There are moments in time that take our breath away. We ponder what we believe. We question why things happen. We wonder if a situation will resolve and whether or not we will have the strength to persist.
The year 2020 has been full of those moments. We hear news of tragedies and dissension. We are surrounded by an invisible pandemic that has caused personal, social and economic distress. We watch the news and our mind goes to our most basic emotions of fear and panic. Through it all, each of us searches for our own, unique way of coping.
Coping skills are shaped by many things: our upbringing, our culture, our genetics, our support system, the media and the context of our time in history.
With so many emotional events and decisions to be made, our coping skills are challenged. Am I safe? Is my family safe? Do I send the children to school? Do I visit my aging parents? And on and on.
During these challenging times, the majority of people may experience sadness, loneliness and fear, but with a number of reliable coping strategies, we realize that the stressors are trying, but not life threatening. We realize we must work to comfort ourselves and others.
How do you handle such angst? You may talk with family and friends to support each other. You may eat healthy foods to give your body energy. You may exercise in creative ways such as online classes that fit your physical abilities. You may walk outside and breathe fresh air. You may seek advice from a counselor or spiritual leader. You may learn relaxation breathing. You may remind yourself of key words to change your attitude such as, “I can only control what I can control.”
Whether a person is emotionally healthy or has mental health issues, predicting how a person will react to ongoing angst is difficult. To understand this, imagine a balance sheet. On one side there are mental health assets. On the other side are mental health liabilities. When we become concerned about a person’s well-being, mental health professionals look at this balance sheet to understand risk and decide what types of treatment are needed.
It may be helpful for you to use this approach as well. Think about your own balance sheet. Ask yourself, what are my assets? For example: I am caring for my mind, body and spirit. I am seeking the help I need. I am surrounded by supportive people. On the other hand, what are my liabilities? For instance: I blow things out of proportion. I give myself negative messages. I let unrealistic fear control me.
Once you have an assessment of your assets and liabilities, you can set specific goals and develop techniques to use your assets and deplete your liabilities. You may decide to nurture yourself with positive thinking and relaxation skills. You may call a friend to share your fears so that you are not alone. You may seek the support of a professional.
For those with mental health issues, the stress that we are all experiencing may become even more daunting. A history of issues such as depression, bipolar disorder or psychosis (paranoia and/or hearing voices) may challenge fragile coping skills. A relationship ending, job loss, death of a loved one, struggles with drug or alcohol use, or financial difficulties can result in a crisis. In rare, but extreme cases, such as the recent experience in our community, when a distraught father killed his children, his wife and himself, suicide or murder–suicide can occur.
The many challenges of 2020 have made so many of us feel unsafe, afraid and alone. The human spirit is both amazingly strong and uncomfortably vulnerable. It is normal to feel overwhelmed by challenging times. It is human to wonder how we will make it through.
Perhaps it is time for each of us to look at our own balance sheet and consider what, if anything, you need to do to stay emotionally healthy. Celebrate your strengths. Be patient with yourself and others. Tip your balance sheet toward curiosity, openness and persistence. And, for those who are overwhelmed, please know that it is a strength to reach out for constructive help.
If you or someone you love is struggling, here is a list of local, statewide and national resources:
• Cleveland Psychological Association: 216-397-9229, (a referral connection to local psychologists)
• Cleveland Crisis Hotline: 216-623-6888
• Columbus Crisis Hotline: 614-224-1057
• Ohio Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255
• National Suicide Prevention Hotlines: 800-SUICIDE (784-2433) or 800-273-8255
• National Crisis Text Line: Text “4Hope” to 741741
Eric H. Berko, Ph.D., is owner of Berko Psychological Associates in Solon, director of behavioral science in family medicine at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland and assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, both in Cleveland.