Why You Shouldn't Feel Guilty About Putting Yourself First Right Now

During both a pandemic and social uprising, a therapist explains why Black Americans should still make room for mental health.

We’re in the midst of both a global pandemic and social revolution. From focusing on the seriousness of COVID-19’s effect worldwide to keeping up with the overwhelming evidence of America’s institutional racism, it’s an understatement to say that we are exhausted. At this time, it’s important that we have tough conversations with family and friends, and anyone we know who may not understand the severity of remaining silent. But having these conversations can be draining, and during this time it’s also important to put yourself first and manage your mental health.

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DoctorOz.com spoke with Delena Zimmerman, LMFT, founder of Delena Zimmerman Therapy in Culver City, CA. to shed some light on how Black Americans can better manage our stress during this time. Here’s what she had to say on handling the constant news cycle, battling everyday emotions, and more.

Managing an Overload of Information 

Zimmerman’s immediate response was simple: do not overload. An overload of information is never good for anyone; it causes more harm by driving your body into panic mode. Zimmerman stresses the importance of listening to your body and taking a step back when it sends signals of distress. Some of these signals may include headaches, chest pains, or fatigue which stem from anxiety, lack of motivation, or feeling overwhelmed. 

“For people who find themselves feeling overwhelmed, my advice to them would be to unplug and find a healthy replacement,” says Zimmerman. A healthy replacement could range anywhere from meditation to riding a bike. But keep in mind that it’s important to find active ways to manage stress

According to Mayo Clinic, inactive strategies to manage stress, such as watching TV or surfing the internet, actually enhance your stress levels in the long run. Some active strategies include regular exercise, spending time with family and friends, and keeping a sense of humor. Find ways to keep your spirits lifted and your mind engaged. Zimmerman also suggests finding books that are enjoyable and spending time with yourself to build an internal connection, as opposed to relying on the external world for validation. 

Managing Emotions 

If you’ve found that you’ve already overloaded and need help finding inner peace, Zimmerman says the first line of defense is to pay attention to your breath and develop a breathing practice

Zimmerman points out that when our psyche is in survival mode it’s crucial that we find our breath. “The breath is the evidence of life. And it seems that being disconnected from your breathing is counterintuitive,” she says. “So if we just think about the breath as the life force that it is and how important it would be to connect to it, to have a relationship with it, we’d grow closer to our internal self.” Americans are repeatedly told that we have the right to pursue happiness, though that happiness is usually depicted as a source outside of ourselves. Looking within and developing a relationship with our breath has real and tangible soothing effects on the body. 

“Before we had our minds fixated on a crisis, a lot of us were externally identified by our careers, our bodies, the cars we drove,” says Zimmerman. “And now that we’ve been quarantined, we’ve been forced to live inside of ourselves with our thoughts, with what we think about ourselves, with our actual level of self-esteem, and our connection or disconnection to a power or force or origin of life.”

Zimmerman states that the effects of being quarantined combined with the added stress of recent publicized events of police brutality could weigh heavily on your mental health. “That is why it is important to recognize the breath and its ability to calm the body,” she says. “Meditation and yoga practice are about focusing on the breath. Athletes must breathe appropriately in order to perform at their highest potential” and the same idea applies to you, especially in quarantine as we continue to adjust to a new normal. In order to find peace and reach your highest potential, you must first find your breath. 

Battling Guilt

This is a devastating time, and while it’s important to remain aware of what’s going on, it’s also important that you take time for yourself. Some may feel a twinge of guilt for finding ways to enjoy life amidst all the chaos. If you fall under this category, you must remember how important it still is to find joy in your day-to-day. If you can’t remember the last time you let go and felt joy, Zimmerman suggests taking steps to be intentional with your time. “Be careful with your time, which is your minutes,” she says. “The way that you spend your minutes is the way that you live your life.”

To gain a rhythm, start your intentionality in small blocks of time each day. Make sure to pay attention to why you are doing whatever it is that you decided at that moment, keep tabs on the moments you tend to rush through, and encourage yourself to fall in love with the activity you’ve chosen to participate in to find joy. Zimmerman emphasizes that “there’s no reason to feel guilty for loving yourself, for taking care of yourself and unplugging. If you don’t pour into yourself, how could you pour into the world?” 

Battling Hopelessness

Many times it may feel nearly impossible to find a silver lining in a traumatic experience, which is why it’s important to remind ourselves that we each serve a purpose.

Zimmerman notes “I don't believe for any moment that George Floyd knew his life would have this type of impact on the world,” she says. “We can’t always see how the universe is going to activate our reason for coming to the planet. So sometimes it’s hard to see how your life matters.” Facing the world and all it has offered — the good and the ugly — can be incredibly disheartening. Your every thought may be stuck in a dark place. 

“If you plant a seed in the soil, you cannot see it, but it’s moving. There is always growth even if it’s in the darkness,” says Zimmerman. “I see hopelessness as the darkness. Before a plant can grow to the light it has to first grow down and gather its roots. So it seems that hopelessness may just be root growing time. It may be the strengthening that you need. It may be the chrysalis that will cause you to give up everything you’ve been to become everything you shall be.”

Allow the dark moments to guide you toward reflection and realization. Instead of suppressing anger or frustration, use it as a motivation tool and commit to a plan to create positive changes that could empower yourself and others. Understand that the weight of what you’re feeling is a reflection of your compassion. You wouldn’t hurt this deeply if not for your ability to understand the depth of another’s despair. 

“Don’t want anyone to be afraid or suppress what we call dark nights of the soul. There is growth there as well.” Zimmerman advises. “Don’t wish away any darkness, any sadness, or any fear. Embrace it. Walk toward it. Ask what is it teaching you? What is it nudging you toward?”

Delena Zimmerman, LMFT, is currently seeing clients via Telehealth. She specializes in Alcoholism and Substance Use Disorders.

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