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Mental Health Trends Since Covid-19

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Mental Health Trends Since Covid-19

Dr. Carlson discusses Mental Health Trends Since Covid-19

As the Center for Cognitive Therapy continues to support members of our
community during a time of uncertainty and transition, we are happy to provide
you with the second of a series of articles that highlights some of the most
significant mental health trends and challenges our clinicians have observed
since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, along with their
recommendations and suggested resources.

The Issue: Getting “stuck” using the same defenses against our feelings
Dr. Greta Carlson is no stranger to strong and complicated feelings in her
therapy office.  As a trauma specialist, she has worked with adolescents, adults,
and families struggling with a wide range of crises and losses well before the
COVID-19 pandemic occurred.  When asked about what she has noticed in her
work since the pandemic unfolded and as our community attempts to shift back
to some semblance of normalcy, she identifies an increase in behaviors and
habits that serve as emotional defenses.

Dr. Carlson elaborates: “People often develop defenses, or protective barriers,
against our feelings if we learn through past traumatic experiences that it is
unsafe to be connected to our bodies. Individuals may avoid their genuine but
difficult feelings about traumas or losses over the past few years through
avoidant or distractive behaviors, such as overworking, impulsive use of social
media, withdrawing from others, or excessive use of food, drink, or substances.
These behaviors can create temporary comfort and distract us from emotions
that are painful to feel in the moment, but ultimately, they serve to distance
ourselves from our bodily sensations, and thus, our feelings.”

So are psychological defenses bad? Dr. Carlson clarifies: “Absolutely not.
Defense mechanisms are present in all of us, and are our subconscious’ way of
attempting – often successfully, at least on some level – to protect us. However,
defenses become a problem when they interfere with our holistic wellness.”

The Recommendation: Allow yourself to feel your emotions
Though Dr. Carlson acknowledges that allowing oneself to feel painful or
uncomfortable emotions is easier said than done, she emphasizes that coming to
understand and know one’s feelings is an essential part of wellness and getting
to the root of unhealthy or destructive behaviors and habits. “Feelings aren’t
dangerous, although sometimes it can seem as though they are.” Her advice:
“When you notice you are falling back on old patterns of repetitive, unhealthy
behaviors, pause and check in with yourself, like you would with a friend who is
going through a rough patch.”

Sometimes, she notes, it is necessary to gain insight into one’s emotions slowly
when they feel confusing or difficult to verbalize: “A person can have so many mixed and layered feelings around one topic or event that they feel overwhelmed
with just a vague feeling of ‘badness’ or dissatisfaction. At times like these, using
a support tool like a colorful feelings wheel to label a range of emotions can be
helpful. Art can be used to illustrate how your feelings might look. If it is too
difficult to start expressing your inner experiences in emotion-based words, you
may start by asking yourself, ‘What do I feel in my body in this moment? What
sensations am I experiencing?’”

Dr. Carlson adds that it is important to allow for the likely possibility that when
individuals begin to become aware of their psychological defenses, they will
recognize multiple emotions at once, and some of those emotions may be easier
to access and name out loud than others. Dr. Carlson gives the following
example: “Social anxiety surged as communities began to come out of
quarantine. Depending on the acuity of their anxiety, a socially nervous person
may have looked for many reasons to withdraw or refrain from returning to in-
person get-togethers. Staying in isolation and cancelling meetings or outings
may have resulted in temporary relief, but this person may also have noticed
increased negative feelings over time. A therapist would want to explore how
that person’s withdrawal may cover up a multitude of feelings: fear of social
rejection, shame in their excuses, or grief over an uncertain and ever-changing
world.”

Dr. Carlson asserts that doing the internal work to get “unstuck” from defensive
or harmful habits and exploring their underlying emotional roots leads to
catharsis and clarity: “Once you’ve named the feelings hiding behind defenses,
you can make a more informed choice about how to soothe and address them in
a more flexible manner. Using a journal to put written words to your feelings,
tracking emotions on a mood-tracker application, or even simply stating your
emotional thoughts out loud can bring insight and a healthy sense of emotional
release. Maybe you’ll notice how sharing and expressing true feelings can bring
you closer to loved ones or offer you a sense of relief from tremendous pressure.
Or perhaps you’ll observe how expressing your feelings creatively in art can help
you to reach new ideas about yourself and the world around you. Possibilities
can expand once we break out of the behavior patterns that act as a protective
barrier against our feelings.”


Resources
Brach, T. (2004). Radical acceptance: Embracing your life with the heart
of a Buddha. Bantam Books.

Center for Healthy Minds (2008). Healthy Minds Program (Version 8.0.0).
App Store. https://apps.apple.com/us/app/healthy-minds-
program/id1326310617

McClaren, K. (2010). The language of emotions: What your feelings are
trying to tell you. Sounds True.

The Center for Cognitive Therapy and Assessment
Falls Church: 
✆ Phone (appointments): 703-618-0900
✆ Phone (general inquiries): 703-618-0900
Address: 300 North Washington St., Suite 102, Falls Church, VA 22046

Old Town Alexandria: 
✆ Phone (appointments): 703-618-0900
✆ Phone (general inquiries): 703-618-0900
Address: 1414 Prince St, Suite 312, Alexandria, VA 22314

McLean:
✆ Phone (appointments): 703-618-0900
✆ Phone (general inquiries): 703-618-0900
Address: 1497 Chain Bridge Road, Suite 103, McLean, VA 22101