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Wellbeing for Refugee Service Providers during COVID-19: Am I Ok?

This post is one in a series on self-care and emotional wellbeing for refugee service providers during the COVID-19 crisis. For tips on how to help your clients cope, see: Helping Refugee Clients Cope During the COVID-19 Crisis and Helping Refugee Children and Parents Cope During the COVID-19 Crisis.

Irritation, disturbed sleep, dramatic mood swings… Each of these scenarios captures discussions I’ve had with people experiencing emotional distress:

“I slammed the door angrily when I realized I’d have to wait in line outside the grocery store again.”

“I keep waking up in the middle of the night; I’m not sure why, but I can’t seem to fall back asleep.”

“I started crying when I got off a video call with my family, when just a moment ago I felt happy.”

As the coronavirus pandemic redefines “normal,” many people are experiencing more symptoms of emotional distress. For most of us, seeing some of these signs some of the time isn’t too concerning. It’s when we begin to feel this way most of the time that it can become alarming. Learning to recognize signs of emotional distress in ourselves or our loved ones is one step towards beginning to cope. 

Self-Compassion and Trust

Imagine a child has just fallen off her bike. She has skinned her knee and is crying. She is hurt and scared, so instead of asking for help, she pushes you away when you approach. Before you can bandage the wound, you have to show compassion and let her trust that you can help her feel better.

Right now, those of us experiencing emotional distress are like the child who just fell off the bike. But we’re also like the adult who tries to help: we’re trying to figure out how to self-soothe. Just as in the story, that starts with self-compassion and trust. For instance, when we lose focus and can’t concentrate, many of us will get frustrated at ourselves. Instead, we can work towards having more compassion. We are still the same intelligent, capable people we were before, but we are dealing with more uncertainty now. We didn’t change, the circumstances changed. Having self-compassion and trust can help as we seek out self-soothing/coping strategies to help us feel better.

Coping Strategies to Try

Try to recognize the symptoms of emotional distress you may be feeling. Remember that loved ones often notice these signs first—listening to them can help. Then, make a list of the things that used to make you feel better. The best coping strategies are the ones we already know and have used in the past. Ask yourself if there’s a way to do those same things now, even with your current level of distress.

For example, if you love to read, but your attention span is low, you might try short stories or graphic novels. Remember to show yourself compassion. If you haven’t been able to focus for a while, start with reading for just five minutes, or even three minutes. If you want to continue afterwards, you can.

Below you’ll find a list of some signs of distress and suggestions for coping strategies. This is not intended to be exhaustive! Think of this as the starting point to a list that you can brainstorm for yourself based on what you enjoy and helps you to cope. For a wide selection of self-soothing and coping strategies together in one place, you can also explore the Center for Mind-Body Medicine’s The Transformation.

Signs of Distress

Ideas for Self-Soothing & Coping Strategies

Feeling sad or empty: We all know what sadness feels like. But when the weight of the sadness begins to feel like it holds us down, this is a sign of distress.

Feeling preoccupied with worries: Worrying is a normal part of life. But when we can’t do much else because our brains are fully focused on the worries, this is a sign of distress.

Loss of interest in activities that bring us joy: More than no longer wanting to go for that bike ride we generally love, this is a sign of distress when even imagining the bike ride feels like a chore.

  • It may seem counter-intuitive, but try doing the activity that used to bring you joy, even if just for two minutes.
  • Remember the last time you did the activity. Play the whole memory through in your mind. Imagine doing it now. What is the feeling associated with the activity? Make a list of other activities that give you that feeling and try them out.
Decreased or increased appetite: For many people, food is something we generally have control over. Sometimes when we feel out of control, we will use food to make us feel more in control, and eat more or less than usual. Either of these can be dangerous to our health.
  • Learn about mindful eating.
  • Give yourself other choices throughout the day. Ask: what else do you have control over?
Change in sleep patterns: Some of us may be sleeping all the time, while others can’t fall or stay asleep. Not getting enough sleep or getting too much sleep can both cause distress and be a sign of it.
Inability to concentrate:  We may notice that we can’t sit still long enough to read a book, listen to a favorite podcast, or watch a favorite show. This may be a sign of distress if it becomes a common pattern.
  • Practice self-compassion.
  • Take more frequent breaks.
  • Break your goals into smaller, more attainable pieces.
Irritability:  We may be experiencing this sign of distress if we frequently react disproportionately to small problems. Or we may find ourselves angry over something without being sure why.

Self-Care Questions

We are collecting anonymous questions, challenges and comments related to self-care to help inform future resources for refugee service providers. Please share below:

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