COVID-19 (coronavirus) Mental health

How paying attention to our feelings can help us get through the COVID-19 pandemic

A child wearing a face mask peers out a window.
Avatar
Written by Jennifer Palisoc

There have been many changes to everyday life during the COVID-19 pandemic, along with emotional ups and downs.

Just like a rollercoaster, some days you may be at the top, and other days – you’re just not. Feelings of stress and anxiety may lead to increased tension, frustration, upset and anger. And experts say, that’s to be expected.

Sunnybrook psychiatrist Dr. Janet Ellis explains why it’s important to pay attention to our feelings, how to express negative emotions in positive ways, and why this can be a benefit in the long run.

Is it normal to feel anger and frustration because of the pandemic?

Dr. Ellis: It is normal to feel sad and anxious about the losses and restrictions that have resulted from the pandemic. In turn, these emotions can lead to anger and frustration as the pandemic continues and along with concerns about its impact around the world, in addition to the uncertainty around when life will return to back to what it once was.

Are there ways people can release negative feelings in a positive way?

Dr. Ellis: First, we should allow ourselves to identify and feel the negative emotions and reflect on them. Mostly people try to push painful or negative feelings aside, but generally we do better to remain aware of difficult feelings.

We can remind ourselves that we can take action on the things over which we have control, but we have to process and accept the things that we cannot control. For example, we do not have control over the duration of a lockdown, but we can help maintain our safety by wearing a mask, maintaining physical distance and washing our hands. We can maintain connection with friends and family through regular phone calls, texts, and video chats. We can also choose to make use of the extra time and solitude to reflect and choose how we will cope and stay healthy.

There are many positive ways of releasing negative feelings. For example: taking part in creative activities, journaling, music, singing, exercise, dancing, sharing feelings with others.

Exercise – Physical activity can help you feel better for many reasons. Even going outside for a 20-minute walk can help. Since many of us are working from home, it is good to know that even a few minutes of exercise an hour is helpful: jumping jacks, squats, or walking up and down the stairs. Studies have shown that physical activity can help release endorphins, or “feel good” chemicals in the brain which can boost mental health, help improve quality of sleep, and overall well-being.

Creative activities, music, singing or dancing – Being creative can improve mental health by increasing positive emotions and distract away from ruminating on negative ones, after the initial observation and reflection. Having fun and being engaged in an activity you enjoy can help reduce stress and anxiety.

Journaling – Writing about how you are feeling or describing a negative situation can you help understand and manage feelings of stress. It is a way to confront and release negative emotions in a personal, private, and positive way.

How and why does releasing or expressing anger and frustration help improve mental health?​

Dr. Ellis: Mainly because bottling it up is bad for mental and physical health. We need to ‘pay as we go’ emotionally. This means recognizing and feeling the emotions of each day rather than pushing them aside and possibly not dealing with them day after day.

If not, we turn into pressure cookers, express displaced anger at people who do not deserve it, and we continue to feel stressed and angry underneath. Sharing these feelings and taking positive steps to manage these emotions can help provide release, re-focus attention away from what is causing these feelings, and can potentially help provide an opportunity to get in a different, or perhaps more positive, frame of mind.

Learn how to cope with COVID fatigue »

What are signs that there may be a larger mental health issue?

Dr. Ellis: Generally, if distress worsens over time and it begins to impact sleep, function, relationships, there may be a growing problem that needs to be addressed.

If you or your loved one have concerns, reach out for help. Contact your family physician, seek counselling support through appropriate services, which may include a referral to psychiatry if needed.

Any other important tips to share?

Dr. Ellis: We may feel moral distress about things we cannot change and have to learn how to accept the unacceptable. We may feel grief about the impact of the pandemic. It is hard to be isolated. We know that mental health is worse across the board, especially in young people, as they are at a time of critical milestones and change. They may have missed graduation, missed out on peer support and opportunity to share a time of growth, interests, sport, or university or college life. Many have lost jobs, or have had to move back home after a period of independence. There is an increase in substance use. This is also a time of vulnerability to the onset of mental health difficulties. As a community, we need to support each other, especially our young people.

How to support young people during the COVID-19 pandemic »

COVID-19: Youth mental health and addiction »

We can all seek to grow in this experience by aiming for post traumatic growth – a clear sense of priority, gratitude for being alive, greater sense of connection to each other, greater capacity to accept life as it is and with all these, greater sense of meaning and well-being.

Pulling together in these historic times can help us all feel less alone and more connected.

If you need help in an emergency please call 911 or visit your local emergency department. If you’re feeling like you’re in crisis or need somebody to talk to, please know that help is also available through community resources:

  • Find a local crisis resource at sunnybrook.ca/gethelp
    • Phone: 24-hour, toll-free 1-833-456-4566
      Text: 45645 (4:00 p.m. – midnight Eastern Time)

About the author

Avatar

Jennifer Palisoc

Jennifer Palisoc is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

Have a question about this post? Get in touch.