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It’s OK to Cry: Responding to a Global Crisis

March 31, 2020
Carrie Wilkens, PhD
Carrie Wilkens, PhD

Our world has changed and you have probably read every article about how we need to cope by staying mentally and physically engaged and connected to those we love. All of it is sound advice and worth taking.

But, what about your heartache? Your sadness about the world? People are dying and life as we have known it is forever changed. Your future feels uncertain and every time you tune into the news there are more images of loss.

You might find yourself feeling numb or kind of blanked out. You might find that you can’t sit still and are trying to do everything you can to stay distracted. You might find yourself reaching for substances that alter your emotions or engaging in activities that distract but also have downsides like gambling or binge eating late at night. While these are all completely normal attempts to cope, the sadness ultimately returns and when it is not tended to, it becomes heavier. The amount of drugs, alcohol, food, and distractions needed to block it out will grow and you might find yourself struggling more intensely with other emotions like anger. By not allowing yourself to feel sad, you run the risk of eventually not being able to feel anything at all, including joy.

As we try to find a way to move forward into a world with more uncertainties than we have faced in generations, we need to find ways to bring our completely normal human emotions along with us because trying to suppress them only leads to increased suffering. This is a moment of international trauma and how we process our feelings matters.

Pain, sadness, grief and anger are natural responses to this tragedy, and finding a way to let yourself experience these feelings will actually help you cope with your changing circumstances more effectively. Cultivating self-compassion for the part of you that is grieving will help you tend to your needs and help you get through these coming months by staying connected to yourself and those close to you.

As a therapist and as a fellow human, I encourage you to let yourself feel sad. Let yourself weep as that impulse comes up. If you find yourself holding back tears because you don’t want to make others feel upset, there are a couple of things for you to consider. First, it might be that the person you are not wanting to upset is really sad too and might find great comfort in being able to join you in sharing the sadness. Second, if you on some level know the people in your immediate circle cannot for whatever reason tolerate your expression of sadness, consider finding a group to connect with. The amount of free, online support groups popping up in response to this crisis is heartening. You can also find a therapist who can help you process and cope with your feelings. FInally, if all else fails, let yourself be sad in your own private way. If you have a job or responsibilities that make it so you can’t show your sadness, let the tears flow as you stand alone in the shower or stand at the sink doing dishes at the end of a long day. Find a place for your grief, like writing in a journal or doing artwork.

Letting yourself cry in response to all that is going on may be the kindest thing you can do for yourself. The wave of sadness will likely subside if you let it move through you and you can turn back to cooking dinner for your family. No feeling lasts forever and letting yourself be in touch with sadness will help you stay connected to your humanity and all that you care about. 

By the way, if you are someone who has been trying to reduce or stop using substances (or engaging in other compulsive behaviors), it is really  important to keep in mind that managing your feelings is a learned skill and learning takes time. You may not feel equipped to manage your feelings and find yourself turning to old ways of coping. Try to find some compassion for yourself and make sure you ask for support and guidance.   

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