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Combating Anxiety, Panic, and Loss of Purpose During the COVID-19 Pandemic

COVID-19 is a novel experience for everyone. It’s not surprising if we’re experiencing some anxiety or uncertainty about life currently as unpredictable events rapidly unfold. We may be experiencing dramatic work changes, including *job loss, and feel that some of our hobbies have to be discontinued. We may also experience a loss of purpose due to confusion about our identities – what a time this is for personal growth! When we’re forced to stop what we were doing to keep ourselves busy or distracted, there is plenty of time for self-reflection while many of us sit still.

How often is it that we get to question who we are when we’re busy compared to who we are without everything that we do? Do we still value ourselves in the same way? Let’s see…

Who are you now that you may no longer have school or work? Who were you when you had those things? Who were you as a child, before work or school even began to dominate your life?

These can be truly challenging questions, as school and work have been critical elements of how we’ve defined ourselves. The structure, routine, and self-esteem that we’ve developed through work are almost just as valuable to us as food and shelter. So, when these components of our daily living that gave us purpose are taken away from millions of people, it is understandable that we may feel lost.

If you’ve recently experienced anxiety, panic, frustration, confusion, and loss of purpose, you are not alone. We’re all in this together! The following list includes some research-validated strategies that you can do, on your own or with those you are self-isolating with, to improve your mental stability and emotional well-being.

  1. Maintaining structure and consistency – this can look like waking up, eating, and having enjoyable activities at similar times each day
  2. Therapy! Video/phone calling a therapist, psychologist, counselor, or other mental health professionals can empower you to feel calmer and develop healthful solutions. Free 24/7 helplines that are especially useful for expressing depression, anxiety, and emotional stress during COVID include…
    • USA’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Disaster Distress Helpline 1-800-985-5990
    • New Zealand – call or text 1737 for a counselor (available 24/7)

  1. Keeping in touch – this is a great opportunity to get creative with how you interact with others from a physical distance
    • Write letters (for you to give to them whenever physical contact permits)
    • FaceTime/Skype/video call
    • Play games, such as ‘Song Association’, which involves recalling a song that has a certain word with a 10-second time frame (inspired by ELLE’s videos)

  1. Make healthful food choices that should…
    • be emotionally satisfying
    • help you to feel physically well
  2. Practice mindful eating
    • This can transform your relationship with food and significantly enhance overall health
  3. Cook/bake
  4. Meditate
    • Breathing deeply can enhance the rest of your entire day by restoring calmness
    • You could use a mobile app such as Headspace
  5. Exercise to improve your mood and maintain wellness
    • Be vigilant to not use exercise as a form of ‘compensation’ for eating more than usual while in lockdown – this is a disordered eating symptom and can impact you in having a healthy relationship with food

  1. Massages – take turns with those you live with to pamper yourselves
  2. Art – paint, draw, color in, etc.
  3. Create space for yourself to have ‘me’ time
  4. Yoga
  5. Replace the need to drink alcohol / take illicit substances for comfort with the need for therapy
    • There is always an emotional drive to want to engage in these behaviors, it is brave to confront your feelings and discuss them with a therapist

  1. Hug a furry friend
  2. Rollerblade/ride a bike
  3. Refer to RELIABLE news sources

  1. Limit/customize social media use!
    • When you’re already feeling fearful, your brain naturally seeks out stimuli to reinforce your fear and blocks out information that doesn’t align with your current emotional state
    • Thus, limiting exposure to social media, which can engage viewers in compassionate speech but also unnecessary criticism or panic, can alleviate anxiety
    • Follow accounts/pages that make you feel good instead of ones that perpetuate negative feelings about the pandemic
  2. Find your safe space – a location at home or outside in a quiet area that enables you to feel calm and connected with yourself
  3. Tidy up – a clean space facilitates a clean mind
    • the reality is that we will be living this way for many weeks/months, so it’s valuable to make your living space comfortable and fresh

  1. Backyard camping trip – pitch a tent in your garden
  2. Living room dance party!
  3. Sing
  4. Play instruments
  5. Journaling
    • Self-reflecting helps to organize your thoughts and reduces stress
    • Writing positive affirmations can be powerful in protecting your mental health

While this list may help you to keep anxiety at bay in the meantime, a crucial takeaway for everyone to have from the COVID-19 pandemic is that you have inherent self-worth and you’re more than what you do.

