Coping with COVID: Regulating emotions during a pandemic
We’re about eight months into the COVID-19 pandemic, and there’s a lot going on around us. We’re balancing a lot — work, school, family, and the upcoming holidays — during a time of great uncertainty. If you find yourself reacting more negatively to things you’re experiencing, you’re not alone. Feeling angry or frustrated is a normal response during a pandemic, but there are things you can do to manage those emotions.
In this episode of our Coping with COVID podcast series, Kira Mauseth, PhD and Doug Dicharry, MD discuss the causes of strong emotional reactions and what we can do to feel more in control during stressful times.
Stress can cause emotional dysregulation
During times of stress it can be difficult to control, or regulate, our emotions. We might react more negatively or intensely to things that normally wouldn’t bother us. But emotional dysregulation — feeling like you can’t control the way you respond to stressors — is a normal response to a pandemic.
In stressful situations, we perceive things differently: we become so focused on things we see as threats that we can’t see the positives or think clearly about solutions. And as the brain gets tired from dealing with the stressful events around us, we tend to react more emotionally.
Emotional dysregulation in adults might mean:
- Feeling angry, frustrated, or irritable.
- Acting impulsively or lashing out at others, sometimes without understanding why.
In children, emotional dysregulation can mean:
- Regressing (acting younger than they are).
- Withdrawing and having little motivation to do things.
- Having stomachaches or trouble sleeping.
Emotional regulation takes practice
Don’t be too hard on yourself if you notice that you’re feeling angry or lashing out at people close to you. It is normal to experience emotional dysregulation during stressful times like these. But there are some things you can do to feel more in control of your emotions, especially before acting on them.
- Take a moment. When you find yourself reacting emotionally, pause and take a deep breath. Think about what is happening in the moment before you respond.
- Focus on the positives. Not everything is bad right now. Pay attention to the positive or neutral things in your life. Look for opportunities to build on your strengths, even when some things are hard.
- Take a social media break. Doomscrolling, or endlessly scrolling through upsetting content, can increase feelings of anxiety. Limit the amount of time you spend on social media.
- Identify your stressors. Think about what sets you off and contributes to feelings of fear or anxiety. Once you are clear about what is bothering you, you can work towards a solution.
Let children see you practicing these skills. When you model emotional regulation for kids, they develop the skills to identify and manage their emotions throughout life. Plus, adults who regulate their own emotions are better equipped to calm down kids who are emotionally dysregulated.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Emotional regulation is important as we continue to juggle everyday responsibilities with the stresses of the holiday season and COVID-19 pandemic. We’re still in a pandemic, and it’s normal to not feel ok. Emotional regulation is just one several skills that support our wellbeing. To learn more about ways to cope or to find additional support, visit our mental and emotional wellbeing webpage.
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Information in this blog changes rapidly. Check the state’s COVID-19 website for up-to-date and reliable info at coronavirus.wa.gov.
Answers to your questions or concerns about COVID-19 in Washington state may be found at our website. You can also contact our the Department of Health call center at 1–800–525–0127 and press # from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday — Friday, and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday — Sunday. Language assistance is available.
Please note that this call center cannot access COVID-19 testing results. For testing inquiries or results, please contact your health care provider.
- [Narrator] Welcome to a Washington State Department of Health podcast on coping with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. And now your hosts for the show, disaster psychologist Kira Mauseth, and child and adolescent psychiatrist, Doug Dicharry.
- Hello, good afternoon everybody and thank you for joining us. We’ve got a lot of good information to share with you today about some of the challenges that we’re all facing from a behavioral health perspective in COVID-19. My name is Kira Mauseth and I’m a clinical psychologist and one of the co-leads for the behavioral health strike team.
- And I’m Doug Dicharry, I’m a child and adolescent psychiatrist and also a member of the behavioral health strike team.
- Okay, so today we’re going to discuss something that is on most of our minds lately and certainly with the political season and the holidays coming up and some of the things that most of us are navigating, a big issue that I’m hearing a lot about is emotion regulation and dysregulation. And that’s the tendency that most of us have right now to react a little bit more negatively or a little bit more intensely to things that maybe normally wouldn’t bother us. And it’s hard to deal with and it’s difficult to process, but you’re not alone in this. Most of us are experiencing some degree of emotion dysregulation right now.
- That’s right Kira, and you know, these types of feelings and reactions are normal during a crisis or a disaster, but there are things that we can do to get back to feeling more in control.
