Ever since I started my teaching career, I have always felt that part of my role as an educator was to be a buoy in the rough and sometimes stormy sea of teaching middle schoolers. Now since becoming a physician educator, my role as a buoy has not changed much. However, the seas have been stormier than usual.
Since 2007, the American Psychological Association (APA) has conducted surveys about stress in the United States. Various stressors have been named over the years, such as: economic factors, healthcare, mass shootings, climate change, racism and political conflict. The 2020 survey reveals Americans have been profoundly affected by the pandemic, in addition to the already present stressors. Almost 80% of Americans report that the pandemic is a significant source of stress in their life. About 50% of adults report behavior changes like increased tension (21%), quickness to anger (20%), unexpected mood swings (20%), etc. The uncertainty in the nation overall was a cause of stress for 65% of Americans with 60% of people reporting feeling overwhelmed.1 The start to 2021 was also eventful and increased my own stress level about what was/is occurring nationally.
“It is the unusual combination of these factors and the persistent drumbeat of a crisis that shows no sign of abating that is leading APA to sound the alarm: We are facing a national mental health crisis that could yield serious health and social consequences for years to come.” 1
So what do we do?
Time, training and therapy has taught me that I only have a limited amount of control — and it is usually over myself (some of the time). Therefore, during this upheaval in my life, I became more introspective and sought to find answers and methods to help myself so that I can help others. As a healer, I have to be the buoy in the rough, stormy sea. However, terra firma was no longer so firm to me — or maybe I just didn’t feel as anchored.
Due to a restless feeling, I began a daily walk after dinner that helped my stress levels and with the COVID 7 pound weight gain. However, it still wasn’t enough. When my daughter joined me, I noticed a lighter bounce to my step. Therefore, I found more ways to connect with my teenage daughters and husband — whether it was being home for more dinners or family game time with Wii bowling. I found that this still wasn’t enough to reduce my stress.
On my walks, I began listening to a new podcast by Brene ́ Brown.1 These episodes seemed the perfect companion to my walks and would prove more helpful than I knew. These walks with Brene and the people with whom she connected soon became more like a spiritual experience.
One particular episode involved a discussion with the Nagoski sisters. Their stories are amazing and their book was transformative. They wrote a book called Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. This discussion and read helped me quickly realize that I had indeed hit burnout.
However, their key to unlocking the COVID-19 stress cycle that I could not get out of (what has been referred to as Groundhog Day by others), was working through my feelings and stress on a daily basis. Viewing feelings as an all-body experience was not that new to me. Since my anxiety manifests as mild jaw-clenching, poor posture, etc., I do carry my stress/anxiety a certain way. According to the sisters Nagoski, letting your feelings come to an end can include hugging for a minimum of 20 seconds, belly laughing, crying, etc. I was stuck on a daily basis because my feelings were also stuck and unresolved.3
So began my daily catharsis. I have started my daily self-talk therapy. First, I have to identify my feelings. Since I experience many feelings daily, I pick my most distressing one. Sometimes just walking myself through this identifying process is all I need. Other days, I have needed to watch a drama or read a sad short story or just need extra-long hugs.
The frustrating aspect of this includes the fact that COVID has added more steps to my every day, and now here are more steps. What soothes my frustration is this: According to Emily and Amelia Nagoski, “wellness is the freedom to move fluidly through the cycles of being human. Wellness is thus not a state of being; it is a state of action.”3 I need daily action to help myself get “unstuck.”
The other action that needed to happen was managing my stressors. I needed to acknowledge when things are difficult and then acknowledge that this struggle is worth it. Admitting when I was struggling over the death of George Floyd was necessary, but the most important step for me was the understanding of the opportunity to grow even more as a human being. These experiences have helped me redefine my path and find a better anchor. 3
My path has always included caring and helping others. I have included more of helping myself so that I can continue my journey well. So what do we do with our mental health crisis? We take care of ourselves so that we can take care of each other. Caring for ourselves does not mean caring less for others. Caring for ourselves means that we help anchor the buoy better even if the ground is not as firm. Being anchored helps us be the calm in the stormy sea. We can then help buoy each other, our patients and our nation.