7 Tips for Emotional, Mental, and Social Recovery
Last night I caught up with a friend I used to dance contact-improv with in Minneapolis. I initially felt guilty that I let a few days go by before responding and that when I did finally return his message, I didn’t call. Rather, I left six awkward 1-minute voice notes via Facebook. Although this was someone I used to physically touch and laugh with on a regular basis, I couldn’t bring myself to have a live conversation; it felt like an impossible task. My guilt subsided when he replied with the admission he’d been almost 100% alone the entire year and also was feeling shy. He shared stories of how he looked away and disengaged when people tried to talk to him in the grocery store, and how he recoiled when he was eventually touched physically by a friend. He said it took an incredible presence of mind to override his nervous system’s new negative response to friendliness and connection.
At some points during the Covid-19 pandemic, I fantasized that the world would emerge from our quarantine caves, in a collective, glorious celebration. We’d hug, sing and dance in the streets; it would feel like the dawning of the Age of Aquarius – suddenly all wiser, full of appreciation and love. Instead, I watched as Covid and social unrest knocked people flat, ugly societal truths were exposed, and more individual and collective trauma occurred around the world. Even relatively sheltered families and individuals were pushed to their breaking points.
Vaccinated (and having had covid) my re-entry into society isn’t the Disney movie ending I’d hoped for. I’m full of anxiety I didn’t used to have. I find it difficult to connect with others, and I find it difficult to find joy or purpose in anything. So now what? How do I re-establish social and emotional health?
In times of crisis, I consult my inner yoga teacher. I sat down this morning to talk to her and make a plan. This is what she advised:
💜 Don’t expect to be social for long periods of time right off the bat without feeling exhausted. If you hadn’t practiced asana or meditation for a year, you wouldn’t expect to jump into a 3-hour class and have the stamina to make it through.
Encourage yourself to socialize for short periods and build in substantial breaks of alone time or “down-time” in between.
💜 Practice Satya (truthfulness). Be honest with yourself about how you are feeling during social interaction. Just because you’re excited to get together with friends doesn’t mean the reality of it will feel like you expect. We are all a little different now. It’s normal to feel social anxiety, disconnection, and even irritation towards others during this period. Keep in mind, everyone else is feeling it too.
Apply the habits you developed in meditation practice: When anxiety arises, observe it, name it (possibly speak to it depending on your company) and breath deeply into the belly to help calm the nervous system. Do not identify with the anxiety or think “I’m an anxious person now.” Observe your thoughts, but don’t attach. You are not your anxiety; you are witnessing the anxiety. This too, shall pass.
💜 Use meditation tools in everyday life to stop negative feedback loops of the mind. If you are experiencing new types of anxiety, interrupt the negative thought —> negative emotion—> negative thought feedback loop by choosing a focusing tool to interrupt it. For instance, choose a positive phrase (mantra) that makes you feel good, and repeat that to yourself throughout the day.
If anxiety begins to take over, take a minute to count from 1-10 and back down to 1 while physically moving the corresponding finger. Or, count the length of your inhales and the length of your exhales, slowing your exhales to be longer.
💜 Begin to test your edges with exposure to positive experiences and start small. Change is exhausting! Even positive change requires baby steps for progress to stick. Yoga teachers frequently talk about finding your “edge” in postures, but they don’t always take the time to explain what that really means. “The edge” is the place where you are unsure, and you are exploring. You’re using just enough effort to force yourself to focus, yet you are still able to breathe and not become rigid, exhausted, or injured. When we find our edge, socially speaking, it’s much the same. To check whether you’ve stepped past your emotional edge, and now are retracting or shutting down, ask yourself: Can you feel your body? Are you breathing? Do you feel present in your body or have you drifted off in your head? Are you able to thoughtfully respond to the people in front of you rather than react? Alternatively, are you staying so far back from your edge that you’re not putting any effort into the social situation or making yourself vulnerable? It can be scary to reconnect with others. Recognize if you have a tendency to push yourself too hard and burn out… or withdraw and avoid effort.
