There is a proverb that says “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”, and some days it seems as if we’ve arrived at our destination. For decades we’ve seen innovations and recommendations to protect us and our children from physical pain, from seatbelts and bike helmets to mouthguards and knee pads to crib bumpers and soft, rubberized baby spoons. (But don’t use crib bumpers anymore, they’re dangerous). These good intentions have prevented many injuries and deaths, but while our attention was focused on preventing injuries that heal with time, the world was breeding endless new ways to wound us psychologically, where healing takes much longer and sometimes never comes.
Psychological pain can be caused by the actions of others, as with bullying. It can also be the result of regret, grief, and loss, or from mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. Psychological pain is often invisible to the onlooker and therefore garners a lot less empathy than a physical injury. While we can’t put our finger on it, emotional pain can be far more traumatic than a physical injury. Psychology Today reports that emotional pain “echoes” more than physical pain – it leaves numerous reminders, associations, and triggers that can reactivate the pain when we encounter them. These triggers can evoke the same strong initial feeling of the emotional pain where unlike remembering the circumstances of physical pain, like breaking a bone or giving birth, you can’t will your body re-experience that physical pain.
Psychological pain brings with it short and long-term physical side effects like muscle pain, gastrointestinal problems, risky behaviors, substance abuse, eating disorders, panic, aggression, the list goes on and on. Psychological pain can be hell.
But we knew that and made feeble attempts to eliminate emotional pain as well with participation trophies, competitions that don’t have winners, and prizes for everyone. But where has that gotten us?
It’s a strange world we’ve created where schools can’t discipline children in a meaningful way or they run the risk of harming the offending children which creates a situation where, for example, bullies are emboldened to continue torturing classmates. If the bullied child meets their limit and throws a punch at their bully, they are arrested and often expelled. Classmates are terrified and scared – first by the bully, then by the potential to be arrested. Then all the kids go home to watch see more horror stories on the evening news before the over-sexualized sitcom or graphic police shows start at 7 PM. Or maybe they skip the TV and settle into their gaming chairs to pretend to shoot others or steal cars.
Their skulls protected, but their minds’ abused.
While preventing physical injury is wonderful, no one wants to be injured and the lives that have been saved from these innovations are priceless, it’s time to put just as much focus on our psychological health.
The past year has left few untouched by the pandemic – layoffs, lockdowns, school disruptions, and distance learning, missing family, celebrations, and events, not to mention those who have suffered through or lost loved ones to the coronavirus. The psychological impact of the pandemic is something most of us will be working through. This shared experience creates an opportunity to find ways to manage the emotional toll of the past year and hopefully learn skills that can be used for the rest of our lives.
The pandemic can cause “acute traumatic stress”. The virus is a threat to us and others, and the mitigation efforts have drastically changed our lifestyles causing a feeling of loss and grief, these both contribute to psychological/emotional pain.
The experts in the School of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco suggest focusing on what you can control (your attitude, personal safety, being kind, turning off the news, finding ways to still have fun) and letting go of the things you can’t (others following social distancing and mask rules, trying to predict what would happen, how others are acting/reacting, how long this will last). They say limiting media can help prevent anxiety and stress. They also suggest finding friends and family that can provide social support and a place to share and comfort feelings and concerns. Creating new routines, health activities, and eating well can help your mood and lessen the emotional impact as well.
Psychological well-being should be just as important as physical well-being. Considering the psychological impact of a situation or environment can promote empathy and understanding, giving us the insight to connect with others in a kind and supportive way. It’s not about being soft or giving people special treatment, it just taking a moment to realize that the “world” you live in is not the same as the “worlds” others do. Reminding yourself to look and listen before communicating (on and offline) could help relieve psychological pain, instead of accidentally inflicting more. And that costs a heck of a lot less than a bike helmet.