re doing the best you can, and it’s perfectly okay if you need some time to regain comfort in social situations.
- Focus on what you can control. Breathe through what you can’t.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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