Simple ideas to test the reconnection waters:
Have a staring contest with a friend, or ask a friend to hug or hold their hand. In both cases, remember to KEEP BREATHING to stay present in the experience. If you feel comfortable with a friend, you can even request to breathe in synch with them. Recognize that cuddling, dancing or physically touching might be too much right away. What are your edges today? They may be different than tomorrow. Honor your needs and do not judge them. If you are struggling, look for an activity that keeps your hands busy or directs your focus (eating, creative project, canoeing).
💜 Recognize that you may be a substantially different person than this time a year ago. Yoga teachers like to remind you that every time you step on your mat, you are a different person. So, treat your re-entry into the world with the adventurous spirit of someone new to every experience. Do not assume things will feel the same as they once did. Be curious about what makes you happy and explore the new you that is emerging. Do not be surprised if you do not get along with others as you did before. They are different now too, and also trying to figure themselves out.
When you feel your inner critic popping up, identify what negative experiences it is trying to protect you from. Ask yourself: What if this conversation is, in fact, boring, but not because I am now boring? What are my needs and desires at this moment?
💜 Recognize that you have experienced trauma (or Trauma), and have an escape plan. In trauma-focused yoga classes, we wouldn’t put students in extreme or vulnerable positions; rather we give them a few specific options and empower them to choose their own experience. Are you really ready to go on an all-day boat ride with your extended relatives? Your mind may be on board with the idea but your emotional self may not be in shape enough to stay afloat.
Choose environments and interactions that allow for flexibility. Set yourself up socially so that you have choices, opportunities for breaks, and even the possibility to opt out, if you find it necessary. Your ability to handle stress and stimuli may be compromised, so treat yourself gently.
💜 It will take intentional effort and attention to regain emotional health. If a Down Dog feels difficult, you’re not ready to practice handstand — even if it used to be easy. Emotions and mental states also follow this logic. If pre-covid you used to regularly feel optimism and enthusiasm for your life, but now all you can access is frustration, overwhelm or irritation, there is a way back to optimism. Much like the journey back to handstand, it will take a little effort and patience. The worst thing to do (much like with physical asana) is to fake it and try to throw yourself directly into an emotional peak pose. If you try to make yourself the life of the party before you’re ready, more than likely you’ll exhaust yourself and end up emotionally lower than where you started.
Try this meditation practice immediately upon waking and then as many times as you can throughout your day: Notice something in your immediate environment that pleases you. Perhaps it is the comfort of your pillow, the beauty of a flower, or the sweetness of a child’s drawing on the refrigerator. (Not finding anything? Put a piece of chocolate in your mouth.) Now, hold your attention on this object and consider how sublime, delightful, or useful it is. You might simply breathe and focus on how soothing your breath feels, or appreciate how smoothly traffic is flowing to get you where you want to go. If you feel an impulse to judge or fix something, let it go or find a way to reframe it to get back to the feeling of appreciation as fast as possible. Do this for 60 seconds and notice any improvement in how you feel. Then, look around for another thing within you or around you to appreciate. Eventually you may be able to drop the object of observation and simply melt into the feelings of appreciation it initiated.
This practice creates a new positive feedback loop amongst the mind, nervous system, and endocrine system. It strengthens your connection to self and expands your sense of well-being. Employ it in spare moments throughout your day or to pull yourself out of a negative or anxious loop. Soon enough you’ll regain social and mental vibrancy, and hit that metaphorical handstand again.
Even if you yourself have no problem jumping back into the swing of things, remember not to take personally any awkward or avoidant communication from others who are struggling, like my Minneapolis friend and I. We are all experiencing the vulnerability inherent in transitioning to something new this year — whether it be in your work, relationships, ways of thinking, or simply seeing strangers’ facial expressions again. A simple way to help a person experiencing social anxiety is to calmly ask them what they need in that moment. If that person is you, ask yourself the question. Patience will go a long way in your efforts to reconnect and find catharsis.
I wish you kindness and humility in your reconnection efforts this year.
About the Author
Becky Stella is an Unnata Aerial Yoga Course Leader, teaching Unnata® Aerial Yoga since 2009. She is founder of www.AerialYogaOnline.com, a resource for aerial equipment, rigging, instructional videos, and trainings.