WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: What Am I Feeling: Helping People Understand and Cope with the Various Emotions Experienced During the Pandemic

(Gail Ilagan delivered this address in a webinar sponsored by the Commission on Higher Education Region XI on 22 May 2020 for an audience of academics in accredited colleges and universities. Readers may send comments through gail@mindanews.com)

Thank you for giving me this platform to be of service to our colleagues in the academe. I am grateful to CHEDRO XI Director Dr. Maricar Casquejo and to Drs. Cesar Adegue, Liza Suan and Luis Perez who worked to bring us all together. I also wish to thank my fellow Mindanao psychologists – Jerson Trocio, Mabelle Lemen, and Joyce Tupas – for their assistance in bringing us this webinar today on the occasion of CHED’s 26th anniversary.

We wake up today to a world that is so much different than how it has been for most of our lives. The rules to live by have changed; most notably in the rules imposed on the mere act of breathing – so necessary and non-negotiable in sustaining life. The politics of respiration has come of age. We have to be mindful now of how, when, and where to breathe. Think about it. If that is not enough to bring us to existential crisis, I do not know what will.

This global health crisis is unprecedented. We look to our leaders to guide us through this – and it is alarming to realize that they, too, do not know. Nobody knows.

We are like soldiers confronting an unknown threat. We don’t know where or how strong it is. We don’t know how to defeat it. We watch as our government leaders and health authorities scramble to save as many of us. We see their efforts sorely lacking to save us all.

In what is believed to be the safety of our homes, we feel that the threat is inexorably closing in on us. Here, if we don’t die by COVID-19, we could very well die of dengue or malnutrition instead. This coronavirus situation has forced us all to bring everything home. For those who have always tried to maintain the sanctity of their private space, this is an imposition we need to accommodate. It is not easy.

We yearn to reclaim the artificial boundaries we had always imposed to compartmentalize the different aspects of our lives. We yearn for some measure of reward for complying for so long – has it only been three months? – with what we had hoped to temporary sacrifices. More and more, this now looks to be a more permanent change for the foreseeable future. Gone is the world as we knew it. We abruptly find ourselves right at the center of this life-threatening environment sans the long period of training required of professions such as astronauts, infectious disease doctors, soldiers, firefighters, and some others for whom confronting lethal threat is expected in their everyday work life.

We did not train for this. We did not volunteer for this. But here it is. We are not prepared.

Needless to say, this global pandemic has adverse repercussions on mental health. It affects us all. No one is spared. We are all in crisis. And as most of us know, psychosocial support is very vital in assuring positive outcomes to mental health crisis. The cruel irony of this situation, however, is that we have to keep apart to keep safe. Together in this, but we have to be apart.

Such is the irony of this situation. To survive, we have to allow for the erosion of our two most powerful protective factors: Life-giving breath and soothing psychosocial support.

What are we feeling?

How have we been feeling in the last two months? Take a moment to check yourself.

During this time, have you felt this way more than you generally did before? Fear? Disappointment? Confusion? Worry? Sadness? Anger? Have you felt overwhelmed with no recourse in sight?

If so, what have you done about these troublesome emotions? How have you found relief? How have you expressed these distressing feelings?

Did you take it out on others? Did you vent unfiltered on Facebook, Twitter, etc. (I wouldn’t know how. I don’t have any of those)? Did you scare yourself further by marking every opinion and disinformation put out on social media, every political harangue, and any other discussion channel that seem to revert to our national pastime of finding to blame? (Not surprisingly, all roads lead back to Rome on that last one: Not me. Cold comfort.)

If you did any of the above, we don’t blame you. It’s an emotional reaction. And the opportunity does present itself, doesn’t it? So relieving stress that way is normal and totally understandable. Except that – and I don’t need to tell you this – doing those things only makes things worse, right? It really doesn’t change the situation for the better. It only makes us harder to live with.

Instead, let’s try to encourage calm and sobriety. And let’s start with ourselves.

It is important that we understand where our emotions are coming from so that we can clear our minds and, if we can, find more productive ways to cope with the radical shift that has upended our lives. We need to be able to think clearly to apprehend each problem as it comes and to deploy our resources to adapt and adjust and survive this science fiction novel we are now living.