The loss of identity can be confusing and difficult when you placed significant value on all that you identified with. You may no longer be a graduate student, retail consultant, or construction worker. However, you are still kind, loving, compassionate, a friend, a human being, and alive. That is all you ever need to be because you are enough as you are, just being.

So, who are we? I’m not sure if we’re ever supposed to know exactly, and that’s one of the miraculous aspects of life itself.

However, for now, who am I? I simply am.


*Job loss is devastating as the livelihoods of many have been deeply compromised during this time. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me if you’d like me to help determine what governmental assistance could be of use to you or others who are struggling financially

Short Statement on Racism

The overwhelming support for Black Lives Matter has been great. However, we can’t only stand up for what’s right when racism takes place in its most extreme forms of homicide and brutality. Racism starts out as the subtle comments heard in everyday life, which can traumatize many, if not all, people of color.

Racism is being told that you’re hot… “for an Asian/non-white person”.

Racism is condemning America for their outspoken racism while seeing yourself as better than Americans for being in a different country and believing that it doesn’t happen where you are.

Racism is admiring black NBA players but avoiding looking at black people when walking past them on the street.

Racism is supporting white people when they academically perform while saying that Indian, Chinese, Singaporean, Korean and others with Asian ethnicities are just ‘naturally smart’.

Racism is partying on Australia Day without acknowledging that the day celebrates the mass killings, incarceration, and land takeover of Aboriginal people (Australia’s indigenous people).

Racism must be addressed in all its forms in order to prevent its progression to the physical extremities that cost innocent lives. We must continue to stand up for black lives and all people of color whenever we encounter discrimination. Bless you all ❤

Mental Trauma of the Working Class: Solutions to Oppression, Sexual Violence, and Malnutrition

*Trigger warning: discussion of sexual abuse

When we think of poverty, we think of what is in the wallet. However, the poor talk about what is in the mind and heart (1). In ‘The Working Poor: Invisible in America’, David Shipler exposes the turmoil of millions of working-class Americans who were born into injustice yet contribute substantially to our country’s prosperity. They create the image of the ‘American Dream’ that conceals the jarring truths of the working poor. Although the working class silently suffers in the most powerful country in the world, this issue is pervasive globally. When a working family experiences a crisis, struggles in one aspect of life augment miseries in another.

Crises include the intertwined issues of poor education, debt, social exclusion, malnutrition, and mental illness. Shipler explains the poor’s struggles of declining mental and physical health which negatively impact a family’s budget and diet. This was demonstrated through the horrific conditions that El Monte immigrant sweatshop workers were subject to (2), and the life-long battle with sexual abuse trauma that many low-income women face (3,4). With poverty comes food insecurity, resulting in devastating outcomes of hunger and malnutrition. These consequences strike families with a myriad of health issues that exacerbate the pain of living in perpetual debt (5).

Those with a permanently low-income include sweatshop workers. Legal and illegal immigrants from third-world countries are paid extraordinarily little for their intensive labor in sewing shops – sometimes far below the federal minimum wage (6). Sweatshops are found all across the world, including Europe, Asia, Britain and the US, due to the ludicrous demand for clothing to be made and delivered abnormally fast. A barrier that immigrants face in responding to their financial hardship is their commitment to a life of pain. It becomes their only choice when they are emotionally threatened through deception, fear, and abuse.

A sweatshop that had tumultuous ramifications on its employees’ budgets was El Monte in Los Angeles. The company employed Thais at less than a dollar per hour. They were deceived through the promise of a well-paid life in America but were instead enslaved to manufacture clothing for 17 to 18 hours daily. They were subject to perilous working and housing conditions that amplified the severity of physical and mental illnesses. They also faced emotional abuse as they were told that their families in Thailand would be murdered if they resisted or escaped work (2). Immigrants forced themselves to endure this mistreatment due to their fear of deportation and promise to send money home to loved ones.

