Tolerating Uncomfortable Emotions During a Pandemic

UConn Health clinical psychologist Cassandra Holinka suggests there’s a time and place for accepting our feelings rather than trying to change them.

A photo illustration of a stressed person on July 23, 2015. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

A photo illustration of a stressed person on July 23, 2015. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

There are a lot of tips on how to cope with anxiety, and even build psychological resilience in the context of COVID-19, social distancing, and quarantine. You might see suggestions like maintain exercise and physical activity, work on goals or projects, stay in contact with loved ones, keep a schedule, engage in healthy coping like deep breathing, find ways to give or contribute to the larger good, and focus on what you can control.

Dr. Holinka portrait in white coat
Cassandra Holinka is a clinical psychologist at UConn Health. (Photo by Tina Encarnacion)

I want to acknowledge that these are sound, evidence-based ways of managing anxiety and resilience. I encourage people to explore what works for them.

I also want to acknowledge that these are not “one size fits all” approaches, and while we can work on changing our responses to the stress and anxiety around COVID-19, there is also room for acceptance. Dialectical behavior therapy, a treatment developed by psychologist Marsha Linehan, is based on dialectics. That is, two opposing truths can simultaneously be true.

For example, here we can try to change our levels of fear, and we can accept them. We can take control, and notice what is out of our control. We can distract from our difficult emotions, and we can acknowledge and tolerate them.

This is about noticing what we need in the moment. Can we make space for painful and scary feelings, or are they so intense that we need to problem-solve them or distract from them? If you find that you can barely function and attend to necessary daily tasks because your anxiety is so high, then you might need to work on distracting or problem-solving to decrease your distress level.

We can distract from our difficult emotions, and we can acknowledge and tolerate them.

It is OK to try to change a feeling. But, if the intensity of the feeling is not so high that you are in danger or cannot function, the following are some strategies for noticing and validating stress and anxiety in the context of a pandemic. Take what works for you.

  • If time allows, take a few moments a day to slow down and be still. Can you sit and notice, what is your most prominent emotion in this moment? How intense is the feeling? Where do you feel it in your body? What does it feel like? Describe your experience in words. Consider the phrase, “I notice the feeling ___,” or, “Right now, I feel anxiety in my ___.”
  • Ask yourself, “How does my stress or anxiety make sense given the current situation?” Try to be factual. There is no right or wrong way to react to a pandemic. You have likely never been here before. Many emotions might make sense – fear, anger, sadness, disgust. Notice the reality of being unable to always feel positive feelings. Some situations naturally call for feelings that are a bit more uncomfortable.
  • Develop a mantra about tolerating uncomfortable feelings. You might spend some time telling yourself, “This is uncomfortable, and I can feel uncomfortable things,” “I can tolerate this anxiety,” or, “Today I can feel afraid.” Find whatever sentiment feels true to you.
  • Change your posture to one of acceptance. Sit in an upright and comfortable position with feet planted firmly on the ground. Open your hands and let them lie on your lap, palms up. Focus on breathing and being with whatever uncomfortable feelings come up for you.

Cassandra Holinka, clinical psychologist, UConn Health Department of Psychiatry