More 83 percent of Americans report feeling stressed about the future of the nation, according to the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Civil Unrest Survey—a special offshoot of the association’s annual stress survey aimed to capture the mood of the country as it stands right now. That number registers at an unprecedented high compared to past annual survey findings, and, well, that’s hardly surprising.
Right now, the nation is scrambling to cope with concurrent pandemics: COVID-19 and the pandemic of systemic racism, which is not new but, in the past month, has been demanding worthy attention and calls for change following the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many others. That the country is facing this collective burnout is hardly shocking. Many non-Black allies to the Black community are reckoning with the reality that doing the anti-racist work to dismantle systems of oppression requires enduring changes in lifestyle, attitude, and action. And many Black activists and allies to the Black community are dealing with representation burnout and the burden of being expected to educate others who have not done the work themselves to commit to effective allyship.
But there is a small silver lining that may come from this pervasive stress. That’s because stress can be an effective propeller for making revolutionary change in the world and in oneself. What’s key is controlling stress levels in order to feel level in a world turned upside down.
“While stressful, this moment in time has created an environment for self-reflection and self-evaluation. People are being called to assess their values, which can lead individuals to focus on what is in their control and, as a result, commit to action.” — says clinical psychologist Jose L. Moreno, PhD
“While stressful, especially within the context of COVID-19, this moment in time has created an environment for self-reflection and self-evaluation,” says clinical psychologist Jose L. Moreno, PhD. “People are being called to assess their values during a time of distress. This can lead individuals to focus on what is in their control and, as a result, commit to action.”
Essentially, reevaluating under this pressure can help some people move the needle in areas where doing so is necessary and, most importantly, commit to keep taking effective action.
“Following principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, committed action is guided by our core values, which are defined by what is truly important, even if it brings up difficult emotions and thoughts, Dr. Moreno says. “Actions, however small, informed by values of respect, love, courage, openness, and kindness, can reinforce one’s commitment and provide motivation and energy for continued engagement. ”
On the flip side, stressful situations can sometimes lead people to withdraw from the world around them, which is counterproductive to personal mental health and large-scale social change.
“These feelings of avoidance can prevent someone from feeling in control,” Dr. Moreno says. “The reality is that we have more control over our behaviors than we do our thoughts and emotions. So in order to feel more in control, we must take control of our behavior, here and now.”
Learn how controlling stress levels can help you feel equipped to channel your intentions for positive impact.
1. Focus on yourself
No matter who you are or how 2020 has rattled your life, self-reflection can be a guiding force for acknowledging thoughts and feelings. Engaging in mindful activities can facilitate coping with difficult thoughts, feelings, and sensations more effectively. And remember, joy and rest are forms of resistance, which is an action, too.
“The more one can have control over oneself, the more control one may have over their actions,” says Dr. Moreno. “Self-compassion during this stressful time reminds us to take care of ourselves as a means to take care of others. Engaging in self-care will aid in improving one’s sense of control.”
Don’t know where to start? Well, one actionable way to feel grounded and work toward controlling stress levels is to create a “truths” list, a tactic coined by therapist Racine Henry, PhD.
“Essentially, it’s an exercise that asks you to name the truths in your life that are unshakeable: I woke up today, I have access to food, there are people who care for me, and so on,” says Martha Tesema, content strategist at self-care app Shine. “Revisiting this truths list is one way you can recalibrate your feelings and redefine what being okay really looks like for you. It’s something that’s especially important to do if things feel out of your control. I’ve found it particularly helpful as a Black woman in the midst of a global racial-injustice reckoning.”
2. Focus on others
Consider what gentle words can be said to someone in distress and how you can provide support, whether by cooking them a meal, providing childcare, or contributing in some other way.
“Racism within the context of COVID may prevent people from engaging in local efforts in-person as they balance their needs for social distancing,” says Dr. Moreno. When his patients share that they would like to engage in social justice pursuits but their concerns about spreading the virus stop them, he says they ideate creative and effective ways to get involved, thus feeling in control by taking action, and potentially lowering stress as a result.
Here are several ideas for how to engage:
Get involved with local organizations focused on anti-racism
- Contact local congresspersons and other elected officials, and hold them accountable for ensuring increased availability of services and support for families most impacted by COVID. “Health-care disparities exist, and the impact of COVID is being more strongly felt by BIPOCs,” says Dr. Moreno. “As a result, supporting the civil rights movement can expand beyond movements in social action.”
- Create connected communities by writing letters and and having conversations educational with family members and friends. Holding together in solidarity can help individuals support one another.
- Fill out the 2020 Census questionnaire, and encourage others to do so in order to ensure accurate representation and, hopefully, an accurate understanding community needs and resources.
- Cultivate a cultural understanding and curiosity: “Spend time learning more about social issues through reading recommended books and viewing documentaries and feature-length films,” Dr. Moreno says. “If there are young children at home, tailor their education in the social studies and history to include a deeper understanding of cultural and social justice issues can help guide conversations as we educate future generations.”
- If you aren’t a member of a marginalized community, support those who are by calling out racist comments and acts when you see them. Have those hard conversations with your family, and those hard conversations with yourself. “With self-compassion, notice when you have engaged in actions that maintain discrimination,” says Dr. Moreno.
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