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Mental Health PPE

Woman stands with outstretched arms on mountain over field at sunrise
Photo by Victor Freitas from Pexels

Heather Pierce, MSEd, LCPC

Owner and Managing Director

Trauma Therapist and Consultant

Face shields and face masks and gloves. Oh my. This is the personal protective equipment that guards our physical health during a pandemic. But what about our mental health? How do we protect and defend against the pathogens that compromise our immunity to fear, anxiety, depression, and judgment?

Unlike the obvious connection between physical barriers and germ avoidance, the ways that we protect our hearts and minds can seem counter-intuitive. Like when I took a self- defense class and learned the way to immobilize attackers was to move in closer. (The stated reason—sorry, guys—was to immobilize them by putting myself in grabbing distance of the testicles.)

For most of us faced with emotional threats, things that are vulnerable, scary, or overwhelming, our first instinct is to run away. To avoid, or to distance. Distancing is ubiquitous right now, essential for protecting our physical health from the virus’s spread. The idea of emotionally moving in closer can seem like opening the closet door in a horror movie.

When it comes to our mental health, we need to live in opposite world. Intimacy, connection, and openness are the things we need most to be OK. Brené Brown encourages us to have a “strong back, soft front, wild heart.” Her decades of research shows that our greatest PPE for mental health is actually vulnerability. This does not mean we leave our souls unprotected; it means that we leave our hearts and minds open. Open to feeling, open to hurting, open to empathy for ourselves, and, yes, even in a pandemic, especially in a pandemic, open to joy.

How do we lean in to vulnerability and don our mental health PPE when we’re exhausted, overwhelmed, threatened, and afraid? Here are five ways to shore up our emotional strength:

1) “Glove up” to fight the desire for normalcy

Like plants bending toward sunlight for survival, humans lean toward normalcy to avoid discomfort, pain, and uncertainty in times of great change. A dose of normalcy is grounding; a quest for normalcy is hazardous. Together we are experiencing collective loss. Deep, profound, irreversible loss. In March, the Harvard Business Review published an essential article for these times: “The Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief.” In terms of Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief, many of us are deep into denial, anger, bargaining, and depression. Yet those with good mental health PPE are rooted primarily in “acceptance” and “meaning”—the final stages of grief. Acceptance allows our hearts to stay open, our minds to be nimble and resilient, and our souls to make meaning.

Staying too long in the early stages and resisting the latter leaves us depleted, stuck, and unsafe. We see this everywhere in the people who compromise us by refusing to wear masks, hosting parties, and clinging to their entitlement of what was and what they want it to be rather than what is.

2)  Jettison the emotional mask

With acceptance, we move closer to our grief and our vulnerability. We increase our capacity for distress and widen our emotional range. This boosts our mental health, but it also requires more from us—more nurturing, tending, and time. Plants can adapt to a dark room, but they need a boost of fertilizer and new sources of light.

Widening our emotional range means we feel more emotions. Many of us have been silenced and shamed into shutting down our feelings. Good mental health PPE means hiding less and showing more. Furious about the unfairness all around us? Use your anger to be self- and other-protective. Grief-stricken about lost traditions, hugs, and time? Cry your eyes out, accept, and make meaning.

3)  Shield yourself from others’ fear

Many of us in the “empath” or “highly sensitive person” category are like sponges for the emotions, images, and imaginings of others. The threats and tensions of anger, denial, and bargaining are everywhere—on social media, on television, in our stores, and in our streets.

After integrating acceptance and meaning, our mental health PPE is our inner sense of safety, peacefulness, and compassion. This fortifies our emotional immune system. Yet, as David Kessler says in the HBR article: “Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety.” Everywhere around us there is this fear, and the question is how much we need to take in to be informed, and how much we need to reject to avoid becoming emotionally immunocompromised.

4)  Distinguish danger from vulnerability

In The Power of the Herd, Linda Kohanov illustrates how horses, highly sensitive beings, are able to experience distress and disturbances in ways that keep them both physically protected and emotionally safe. Kohanov says, “While they react quickly in the face of danger, they also show remarkable resilience in recovering from traumatic events." Horses scan the environment for danger and take swift and assertive measures to defend their safety in the face of an actual threat. However, if assessing their circumstances yields merely a distress or disturbance, they go back to grazing.

Especially true for those of us who have experienced trauma, we are highly susceptible to conflating danger and vulnerability. Our mental health PPE is our ability to distinguish between these more quickly and easily. Experiencing grief, uncertainty, and pain as danger compromises our emotional (and physical) health by keeping us in constant hypervigilance and “fight, flight, or freeze.” Understanding that suffering, struggle, and change are sometimes just excruciatingly vulnerable helps us go back to grazing.

5) Slow down

In life and death circumstances, in actual threats of danger, there is not the luxury of time. The body prepares for emergency by flooding itself with adrenaline while the heart beats faster and blood rushes to where it needs to be to defend life. Ordinary tasks such as digestion and cell repair related to long-term functioning shut down.

Speeding up is a trauma response. We talk faster, walk faster, drive faster, and wish that time would go by faster so we could get-that-damn-vaccine-and-get-back-to- normal faster.

Remember that protecting our emotional well-being requires us to live in “opposite world” from that which protects us physically in times of danger. Our mental health PPE is our ability to slow down our heart rate, breathe deeply, and pay close attention to our ordinary functioning. These are critically important protectors during times of vulnerability, loss, and uncertainty.

Kessler notes the worst traits of people dealing with grief: fixing, judging, minimizing, and rationalizing. Experiencing trauma in any form, whether it be abuse, neglect, racism, oppression, or a global pandemic, can expose our vulnerabilities, trigger our deepest fears, and emotionally distance us from each other and our selves.

Richard Schwartz, creator of the model of Internal Family Systems, suggests that being our best selves is when we experience calmness, curiosity, clarity, compassion, confidence, creativity, courage, and connectedness. These eight qualities are what your mental health PPE should protect and embrace. Go ahead and be angry, sad, bargain, and brace. Then move in closer, grab on, and don’t let go.

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