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Have you experienced a pandemic meltdown?

Over the past year of the pandemic, you might have spent more time than usual feeling stressed, anxious, angry or on edge. Perhaps you’ve even had a “meltdown” where you felt overwhelmed by your emotions and reacted strongly.

Angela Buttimer, MS, NCC, RYT, LPC, a licensed psychotherapist at Cancer Wellness at Piedmont, shares why pandemic-related meltdowns arise and how to prioritize your mental health.

“People are struggling,” says Buttimer. “It’s the combination of the chronic and acute nature of the pandemic. There’s the fear of the virus itself and the domino effect, including the loss of wages, jobs and normal social outlets. Everything feels so precarious and nobody really knows what the future holds. Many people are already quite sensitive, so something like this can put them over the edge.”

What is a meltdown?

“There are so many ways meltdowns can arise,” Buttimer explains. “Some people may not be able to get out of bed all day. For others, it could manifest with road rage, crying, arguing with family members, using alcohol or drugs, or binge-eating.”

A meltdown has mental, emotional, physical, spiritual and behavioral components, she says.

“Our emotions are affected by the thoughts we think and what we tell ourselves about what we can handle,” she says. “We believe what we tell ourselves and what we focus on magnifies. Maybe you’re making behavioral changes not aligned with peaceful, productive self, such as watching the news or checking social media too often or having negative, fear-based conversations.”

Frequently thinking negative thoughts or worrying can have a “pressure cooker” effect where emotions build up, leading to a meltdown.

Are there any benefits to having a meltdown?

As long as you don’t hurt yourself or others, having a short, contained meltdown can be beneficial.

“I’m a big believer in letting it out,” says Buttimer. “Sometimes we need to sit in bed and cry it out, get in a car without driving and scream, turn on some music and dance it out, or punch a punching bag and punch it out. Those are all ways to lift the lid of the pressure cooker and let off some steam.”

But, she adds, it’s essential to keep yourself in check when having a meltdown.

“It’s important to have a sense of self-awareness,” she explains. “If you’re having a bad day, you can set aside some time to let it out for an hour or half a day, then not let it continue beyond that. When we allow our emotions to ‘drive the bus,’ that’s when we get into real trouble. If it’s not contained, if we’re lashing out at others, that’s very problematic because we can start causing damage to those around us.”

Mental health during COVID-19

Whether you’ve just had a meltdown or are feeling extra stressed, now is the time to take radical, proactive, good care of yourself, says Buttimer.

“This isn’t the time to put your well-being on the backburner,” she says. “You must make it a priority every single day.”

She also recommends paying attention to your thought life.

“It’s really easy to have ‘sloppy thinking’ and go down a rabbit hole of the negative what-ifs,” says Buttimer. “We rarely use the what-ifs in a positive sense. If we live in a negative mindset and anticipate the negatives of the future, that’s setting ourselves up for a meltdown. We have to take control of our focus.”

If you have a hard time coming out of a meltdown on your own, Buttimer recommends reaching out to a counselor, coach, primary care provider, faith leader or friend.

“In the human experience, we can all use professional help,” she says. “Life is tough without the pandemic. Everyone needs a support system, whether that’s a trained professional, a best friend you can turn to or a support group that offers community.”

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