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A User's Guide to Healing

Let’s be honest: Tough times stink. But there are surprising benefits to coping with challenges (like, say, a global pandemic). Here’s how to make it through even stronger than you were before. 

Take a moment to think about the word trauma. You might use it when you’re dramatizing a stressful situation (“Taking that French test was traumatic!”). And you probably hear it a lot on medical shows (“Get this patient to the trauma unit, stat!”). But do you know what it actually means? According to the American Psychiatric Association, trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event. Between remote learning, being isolated from friends and family, worrying about our health and our loved ones’ health, and possibly even losing someone close to us, the Covid-19 pandemic definitely counts as a terrible event. So most of us are probably at least a little bit traumatized by the past year (and counting).

The good news is, going through a trauma can actually help you cope with tough times in the future. Managing the hard emotions that come up during stressful situations can build resilience, which is the ability to recover from setbacks. The following five feelings are super-common ways of responding to trauma, so read on for some mental health expert-approved tips for processing traumatic events. (Bonus: Even if you’ve come through the pandemic A-OK, these tips are great to keep in your back pocket for any challenging situation.)

You Feel: Disconnected from your friends. 

Why It’s Normal: Not only have safety measures made it difficult to stay connected, but you and your friends probably all have gone through unique challenges over the past year and a half that impacted you in different ways. You might be feeling like you have a lot less in common these days, and that can make it hard to relate to one another.

How to Cope: When we get in our heads about whether things are weird or awkward, things get more weird and awkward. “You start getting distracted by your thoughts or trying too hard,” says Regine Galanti, therapist and author of Anxiety Relief for Teens. Instead of pretending everything’s fine, acknowledge the weirdness. Your friends probably feel it too, and saying it out loud when you see them at school or on Zoom (“Wow, this feels super awkward!”) will help break the ice. This is also a good opportunity to practice your friendship skills. If a friend is having a tough time, let them know you’re there for them if they want to talk about it.

You Feel: Just. So. Tired.

Why It’s Normal: Going through a difficult experience can take a lot out of you, both physically and emotionally. It’s appropriate for your body to respond to all that stress by wanting to get as much rest as possible. It’s also not uncommon to fall into not-so-great health habits—like eating poorly, not exercising, and staying up late—when you’re having a tough time, and those habits can make you feel tired too.

How to Cope: Know that a big change in sleep habits (sleeping all the time or not sleeping at all) can be a symptom of a serious mental health issue, so talk to someone if your sleep troubles have been going on for a while. (See “When Not OK Is Not OK.”) Also take good care of yourself—eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, get some form of exercise every day (a walk around the block counts!), and try to go to bed around the same time each night and get at least eight hours of sleep.

You Feel: Totally fine, even when everyone around you is having a hard time.

Why It’s Normal: There’s no universal experience for any challenging event. We all react and cope in different ways, says trauma therapist Caryn Moore, who saw plenty of her teen patients thrive during the pandemic. Bottom line: There’s no “wrong” response to a stressful life event.

How to Cope: First, do a gut check. If you feel fine only when you’re distracting yourself, that’s a sign you might be avoiding your true feelings. But if your gut says, “I really am fine,” embrace it! And maybe double down on those positive feelings by expressing some gratitude. Studies show that thinking about what you’re grateful for—such as the people who got you through the past year—increases feelings of well-being. Write a card, send a sweet text, or just say “Hey, thanks” to your support team (that can also include essential workers like your doctor, grocery store clerk, and bus driver).

You Feel: Like school is an uphill battle.

Why It’s Normal: Feeling distracted by what’s going on in your life can have a serious impact on your schoolwork. Plus, if you’ve been remote learning but you’re full-time in-person now, it might be a shock to be back in the classroom.

How to Cope: Talk to a trusted adult, like a parent, school counselor, or teacher about your struggles. Your teachers want you to succeed, so let them know if you’re feeling overwhelmed. And remember that you’re probably out of practice at in-person learning and might need extra support for a while. “You can figure out how to learn again,” suggests Galanti. “Try studying with friends, finding a tutor, or watching educational YouTube videos.”

You Feel: Anxious about leaving the house.

Why It’s Normal: Anxiety is your body’s way of keeping you safe by alerting you to potential danger so you can be ready to react. That’s why your heart starts racing when you’re approaching the top of a roller coaster. You know you’re strapped in and safe, but all your anxiety sees is how dangerously high up you are. Same thing goes for the anxiety you feel about going outside. In tough times, home can feel like the only safe place—so your anxiety tells you to keep your front door shut.

How to Cope: Start small, like by taking a five-minute walk around the block with a family member. Then work up to bigger outings (as long as they’ve been deemed safe by authorities). If you start to feel anxious when you’re out, take note of what you see, hear, and smell. Tuning in to your senses will help you stay grounded and keep your anxiety under control. Repeating the phrase “I am in my body,” either in your head or out loud, can also help you stay calm.

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