If it feels like your emotions are “all over the map” during these days of sequester and “physical distancing,” you are not alone. In addition to altering our schedules and delaying many of our plans, the closures and life interruptions will likely disrupt our sense of emotional balance.

Stress can be a good thing. For example, the stress of preparing for the final exam motivates us to study diligently.  Or, the stress of getting ready for a speaking engagement or a presentation at work inspires us to rehearse thoroughly.  However, the introduction of multiple significant stressors simultaneously can put us in a state of distress. Distress often upsets our emotional equilibrium.

Emotions are complex. I find it helpful to think of my emotional flow as a traffic pattern.  When we are following a normal routine, our emotions follow familiar roads. For instance, when we arrive at an intersection, there is a traffic light or stop sign that prompts us on when to stop and when to go.  The intersection entails certain risks, but we feel safe and confident because we are familiar with the pattern and we have a fairly high degree of certainty that others will follow the prescribed prompts.

However, when multiple stressors are suddenly and unexpectedly introduced into our life, our normative emotional traffic patterns are disrupted and often rerouted.  Imagine that you are approaching a major intersection at the juxtaposition of a couple of four-lane roads only to discover that there has been a power outage and the traffic signals are not working. 

Every vehicle approaching that intersection is trying to determine who should stop, who should go, and who is next. And because the normal standard (the traffic light) has been removed, chaos ensues until common courtesy is extended and cars proceed to navigate the intersection carefully knowing that though the drivers share the same goal (to get through the intersection), they do not have a mutually agreed upon method for navigating the new dynamics.

Describing a similar dilemma, Terry Pratchett cautioned, “This isn’t life in the fast lane, it’s life in the oncoming traffic.”

In recent days, in an effort to flatten the curve and minimize the impact of coronavirus, the preventative measures we all need to be taking have also created new and significant sources of stress for us. Depending on our individual circumstances, we may be adjusting to stressors such as working from home, providing childcare at home, losing our job or dealing with reduced income, caring for a sick friend or relative, adjusting to economic realities, or losing in-person contact with your primary social group or community of support.

Based on their level of emotional intelligence (EQ), some individuals can manage one to two significant stressors without throwing their emotional balance into a tailspin. But for most of us, the sudden and simultaneous addition of more than a couple of stressors creates a traffic jam in our emotional traffic flow.

What is the best way for us to navigate the rush hour traffic of our new emotional realities?

  • Slow down. Whenever we are navigating unfamiliar territory, we need to travel at a slower pace.
  • Anticipate emotional fluctuations. Momentary surges in anxiety, frustration, anger, and melancholy are normal.
  • Exercise patience. Be patient with yourself as the new normal actually becomes more normal.
  • Own your emotions. Discuss your emotional fluctuations with a trusted friend, accountability partner, or counselor. Verbalizing your emotions may prove to be therapeutic.
  • Become grounded in your faith. Let your spirituality serve as an anchor. Emotions are fickle, even when they are held in balance.
  • Fly by the instrument panel. Like a veteran pilot landing a plane in the fog, make decision based on what you “know,” not how you “feel” at any given moment.

In this season of temporary shutdowns, heightened anxiety, and elevated concern, be assured that we are all novices, not experts, at dealing with the ramifications of a pandemic. And based on age, health, genetics, and many other factors, every individual has a unique emotional composition. 

As we navigate the emotional turbulence within, let us be patient with ourselves.  And let us be patient with others who are struggling with emotions that are “all over the map.”

Barry Howard
Barry Howard serves as pastor at the Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta, and as a leadership coach with the Center for Healthy Churches.