Americans are currently the unhappiest they’ve been in 50 years, according to a recent poll — here’s how to manage that stress

By Julie Mazziotta
June 18, 2020 05:29 PM
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A global pandemic, police killings, civil unrest, soaring unemployment: 2020 has been fraught with anxiety-producing events — and it’s only June.

“I have never seen such a convergence of the pillars of our life. All of them have been shaken,” says Dr. Kevin Gilliland, a clinical psychologist, director of Innovation360 and member of PEOPLE’s Health Squad

While some of these events, like police brutality and racial inequality, aren’t new, they’ve been pushed to the forefront in the last few weeks, all while people continue to die from the new coronavirus, COVID-19. And Americans have been suffering mentally because of the instability.

Nearly half of people who are sheltering in place said that the pandemic has increased their stress or worry, according to a poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Only 15 percent of Americans report feeling “very happy” right now, the lowest amount since the 1970s. And an alarming projection from the national public health group Well Being Trust estimates that 75,000 Americans could die from drug or alcohol misuse and suicide related to COVID-19.

“More and more people struggle for different reasons. It’s the virus, then it’s unemployment and then the social injustice piece,” says Gilliland. “All three are major issues in our lives independently, and they’re all occurring at the same time.”

Gilliland says he’s seeing this reflected in his practice. He’s getting new patients who haven’t dealt with anxiety or depression before and need counsel, and longtime patients with a history of mood disorders or substance abuse in need of added help.

Here’s what he recommends for taking care of your mental health.

Look at the root of your stress

“Break them into pieces so they’re manageable,” he says. “If we push all of these stressors together at the same time we just get incapacitated and we will struggle to have reason and logic. Figure out which piece is more difficult for you than the others and focus on repairing those thoughts.”

Try, he says, to “be thoughtful about how you consume information. Social media can be overwhelming. Go to other sources where you can manage what you read and how much you take in.”

Understand your anger

“When you see injustice — and you don't need to go to grad school to know injustice when you see it — it’s sickening. It makes you angry. It feels like the system is so big, you can't have an impact on it. And humans do not like feeling like we can see an injustice, but we can't do something about the system,” Gilliland explains.

And find ways to make your anger productive

“I always encourage people to look for a second emotion. I’m going to give you anger, because it’s absolutely true. But give me a second or a third one, because we often have a mix. Emotions are an appropriate response to a painful experience and we’ve got to give that space. Then we can have some thoughtful, meaningful discussions so we can chart a different path.

Make sure to leave time for self-care

“You’ve got to protect and feed your mental health,” Gilliland says. “Stress actually weakens our immune system, which is the very thing we’re trying not to do right now.”

When you’re starting to wear down, look for ways to take care of yourself.

“I’m a big fan of being physically active, but we have to expand our list of options if we’re going to feed our minds. Our minds love to play and they love adventure. Find a book you want to step into or reconnect with people socially.”

Monitor your anxiety

Whether that anxiety is from civil unrest or worries about public life reopening, keep track of how you’re feeling.

“Write down your anxiety levels. Use a scale of 0 to 10, and look at where you’re at each day,” Gilliland says. “If your anxiety is an 8 or 9 and you haven’t left the house, why? What are your fears? Start to break it down and monitor what your mind is doing so you can work your way back to calm.”

Help yourself, then help your kids

It’s natural to want to protect your kids from getting overwhelmed by the world, but you have to take care of yourself first.

“The most powerful thing you can do to help your kids is to put your mask on first, like they used to say when we all flew on airplanes,” Gilliland says. “You can’t help your kids unless you’ve taken care of yourself. Address your own stress and emotional turmoil, and then have thoughtful conversations with your kids and do it with age-appropriate language.”

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:

• Campaign Zero (joincampaignzero.org) which works to end police brutality in America through research-proven strategies.

ColorofChange.org works to make the government more responsive to racial disparities.

• National Cares Mentoring Movement (caresmentoring.org) provides social and academic support to help black youth succeed in college and beyond.