Overall health declination is also faced by the greater proportion of women in poverty who were sexually abused compared to those of high socio-economic classes. The myriad of other factors that contribute to poverty in their lives intensify their suffering, such as a low income. Most importantly, unresolved sexual abuse trauma can feel like a lifetime of crippling pain. Unlike debt, it cannot be erased by declaring bankruptcy. Shipler describes the story of Kara King, a young mother who was repetitively molested by her father in her childhood. Childhood sexual abuse can damage a victim’s capacity for intimacy in adulthood and result in the failure to form healthy relationships with family members. Victims are stripped of their confidence to perform in the workplace which further drives poverty. Hence, sexual abuse has ramifications on a family’s budget as the mental struggles it induces causes damage to a household’s economic potential.

A giant barrier to Kara’s management of her trauma was the emotional distance she created between herself and her partner. As disclosure of such a horrific past is an incredibly vulnerable act, victims struggle in finding consolation from others. Without social support, sufferers rely only on their minds that have been skewed by extreme hurt. They may blame themselves for the pain imposed by their childhood assailants, causing victims to yearn for intimate relationships that provide protection and care. These relationships can be easily compromised and broken by the victim’s fear of sexual exploitation. This can then contribute to conflict-laden households which compromise the physical and mental health of affected families.

Additionally, women who cannot afford contraception are susceptible to lives of single parenthood. This is a colossal handicap for low-income earners as 59% of all poor families have only one wage-earner (4). Women who face sexual trauma are also more likely to intentionally have children young. It is perhaps an outlet for them to channel love to their child in a way that does not remind them of the pain their own parents inflicted upon them. However, premature pregnancy can result in the inadequate provision of a child’s financial and emotional needs. Adolescents who engage in early sexual activity as a result of childhood sexual abuse should be given family planning and mental health counseling to reduce the likelihood of making hasty decisions to have children early (7). Kara’s story demonstrates the importance of a loving, support system to help sexual abuse victims process their trauma. The subsequent economic success that could arise from this would give families greater chances of achieving adequacy in other areas of their lives, especially nutrition.

The daily crises the poor face have severe ramifications on their diet. What creates further difficulty is the cyclic pain of poverty that many immigrants and sexual abuse victims endure as it usually overrides their consideration of a healthy diet as important. For example, nutrition is not a priority for immigrants when they lack proper immigration papers or English fluency (8). The lack of sustenance is highly problematic, as a depleted mind and body cannot be productive to generate income. Issues present even when a healthy diet takes precedence. The rough neighborhoods that sweatshop workers live in are short of whole foods that support adequate nutrition. They also cost exorbitant prices, so the poor succumb to cheap, nutrient-devoid foods that are calorically-dense for survival. Excess consumption of these foods can lead to many illnesses, including diabetes, heart disease and cancer. The health of the poor is then greatly endangered, causing medical care expenditure which creates more debt (9).

Hope should not be lost in the management of the seemingly endless struggles that the poor face. Many support groups exist for those in poverty, such as the organization, ‘So Others Might Eat’ (SOME) (10). They provide free benefits, including food, clothing, and healthcare (11). Attendants include those with mental illnesses, victims of sexual abuse, and those with drug addictions. SOME’s supplementation of a trauma and addiction treatment program was beneficial to ensuring that sufferers receive emotional support along with dietary adequacy.

SOME’s holistic services address the interconnected factors that intensify poverty altogether which is beneficial compared to focusing only on proximate causes. For example, someone’s drug addiction is not the problem. What drives them to take drugs, such as the escape of sexual abuse trauma, is the true issue. However, a problem that SOME faced was that many attendants still found it difficult to transition into a productive life after following their programs (10). A strategy for organizations in supporting others with a smoother progression into society is the addition of more halfway houses. These structured environments for long periods of stay (~90 days) are conducive to recovery. This setting could involve résumé writing lessons, mock interview sessions, and social support while residents seek employment (12). Organizations like SOME could also reach immigrants by advocating for their services in multiple languages, including Spanish, Chinese, Thai, Korean and Maori (in New Zealand).