Fear – or fright – is that cold feeling of dread that starts in the pit of your stomach and courses out to your veins. You feel frozen and unable to move. Fear is a stress reaction that primes us for survival responses: fight or flight. When you feel fear, it means that you register a life-threatening situation. So, attend that you are not dead yet. If you can register that, you’re not dead. There is hope.

Disappointment and grief come from registering loss. We mourn, we grieve for what has been, what may never come to be, what will never come to be again. We have literally lost our way of life.  In the last months, we have lost the opportunity to celebrate personal milestones – graduations, May weddings, summer holidays. Births and burials attended alone.

It wasn’t always that way. The memory of life as we knew it until two months ago is still so fresh, and we yearn for it. We can’t believe – we don’t want to believe – that all that is gone.

Some of us have lost someone to this invisible enemy. Some of us have been torn apart from our loved ones. They are stranded somewhere past the checkpoints that locked us down. We can’t visit. This is not easy on them, too, and knowing that, our distress compounds.

Worry and anxiety come from the unknown future. This unfamiliar view of the ceiling from where we fell as the rug was yanked from under our feet makes us realize that all the givens have seemingly fell off the face of the earth. These emotions come from the uncertain, unpredictable future that we perceive ourselves to sorely lack the resources and the ability to control. Our health, our finances, our risk of exposure every time we break out of our social bubbles to get what we need out there. Every person out there is a threat that we need to avoid.

We become anxious about learning new skills to retain our jobs. We worry for our friends, the people we know, and all the people in the world who live paycheck to paycheck and have suddenly lost their income. The list is endless, but if you can, address what you can control. Don’t be too hard on yourself and on others as we all feel our way through this. I would counsel patience. Just extend the timeline a bit for when you can manage what this new world seems to require. Turn it into a problem that you can break down one step at a time. Because when you do, you accomplish that little thing and you’ll have something to celebrate today.

Anger comes from frustration. It could be physical – don’t get out of your gate, don’t go out if it’s not the day when your quarantine pass is accepted, don’t touch, don’t hug, don’t kiss. It could be also mental when our usual remedies are not allowed. We apprehend that the problem is bigger than us, bigger even than all of the world. We have no power to change the situation to our liking. The way forward as we’ve known it is barred. So, take a deep breath. Accept that we cannot solve it all in one day. But there is something important here every day that we can learn, and yes, we can celebrate.

Take the time we are given to have some constructive solitude. Every morning that we wake up to is another day to live. Get up. Make your bed. Honor the day. Dignify your life.

I hope that knowing where our emotions come from would allow us to recognize what triggers them. So we go back to the root, acknowledge the source of our distress, and find ways to be at peace somewhat with what we can control.

Reframe how we understand this world, even as it is changing. Focus on the present. Use today to develop the skills that will get us ready to deal with what tomorrow might bring.

Just one final word on emotions and why it is important to manage our emotional distress. You see, emotions affect our biology. Our emotional state affects how we eat, how we sleep. It affects the levels of our stress hormones. It affects how our immune system functions.

Emotions also affect cognition. It affects our perception, our judgment, and decision making. It makes thinking and planning so much harder to do.

All that physiological and psychological toll would ultimately bleed back to escalating our negative emotions. This is a vicious cycle. But remember that any change that you institute in any point in the loop can change how the cycle runs.

Break that cycle. Can you regulate your emotions? Yes, you can, if you know where it is coming from.

Make the effort to stay emotionally healthy, stay physically safe, stay mentally well.

Our hope is that the human species is resilient and has the faculties to evolve with the demands of this emerging environmental threat. Our hope is that the human community can evolve the means to help each other learn new ways and that we survive this pandemic stronger, better, and more appreciative of how precious every human life is.

I understand that this is a series of webinars and in the future, other colleagues would address some of the other psychological issues arising from this COVID-19 situation. My last slide are links to some authoritative sources that can guide how we respond to our new normal. I hope I have been helpful to you today. Thank you for having me.

(Dr. Gail Ilagan is a psychologist and educator who currently heads the Department of Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University. She is the interim president of the Psychological Association of the Philippines – Davao Chapter. She is also the chair of the Mindanao Institute of Journalism which runs MindaNews, where she writes a column, ‘Wayward and Fanciful.’)