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5 Reasons COVID-19 Makes Your Emotions Feel Out of Control

One minute you’re feeling disappointed and sad, the next angry and worried about an uncertain future and just a couple minutes later you couldn’t care less. The COVID-19 pandemic, driven by a coronavirus that causes respiratory infection, has wreaked havoc around the world and created a prime environment for emotional vulnerabilities.

COVID-19 triggers the stress response for just about everyone, and how you react will be based on your current stressors, circumstances and past experiences. You may feel one emotion prominently — like worry, fear or sadness — but cycle through many others, including even apathy, gratitude or shame. All of these feelings are normal, no matter how they show up.

If you’re feeling like you’re on an emotional rollercoaster because of COVID-19, you’re not alone.

Here’s why this experience is so common right now:

1. We Don’t Know What Survival Response to Pick

Regardless of your past trauma history, most humans experience the COVID-19 pandemic as a threat. As a result, your fight-flight-freeze-fawn response gets triggered. But since your system doesn’t have experience with all the unique threats of a pandemic, you may be cycling through fight, flight and freeze as your survival instincts try to help you best respond.

“Our survival brain choses fight, flight, or freeze based on what has worked in the past,” Kristin Keliher, Ma.Ed., a professional school counselor, told The Mighty, adding:

A pandemic is not a stress recognized by the survival system so it cycles through fight. … If that doesn’t work it will try flight. When there is nothing to fight and we can’t flee from this pandemic, our survival system kicks on the parasympathetic nervous system and chooses freeze. We feel freeze as depression, numbness, hopelessness, shame, trapped.

2. Past Trauma Gets Triggered

COVID-19 can also trigger past traumas. People who live with a chronic illness may be triggered by past medical trauma at the thought of getting sick with COVID-19. People with disabilities who have experienced ableism that puts their lives at risk may be further traumatized by the conversation in the news about rationing health care.

Those who have survived childhood trauma may be triggered by having to return to a difficult home because their college closed. Having the old feelings of past trauma mixed into the stress of the present piles on the emotional difficulties.

“The financial concerns, social isolation, and uncertainty about the future are difficult for pretty much everyone,” Los Angeles-based psychologist Liz Gustafson, Ph.D., told The Mighty. “I’ve also been finding that people are having past experiences of feeling helpless, feeling alone, feeling unprotected by authority figures triggered by the current circumstances. Traumas related to previous illness or losses are being stirred up.”

3. Pre-Existing Mental Health Issues

If you were already dealing with a mental illness, even if you were making good progress in your recovery, the stress of COVID-19 can amplify your experience. Those who are working on challenging obsessive-compulsive thoughts about danger in the world may find some of those typically “irrational” fears validated by the coronavirus. Physical distancing may increase your sense of isolation and trigger a relapse of your depression symptoms. It’s more important than ever to reach out for support when you need it.

“Life was hard enough a month ago or two weeks ago for people that struggle with depression or anxiety,” Jamie Tworkowski, founder of the mental health nonprofit To Write Love on Her Arms (TWLOHA), told The Mighty. “Basically everyone is anxious and so you apply that to someone who is already or was already dealing with anxiety or depression and I think it can create a really challenging scenario.”

4. Social Isolation and Physical Distancing

Even though we have access to technology that allows us to keep in contact with loved ones while we stay at home to prevent the spread of COVID-19, it’s not the same as in-person contact with people we love. Humans are social creatures who need emotional and physical connection.

Without the in-person element, especially if you live alone or in an unsafe environment, it’s hard to meet your human need for co-regulation with other people. Plus, when your brain sees others mirroring safety and calm back to you, it helps put you at ease. When everyone is stressed, we pick up on those emotions in each other.

“Another reason emotions are so intense and hard right now and all over the place is we are social creatures built for connection,” Keliher said. “We are missing that currently. Being isolated can register as a danger.”

5. Trying to Gain Control

More than anything, COVID-19 has stripped away any sense of control we feel about our lives. That’s scary and can trigger difficult emotions from past trauma or mental health issues. As you try to navigate your new normal, keep in mind that sometimes your rollercoaster of emotions is another way you’re trying to create or take back control, even if we know our emotions can’t change a very difficult reality.

“In response to COVID-19, people tend to react in ways that seem to give them control,”  Joann Wright, Ph.D., director of clinical services at Timberline Knolls, told The Mighty. “These reactions can range from being paralyzed by fear, to denying they are at risk. Both ends of the spectrum and everything in between are reactions that give a false sense of control.”

How to Cope With COVID-19 Emotions

It’s completely normal right now to be grappling with a wide range of emotions that feel all over the place. Give yourself (and others) extra space and be gentle — the emotional vulnerabilities COVID-19 brings out makes it even hard to think let alone function at the level we were before the pandemic took hold.

Keliher advised taking steps to build positives into your daily routine, whether that mindfulness, yoga, journaling, getting outside (while practicing physical distancing) or listening to music. Feeling your feelings, and not avoiding them, is healthier in the long run. And if you need support, don’t hesitate to reach out for it.

“Building our own resiliency toolbox is a great first step,” Keliher said. “Resiliency is not the idea that we don’t feel these things, it’s the ability to feel the effects of trauma/stress and get ourselves back to connection/safety mode.”

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Header image via Ayo Ogunseinde/Unsplash