By Shawn Singh Sidhu, MD

Finding Your Balance

Tips for Maintaining Emotional Well-Being Amid Social Unrest

The entire nation has watched over the past week as our nation has undergone a very painful chapter in its history.

While the seeds of this suffering were planted hundreds of years ago, it has been heartbreaking to see the impact on those countless individuals whose lives have been irreversibly changed by these events. The rest of us have been relegated to the role of bystander, with a sense of great sadness, frustration, hopelessness and helplessness as we watch parts of our cities come apart.

This social unrest comes at a time when our nation was already struggling with the tragedy that COVID-19 has claimed the lives of more than 100,000 of our family members, friends and community members.

It is only natural that such trying times would have an impact on our collective psyche. For those more intimately involved, the impact might be quite severe and pervasive. However, even those indirectly following news cycles and social media may be experiencing emotional distress. We have seen this live on TV, as some reporters have broken into tears while struggling to process the events they are covering.

Typical reactions to social unrest include anxiety, sadness and despair. Some individuals may worry that the violence will spread to directly their loved ones, while others may have more existential worries about their communities recovering and the future of our world.

Many will feel a sense of sadness to the point of bereavement in grieving the loss of the country that they thought they had, or for the families who have lost loved ones. Hopelessness or despair often accompanies intense anxiety and sadness when people feel powerless and a lack of control over their environment.

Another typical reaction to social unrest is frustration and irritability, which if left unchecked, can progress to anger, hatred, black-and-white thinking, dehumanization, thoughts of revenge - and ultimately more violence.

While it is important to acknowledge these feelings within ourselves, anger and hatred only serve to further divide, worsen existing tensions and ultimately leave everybody involved feeling much worse in the end. The deceptive thing about anger is that it gives people a false sense of control that they do not feel with fear, anxiety, depression, despair and hopelessness.

However, this is an illusion, as it is very fleeting and only ends up perpetuating the cycle of pain and suffering. We should resist the impulse to choose sides amid a a media climate that feeds off polarization. We would do well to remember that pain and suffering do not discriminate and affect everyone.

What can we do to improve our emotional well-being during such disturbing times? The first and most practical thing is to limit our exposure to traumatic and provocative media content. We might need to follow such coverage to ensure our safety, particularly if we are traveling through areas of social unrest. But in all other circumstances it does little good to view media coverage more than once a day. We should seek neutrally reported news coverage as much as possible to avoid excessive polarization.

It is also very important to find physical outlets for our mental and emotional stress. These could include cardiovascular exercise, weight training, cross training or hikes in nature. Some forms of exercise include creative and/or spiritual aspects, such as dance and yoga, and these could have additional benefits beyond physical fitness.

Many people will experience insomnia or other sleep-related difficulties during these times. Sleep is a critical aspect of our wellness, as it restores homeostasis and provides us with a critical reprieve from the fight-or-flight cycle of stress hormones during difficult times. You may need to see a medical expert if you are unable to sleep using relaxation techniques, warm showers or drinks, or other natural methods. It is also important to continue taking care of our bodies in terms of nutrition and hydration.

Beyond our individual selves, it is also important for us to continue having healthy connections with the world around us. These human interactions are not only important to a healthy and full life, but they also restore our faith in humanity.

The greatest antidote to a feeling of powerlessness is advocacy. This may be a great time for us to re-evaluate our lives and ask ourselves if we are doing enough to better our communities. We know that there are people in our community who are suffering. What are we doing to help them? What are we doing to ensure they do not feel left out, unheard, unseen and forgotten?

The seeds of this unrest may have been planted centuries ago, yet we can begin planting new seeds of love, resilience, togetherness, healing, wellness, unity and growth. Doing so will have the dual benefit of helping us at an individual level and also benefitting the world around us.

Categories: Community Engagement, Education, School of Medicine, Top Stories