It is clear that immense hardships are regularly faced by millions of the unheard working class. The working class reality falsifies the notion that hard work equates to financial freedom as they work relentlessly to be trapped in low-paying jobs for life. Immigrants produce our luxury with hands of pain and humility as they “clothe and comfort the Americans they wish to emulate” (13). Sexual abuse victims often lead lives as single parents while battling demons of their past. They, along with all working poor, are at the brink of disaster as a single disruption in their lives can be catastrophic. They face a constellation of challenges in which holistic, systematic approaches are needed for hope and pain alleviation. Without sufficient income to pay for a sustainable supply of nutritious foods, the health of the poor continues to suffer. The agony that low-wage workers face while performing essential services that drive our nation’s economy is shameful. This is not the American dream that we should glamorize.

References

  1. Shipler, DK. The Working Poor. New York: Random House, 2004. 10.
  2. Ibid., 80-81.
  3. Ibid., 143
  4. Ibid., 144.
  5. Ibid., 207.                                                                                    
  6. Ibid., 90.
  7. Ibid., 145.
  8. Ibid., 57.
  9. Ibid., 201-218.                                                                                                              
  10. Ibid., 255.                          
  11. Ibid., 308.           
  12. Ibid., 258.                          
  13. Ibid., 77.

Policy Development for Preventing and Treating Eating Disorders

The above attachment is a policy paper I wrote in early 2019 about Eating Disorders (EDs) as a public health crisis, and how policies and population health interventions could be developed to resolve this issue.

EDs are life-threatening medical illnesses that affect millions globally. ED sufferers are at greater risk for mental co-morbidities such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, which can lead to suicide. The public must become aware that EDs are mental illnesses as they have long been falsely stigmatized to be lifestyle choices, which can deter governments from funding ED policy development. As EDs are a major issue that would continue to grow without federal interventions, public health professionals must try to halt the rate of EDs which has had unprecented growth over the past two decades.

Perpetuating factors and potential root causes of ED symptoms include unresolved trauma and PTSD, as they increase stress severity and vulnerability in affected individuals. Political and economic factors, such as job loss from a government shut-down, also create ED risk as they may result in low incomes. This paper will explore all these major factors of ED development and approaches that we can take together to mitigate this issue that has been quietly embedded in society for too long.

“At Least I Have a Roof Over My Head” – Is Comparing Your Suffering Actually Useful?

Sitting on a soft carpet warmed by sunlight coming through large windows that boasted a cloudless blue sky, I took a bite of my fresh strawberry and peanut butter toast. Taking another bite of my privilege, I started to label myself much more in that way – privileged.

What a luxury to have during this time. Why do I still feel lost and depressed sometimes even though I have a full pantry and hot water running? People are trying to feed themselves… I should be more grateful.

Have you also found yourself thinking this way lately, comparing your suffering to others?

Whether it’s, “I feel so alone, but I shouldn’t complain, I haven’t lost any family members during this pandemic.”

Or, “I’m devastated that I’ve lost my job and purpose. I shouldn’t be upset though, at least I have a roof over my head”?

These are all examples of comparative suffering, which makes us think of suffering as a competition. It may seem to be useful in feeling grateful for what we have, but this way of thinking can actually worsen our situation. Viewing your emotional pain relative to others’ can invalidate your suffering. It can also lead to suppressing your emotions, which is like “pressing on the gas and brakes of your car at the same time”. Emotion suppression can result in depression and anxiety as well as physical illness including stomach pain, headaches, insomnia, and heart disease.

By forcing yourself to only feel happy by focusing on what you have (that other people don’t) doesn’t allow space for you to work on your struggles. Even if you’re initially satisfied by comparing your hardships to others, this feeling is always short-lived because your problems will come back to confront you. Ideally, you want to address them by seeking help and developing healthy behaviors to improve your mental well-being.

Some other negative impacts of comparative suffering include…

Making false judgments about others

  • Assuming that others have a better life than you is just your perception and not always the truth. For example, Elon Musk was filing for divorce while his record-breaking Tesla 3 launch occurred and Steve Jobs was on his deathbed when planning out the next several years of Apple. Everyone endures hardship, so no one has it easy!