- Yeah, absolutely. And part of the reason why this is such a big issue right now is the length of time that we’ve all been experiencing this. So we’re seven, almost eight months into a pandemic. Most people, you know, like I was mentioning with the political season and the holidays coming up, most people have really strong opinions about what we should be doing or shouldn’t be doing or should be thinking or not thinking. And those strong opinions are hard to manage and sort of navigate especially in the context of interacting appropriately with others at work, and even with friends and family members, you know, as we all know, sometimes dealing with family can even be the most difficult of all.
- Right. We also have health concerns for ourselves for our loved ones. Many people are going through issues of job stability. The uncertainty in the economy right now — families are at home trying to deal with schooling, especially with issues in virtual learning environments, and just the uncertainty balancing work, home, family, and the uncertainty, for example, about when schools will actually be back and full session and so forth. So there’ll be a lot of things.
- Yeah. All of those layers, they really add up to create sort of a neurological effect that most of us are experiencing and that’s really difficult, and that is that when we’re layered upon layered with all of these difficulties that we’re facing, our limbic system, which is where our emotions are processed in our brain, our limbic system tends to be a little bit more influential over how we perceive things and how we choose to act, how we understand what’s going on around us and how we sort of regulate our own experiences. And that’s normally okay, but when our brains are so stressed out and we have so much cortisol in our bloodstream, a tired brain and emotional brain kind of tends to make different kinds of decisions. So it makes sense that’s what’s going on for the most part right now at seven to eight months into this pandemic. But one of the big things is that our brains don’t actually perceive information in the same way that they would have last year or even in January or February of this year. We’re much more likely to perceive things as being threatening or to perceive neutral information as being negative. Would you agree with that Doug or what are your thoughts on that?
- Absolutely. And one of the things that we know is that in a crisis situation, when we’re under stress, it’s easy to develop a tunnel vision kind of focusing on the threat and it makes it much more difficult to kind of think clearly about next steps to a solution. So that’s very common right now.
- Yeah and when we get that tunnel vision, one of the other sort of side effects of that is that we lose a little bit of our ability to see positives, to experience positive information and get, you know, when we hear a thank you from someone or congratulations, we really don’t process that information the same way that we would because our brain is focused on that next threat or that next thing and that’s a problem.
- Yeah, I would add too for one thing to consider for children is that because they don’t have all of the cognitive assets that adults would have, they may think of situations very differently. They may magnify the threat, they may see something on television or something in social media or friends may say something rumors make it started and they may have a complete misunderstanding. So we’ll talk a little bit more about that, but there are things that we can do to address that and help children deal with some of these issues.
- Yeah. You bring up a really good point and I think that’s helpful for parents to understand too, that, especially with teenagers, that on a basic neurological level, when they are responding really intensely to something, that’s because their brain is sending them signals to tell them that these things are, you know, in some regards they feel like life or death to a teenager, even though they’re not. They feel as intensely as if they were actually being threatened by not getting to do something or not having the ability to maybe go socialize with friends. And when, when teenagers perceive that information, their brains are giving them the signal in a lot of cases that this is a incredibly threatening situation. And then they react in that strong of a way.
- So there’s a lot of behavior for both kids and adults that kind of is consistent with that right now, impulsivity sort of lashing out. I hear a lot of talk from parents and from colleagues about the difficulty of not sort of snapping back at people, and then sort of questioning in your head, gee why did I just say that or react that way? And it’s really a challenge because five minutes after the fact you can catch yourself and think, I don’t know why that just came out of my mouth or why I behaved in such a way. And the trick is really to regulate your emotion before that behavior occurs.
- Yeah, I would add that especially for parents to keep in mind that that children might regress under these situations. So they’ll start sometimes behave like younger children, you know. A six year old may start acting out, acting like their three-year-old sibling, or they may be more, much more active, they may seem hyper around the house, or they may seem very withdrawn, not interested, not motivated to do any schoolwork for example. Or you may find that they’re asking a lot more questions, they may be feeling anxious and not knowing quite how to deal with that or what to call it, the sense of anxiety or worry. And they may have physical symptoms that are similar to those in adults. They might complain of stomach aches or trouble sleeping — very common with, with younger children.
- Yeah, I agree completely. And another sort of manifestation that I’m hearing a lot about from people is that anger is one of the easiest emotions for us as humans to sort of access and often anger is sort of a really sort of surface level — it’s easily accessible and it’s right there. And when we’re afraid of something — and this goes for adults and kids alike — but when we’re afraid of something or we’re really worried, or we’re feeling a variety of other more complicated feelings, anger can sometimes be the way that those things come out, because it’s a little bit more simple, a little bit easier to access. And so that obviously can have consequences in how we relate to other people if we’re kind or not, if we just are irritable and frustrated really easily. So anger is a very easy emotion for all of us to access right now and it’s important to be aware of that.
