How to Manage Emotions During Tumultuous Times

There's a lot going on in the world, and it can be hard to wrap your mind around it. Here's advice for managing your emotions when everything seems too much.

Please note: This article is not intended to replace the advice of a therapist and does not constitute treatment of a mental disorder. It is for informational purposes only.

The moment seniors have been waiting for all year has finally arrived: graduation. But with the unexpected pandemic substantially changing many of our lives, your celebration may not look like what you originally imagined. While the measures we’re taking to protect ourselves and our vulnerable citizens are extremely important, the uncertainty that comes with these measures can really take a toll on our emotions.

And all this may seem minor compared to what is happening in the country, which adds a whole new layer of emotions. You may be feeling confused, fearful, helpless, and distressed, possibly asking yourself questions like, “How do I know if myself and my family are safe?” “Why am I part of the one class that doesn’t get to graduate?” “How am I supposed to find a job or start college in the middle of this mess?” “Will I be able to pay my student debts?” or “What tragedy will happen next?” All these questions and the feelings that come with them are completely valid. Many of us are currently experiencing them—for instance, a number of people’s health is at risk, many people are losing their jobs, income is not certain for everyone, and we don’t know what’s coming next.

So how do we manage our emotions during these trying situations? If we can’t change the circumstances right away, how can we protect our minds through all the uncertainty? Let’s discuss how you can reframe your thoughts for a healthier emotional experience. 

Where does the problem lie?

The answer may lie in our thinking. Take a moment to observe how you feel in this current moment as you’re reading and try to notice the thoughts that surface from acknowledging these emotions. These thoughts may be subtle, almost unnoticeable—or they may be obvious and repetitive. Are they similar to the thoughts and questions mentioned above

Some theories within psychology, specifically in studies regarding anxiety, recognize the link between thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. For instance, it’s not necessarily an event that directly causes an emotion but rather the meaning a person gives to that event that can result in an emotional response. Therefore, the way we think about or interpret an event results in the negative emotions we’re experiencing and makes the situation more challenging to endure. 

Related: COVID-19: How to Cope With Anxiety

Practice adaptive thinking

The current situation is grim, and it’s okay to feel upset or confused over the state of the world and what’s been lost. While there may not be a lot of positives to these events, we can take steps to change the frequency or intensity of our thoughts to help balance our emotions while the situation takes its course and we figure out which factors of these events we could have an impact on.

In other words, we can try to practice more self-care and mindfulness. To start off, you should try thinking in an adaptive way. Adaptive thinking is characterized by purposefully modifying what’s going through your mind to try to notice another side to a situation, including those in which you perceive to have little or no control. It doesn’t mean you need to force yourself to think positively; quite honestly, there may not be many positives to find, so you likely wouldn’t believe those thoughts anyway.

How does adaptive thinking work?

To think adaptively is to find a different way to view a situation and rebalance the intensity of the emotions you’re having. As a result, our anxiety is likely to reduce and our negative emotions can be more easily channeled into something productive. Thinking adaptively takes effort, but it can help you in the long term. This ability to think on purpose is a good strategy to use in everyday life but especially when enduring difficult situations. When we choose new ways of thinking, we’re training our minds to exit the cycle of habitual thinking, which can often times be negative. 

Examples of adaptive thinking

If a recent college grad thinks, I will never be able to find a job, the student may feel hopeless, overwhelmed, and stressed. It’s easy to see how this thought can produce these emotions, especially because the word “never” may provide a sense of permanence to the situation. If a situation is negative and we perceive it as permanent, we may feel helpless because our minds believe the situation could never improve. So how can this student view the situation at a different angle—at an angle that reveals another side to the situation?

If we believe COVID-19 will eventually pass, one way to modify this thought may include: I may not be able to find a job during the pandemic, but it will pass one day, and I should be able to find a job then, which will allow me to get my finances back on track. This new way of thinking highlights the side of the situation involving the possibility of life getting back on track after the coronavirus—which can provide the student some emotional relief even if we don’t know when it will happen. Notice how this modified thought isn’t entirely positive, but it includes more information and practicality to provide a glimmer of hope compared to the original thought. 

Related: How to Manage Your Stress for Better Health as a Student

Common thoughts worrying students today

To jump-start the process of taking better care of our minds, let’s take a look at some common thoughts that students may be experiencing right now and some suggested adaptive thoughts that could provide some emotional relief. Each suggested adaptive thought below can and should be changed according to what works best for you and your situation. (Also, take note of any change in your emotions when reading both the common thought and the adaptive thought.)

  • Common thought: I won’t ever have a graduation to look back on.
  • Adaptive thought: Although I won’t have a graduation ceremony to look back on, my class will be remembered in history for its unique ways that we celebrated graduation: decorated cars, house drive-bys, lawn signs, and more.

  • Common thought: I’m about to start college during a pandemic, and I won’t have the typical college experience like everyone else does.
  • Adaptive thought: The coronavirus situation should pass, and regular campus life will be back on track someday.
  • Common thought: Jobs are not available during the coronavirus.
  • Adaptive thought: Many types of jobs may not be an option right now, but a lot of companies are having staff work from home, so they may still be hiring and could be a good place to start.

  • Common thought: I will always be in debt.
  • Adaptive thought: Given the current situation, I may be in debt for a while, but there are many debt-relief programs that I can look into to help me through this situation. 

  • Common thought: There’s nothing I can do as an individual to make the country’s current situation better.
  • Adaptive thought: There are a lot of opportunities to participate in activism, help educate others, and engage in important conversations about justice and equality. 

  • Common thought: My life is on hold, and I have no way to move forward right now.
  • Adaptive thought: I can use this time of pause to research jobs, develop skills, and reflect on what I want the future to look like. 

Related: Why It's Crucial to Care for Your Mental Health in College

Ask yourself: Does this work for me?

We’ll let you be the judge on this one: Do the adaptive thoughts help change your outlook on the current situation? If so, this could be a great tool to help you navigate through this time of uncertainty and perhaps could even allow you to share your knowledge with others who are in the same boat. If you didn’t find this exercise helpful, we hope you’ll find something that works for you—and don’t let it discourage you. People are different and need different coping tools. One thing is for sure: you’ve put in a lot of hard work to get where you are, you’re strong, and we will get through this together.

If you’re still struggling and need some more guidance, see our COVID-19 student resources page for important updates and information on the pandemic.

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About Jacleen Charbonneau

Jacleen Charbonneau is the founder of and senior tutor at iOpen Tutoring & College Prep. She specializes in college prep, test prep, and English subjects for teens around the world, conveniently hosting her services through Skype and FaceTime. She graduated with a BA in English from Assumption College and will soon hold her MA in Counseling Psychology, which provides her the right skills to not only to assist students academically but to understand them on a deeper level.


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