Persistently feeling low

  • Seeing yourself as having it worse than others can lead to wallowing in self-pity instead of being inspired to improve the situation

Harming your relationships with others

  • If you perceive your problems as worse than others and assume that they may not understand you, you can unintentionally distance yourself from them. Your family members and friends don’t intend to hurt you with their achievements or joyful moments. They care about you, hoping that your situation turns around right alongside you!

Making it harder for you to empathize with those with “less” suffering

  • Seeing your problems as worse than others may lead you to see their struggles as insignificant. Your friends in pain may feel scared opening up to you, which closes off your opportunities to be empathetic to others. This can hinder your relationships and personal growth
  • Dismissing one’s struggles and withholding compassion may not enable your friend to have the social support and opportunity for introspection that they need

So, while comparative suffering may seem like a beneficial pattern of thinking, it can actually hurt others while creating shame and guilt for yourself.

Now, here are some feelings that I’ve had during this time…

After an overwhelming mission of evacuating Ithaca (a foresty, waterfall town in New York State), where I felt at home for the past years, my boyfriend and I arrived to New Zealand’s mandatory 14-days of self-isolation after 3 flights in 2 days. It was filled with laughter and genuine gratitude along with pain and confusion. As we neared the end of our journey indoors, my excitement to burst out the doors, swallow the ocean air and inhale restaurant-made burgers had accumulated greatly, only to be met with the announcement of a 1-month nationwide lockdown (honestly great work NZ Government).

Already worn down, I started to feel the most unmotivated I had ever felt in my entire life. I barely moved my body and wanted to do so much yet absolutely nothing at the same time. Lacking purpose and social interaction were so taxing for me that I felt insecure and displaced in the country I was born in after unwillingly leaving my American life. In an attempt to navigate my sorrows, I started depending on what had been normalized to us all throughout our lives – comparative suffering.

As we know based on what we’ve just learned about comparing ourselves to others, it didn’t help. However, ever since I’ve sat with the reality that times are uncertain right now for us all and empathized with myself, I’ve navigated my hardships without guiltily seeking gratitude. I’ve accepted myself by affirming that it’s okay for me to feel everything that I feel. I’ve also embraced my difficult emotions as opportunities to confront deep-rooted insecurities that I’ve probably always had but were masked by my daily life routine.

I now aim to focus on restarting my life in New Zealand with the help of therapy and group meditation. Home is a feeling not a place, so I believe that I can feel this way anywhere I go.

In conclusion…

We need to be kinder to ourselves in order to be kinder to others. Burying feelings because we perceive others to have it harder or easier than us won’t make them disappear. We deserve the heightened appreciation that we have for the times that we feel good, which we might not have had before when life supposedly was good more often. We also deserve to learn and grow vastly from the pain that we experience.

So in the meantime, take another bite of that toast that makes you feel good in the moment. Embrace the contentment and solitude as much as you can also embrace the despair and pain, because we need all of it for the complete human experience.


“And People Stayed At Home…”

And people stayed at home
And read books
And listened
And they rested
And did exercises
And made art and played
And learned new ways of being
And stopped and listened
More deeply
Someone meditated, someone prayed
Someone met their shadow
And people began to think differently
And people healed.
And in the absence of people who
Lived in ignorant ways
Dangerous, meaningless and heartless,
The earth also began to heal
And when the danger ended and
People found themselves
They grieved for the dead
And made new choices
And dreamed of new visions
And created new ways of living
And completely healed the earth
Just as they were healed.

By Irene Vella

Thank you to my lovely friend Rebecca Melham who shared this poem!

Eating Disorder Recovery Article – Project Heal

“Unresolved trauma maintains eating disorders as it makes affected people much more susceptible to stress and pain”

— Steph Tan.

This is a personal article I wrote for Project Heal, one of America’s largest platforms for eating disorder advocacy. I wanted to share a story about the importance of childhood trauma in impacting in mental health and dietary choices. I touch on my recovery from orthorexia to show how I navigated my own struggles. I hope this can inspire others to dive into the uncomfortable and explore emotions around mental illness and disorderly eating. By confronting these challenges, you can discover the strength you may have never known you had.

The link is shared below: https://www.theprojectheal.org/healblog/2019/6/20/lets-not-ignore-pain-lets-confront-it

As the above link is no longer available, the article is shown below: