When the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown began in the United States last March, our “normal” routines of daily life were interrupted in countless ways. The home transformed into the office, the classroom, the gym, the church. Businesses closed or greatly altered their operations. Layoffs were abundant; gatherings and events were nearly nonexistent. Social distancing and wearing face masks became familiar ways of life. And for many of us, most of these changes persist today with unclear predictions for the future. Amidst these sudden changes and uncertain feelings, our mental health has taken a hit.
Anxiety, stress, sudden changes in routine, loneliness…each of these tests our ability to cope with our feelings and circumstances. Coping mechanisms are strategies we develop to help manage our emotional state. Oftentimes they can be healthy and supportive of our long-term health and wellness. Other times, however, they can create more problems than they solve.
Coping mechanisms can become maladaptive, meaning that they are helpful in some immediate or short-term manner but often come with harmful, long-term consequences. For example, one of my young adult clients was feeling overwhelmed at school. She started turning to social media to “check out” from the stress for a little while. She would find a funny video, laugh for a few minutes, and then return to what she was working on. This helped her feel a bit lighter emotionally. However, her “checking out” started lasting longer and longer, causing her to fall further behind in school. Social media became her go-to coping mechanism, and she was unknowingly conditioning herself to use it to relieve stress, thereby becoming a compulsive user. This short-term coping mechanism did not serve her long-term wellness and exacerbated other issues she faced.
Some evidence has shown that many people are relying on maladaptive coping mechanisms to get through this pandemic. An August 2020 surveillance report by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found a sharp rise in alcohol sales throughout many states during the pandemic. Forbes reported on a cannabis industry white paper which showed that after an initial spike in cannabis sales, likely due to “panic buying” in March, sales stabilized at a volume 40% higher than they were in 2019. Video game manufacturers also saw a sharp increase in sales in March and April. With the decline of most major sports due to the threat of athletes spreading COVID-19, E-sports took off on platforms such as Twitch. This is not surprising, as many people in America were stuck at home and seeking forms of entertainment to stave off boredom.
Maladaptive coping mechanisms can only carry us for so long. Our brains are wired for rewards-based learning, which means that we learn through satisfying our urges and cravings. Rewards-based learning occurs through the process of encountering a stimulus or trigger, acting to satisfy that trigger, and receiving a biochemical reward in our brains. This process becomes problematic in modern society, however, when more potent forms of food, drugs, or entertainment come into play. Our brains reward us in greater amounts, and positive associations are formed more quickly because of the increased potency of these stimuli. This explains why we keep going back to our old bad habits: it’s because our brains have been hijacked.
Stress and anxiety also contribute to an erosion of our willpower. The prefrontal cortex—the front portion of our brains just behind the forehead—is responsible for our decision-making and executive functioning. It also the part of the human brain that has evolved most recently. This means that it isn’t as powerful as we give it credit for. From an evolutionary perspective, the “older” parts of our brain (the brain stem and limbic system) are more powerful. When we feel intense emotions, the prefrontal cortex goes dark on brain scans, and the “older” parts of our brains light up with stimulation. Even though the prefrontal cortex is responsible for decision-making and executive functioning, these more highly evolved parts of the brain literally take over in times of stress and anxiety. No wonder our urges are hard to control!
In his TED talk on rewards-based learning and breaking habits, Dr. Judson Brewer poses that one solution to this problem is the proper application of mindfulness. If we can slow down, recognize a craving or feeling, get curious about it, and engage in the behavior mindfully, we are better equipped to manage our emotions and cravings. Mindfulness teacher Michele McDonald developed an easy acronym to assist this mindfulness process: R.A.I.N.
Falling back into maladaptive coping mechanisms can also cause us to feel a certain way in response to our feelings. For example, if I buy some candy and eat all of it over the course of a weekend, I might feel ashamed and critical of myself. In this example, shame and self-criticism are called meta-emotions—they are literally feelings about your feelings! If you believe a feeling you are experiencing is unproductive, that may be a meta-emotion. If you feel overwhelmed by your feelings, that also may be a meta-emotion. Encountering meta-emotions is another opportunity to apply curiosity and R.A.I.N.
If maladaptive coping mechanisms have greatly disrupted your life in the wake of COVID-19 and pandemic anxiety, please seek help. Many therapists and support groups have moved online or have implemented safety measures for in-person sessions. Telehealth and teletherapy services have become more and more available as a response to increased demand during the pandemic. Wilderness therapy is also an effective option for adolescents and young adults who may be facing their own issues related to the pandemic and any unhealthy coping mechanisms they’ve developed.
If your mental health is struggling due to the pandemic, you are not alone. This is something we are experiencing on a local, national, and global level. Naming your loneliness, isolation, depression, or anxiety to an individual or understanding group of people is often the first step to seeking and receiving help.