- And we should also be aware of the effects of, for example, social media around us, because some of that may amplify some of that anger or reaction. So it’s important to monitor that, to take — we’ll talk about that more — to take breaks for example, from social media.
- Yeah, absolutely. And so speaking of coping, right, so what we do about this. The emotion dysregulation is a really big issue and I love the idea of monitoring our exposure to media in general. It’s different for everybody, but you’ve probably heard of something called doom scrolling, where you can just get stuck on Twitter or a variety of social media outlets and just scroll and scroll and scroll and look at article after article. And it never ends, right. It’s as much as you can possibly want it to be, but it doesn’t usually do much to decrease anxiety. And in fact, it can make people more anxious by doing that. So limiting that, like you said, for kids and for adults, is really important.
- Yeah and I would add it’s important to try to figure out if you’re in a crisis situation, what is it that is the real hot button issue for you? What really sets you off? Try to figure out what it is that is really getting to you because we don’t want to jump into solutions before we really know what the problem is. So try to be as clear as you can on what it might be that setting you off. It may be, you know, that the kids are not going to bed when they’re supposed to, or that you’re not getting enough sleep, or it may be that, the television is on all the time and it’s driving you crazy while you’re trying to cook whatever it might be. Try to identify what that stressor might be for you in particular.
- Yeah, absolutely. And identifying what it is that’s causing the feelings. If they’re fear, if they’re anxiety, whatever it is that can help explain why you’re angry. And so just having that insight, having that ability to take a moment and identify what is this thing, then gives you some strategies potentially for how to manage it, ’cause if you can address the underlying problem, right. If that’s fear around something or frustration about the kids, you know, that example that you just gave about being frustrated with the kids and with the online learning and navigating all of that at home. There’s a lot of fear that people are experiencing right now that kids are gonna lose a year of school and not get out of what they need to. And I guess my recommendation with regard to that is to focus on what kids are able to learn right now. And it might not be some of the curricular things that you would have expected if we weren’t in a pandemic, but there are opportunities for kids to learn other things, and emotion regulation, actually. Learning to identify what the feelings are underneath your frustrations is an incredibly helpful skill for kids to learn. And that’s something that parents have an opportunity to model for their kids.
- That’s a great point. Yeah, I recall saying that don’t let what you can’t do get in the way of what you can do. Focus on those positive, focus on your resources and how you can build on those strengths.
- Yeah, yeah, absolutely. They’re always there and when we get really down and we get really focused on the negative, it’s hard to even see those things. It’s hard to acknowledge and identify what’s on the other side of the coin, right? So even if it’s not sunshine maybe there’s different opportunities — maybe it’s not all positive, but maybe it’s neutral. And even some of the neutral things are hard to attend to right now. So yeah, I’m looking at the other ways of sort of interpreting information, other ways of identifying opportunities for ourselves and for our families right now is a good piece of these strategies.
- I would just add to take time with your children. Be sure to ask questions and make sure you understand what their concerns are, because often they may be worried about something that is completely different from what you think they’re worried about. So it’s important to check it out, to ask those questions, to clarify and make sure that you understand what their concerns are.
- Absolutely. And, and to keep in mind too, that an emotionally dysregulated adult can’t calm down an emotionally dysregulated kid. So if you want to get dive in to the, to the situation and ask questions and really help a child of any age, it can be a teenager too. It’s really hard to do that as an adult when you are in an angry place or in a frustrated place too. So the other thing about a coping strategy would be to take a moment, step back, give yourself a breath, take a pause and really evaluate what’s going on, and then do something and then jump in because sometimes, immediately jumping in is not gonna be the best solution.
- Great point. So today we’ve shared with you a bit about emotional dysregulation and how it affects our behaviors and interactions with each other. And we’ve also shared some strategies for feeling more in control. Would you have anything to add Kira?
- No, I don’t think so. I just, you know, this is normal. It’s normal to be struggling with, with this right now. And it’s normal for kids. It’s normal for teenagers, and it’s certainly normal for adults that are juggling a variety of different demands on our time and on our patience. So if you find yourself really frustrated suddenly, and it’s confusing, try not to be hard on yourself because this is a normal response to being part of a pandemic for sure.
- Good point. And on that website, coronavirus.wa.gov, there’s hub for well-being. So it’s coronavirus.wa.gov/wellbeing. And there are tips on how to cope and how to become more resilient in the face of these things.
- Yep, those are great reminders, Doug, thank you very much. And thanks everybody for listening today. We appreciate you joining us and we’ll see you next time for the Department of Health behavioral health podcast on coping with COVID.
- Until next time, so long and stay safe.