This year, I’ve received an unprecedented volume of messages from friends and family members who are struggling with the unique challenges of these unprecedented pandemic times. And I’ve been dealing with similar struggles—mental-health-related, physical-health-related, economic-related—right along with them. So it occurs to me that yet another unprecedented element with which I’ve had to contend is figuring out how to meet an increased need for offering support to loved ones while I, myself, am flailing in certain (and often related) respects as well. Is taking care of yourself and others at the same time even possible?
According to Lara E. Fielding, PsyD, clinical psychologist and author of Mastering Adulthood, I’m not alone in this plight; many people, she says, are operating at lower levels of emotional well-being in this climate. In fact, polling data from the Census Bureau and National Center for Health Statistics shows that around one third of respondents have experienced indicators of anxiety or depression between April and July this year, which is a huge jump from pre-pandemic reported stats. Given this uptick in the incidence of mental-health struggles, how can we support one another and ourselves simultaneously? Is doing so even possible?
When to prioritize your own mental health
First, Dr. Fielding makes clear, the commonly held advice to “secure our own oxygen masks first,” is overly simplistic in this application. “Sometimes, we do have to put other people first,” she says. For example, if someone expresses suicidal thoughts to you, you’d be wrong to put helping them on the back burner while you take a bubble bath—no matter how sad, stressed, or overwhelmed you feel.
In less urgent scenarios, though, prioritizing your own mental-health makes sense. In these cases, when someone reaches out for help, Dr. Fielding says to first ask yourself if you feel capable of giving it. If you’re not sure, clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD, recommends making a chart wherein you assign a number to your physical and emotional state. For example, “if your stress level is currently a six, and seven is your limit for being able to support others, be careful,” she says.
What to do if taking care of yourself and others isn’t possible right now
If you decide you’re not capable of taking care of yourself and others at this particular moment in time, Dr. Fielding recommends calling upon a VAR response—validate, assert, reinforce—to explain why in a way that won’t leave them feeling abandoned. First, affirm what they’re feeling, which essentially just looks like mirroring back what they’ve said to you without trying to fix it, e.g. “I hear that you’re in pain.” Next, assert your inability to be of service in this particular moment. Maybe you say something to the effect of, “I really want to talk to you about this, but I’m in the middle of something, and I don’t feel like I could give it the full attention it deserves.” Finally, try to preemptively reinforce them being amenable to this response, saying, “Thank you so much for understanding,” before offering them an alternative solution, like, “Can I check in with you at 10 a.m. tomorrow?”
Ensure your response is not about you, which means not going into detail about why now is not a good time for you to provide appropriate support.
Essentially, you want to ensure your response is not about you, which means not going into detail about why now is not a good time for you to provide appropriate support. There may be an exception if you’re close to the person, in which case your assertion could be a little more specific—”I’m not having a very good mental-health day today”—so long as you don’t then start blabbering about the specifics of why you’re not feeling well (aka making it about you). You’ll also want to be careful about not being too rote—e.g. using a fully-scripted, generic response—as this could leave your loved one feeling dismissed.
How to provide support, if you can
To avoid feeling overwhelmed, Dr. Daramus suggests setting boundaries in advance regarding how much support you’re planning to offer on any given day, which can eliminate undue stress as you navigate the incoming need. You may also find it helpful to prioritize helping based on your expertise. For example, if a friend is experiencing financial difficulties and you’re good with money, it might make sense to dedicate whatever energy you have to helping them first—since you’ll actually be a high value add in that scenario. You can also keep a list of outside resources handy—mental health apps, mental health video games, or hotlines—so that you can help people by providing them with materials and resources they can use to help themselves. Equipping yourself with the tools to help, like taking a course in mental health first aid, might help lessen overwhelming thoughts, too.
With that said, Dr. Daramus notes that most often, people just need you to lend an ear, and while sometimes even that feels like too much, it’s generally a low-lift exchange—you simply let them talk and affirm what they’re feeling. She also notes that if the relationship is solid, this support should come back to you at another time, meaning that you’re ultimately getting as much as you’re giving. (To be clear, though, it’s best to seek that support in a subsequent conversation and not make this current one about you.)
That said, if you find yourself regularly helping someone who rarely returns the favor and you’re starting to feel resentful, your alarm bells should go off, says Dr. Fielding. In this case, it’s okay to pull back and invoke the VAR response, or to tell them that you’re happy to talk them through their problems if they can also talk you through something you’re currently dealing with.
Regardless of who or how you’re helping, though, make sure to pay attention to your body’s cues that you’re about to become overwhelmed, Dr. Daramus. When symptoms like stomachaches and chest tightening arise, it’s important to take time for yourself as quickly as possible. You may also want to re-evaluate your boundaries and be more discerning how about much of yourself you’re giving to others. It may feel selfish, but if you’re drowning, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to pull anyone else to shore.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or chat with a counselor online.
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