Ladies, Listen Up: The Pandemic Really Sucks, But Your Mental Health Doesn't Need To Reflect That
So what really is the best way to protect yourselves—ourselves—against the most common and aggravating COVID-related mental health stressors affecting women?
The overarching answer?
Women supporting other women.
And it's not just because it's International Women's Month this March; there are very real, and much-needed benefits that women of all ages and backgrounds can reap by connecting with their fellow ladies that remain relevant in times of crisis and beyond. There's more meaning to "girl power" than you initially thought!
Dr. Gia Sison, a former Word Health Organization consultant and the current head of Makati Medical Center's Wellness Center, explains why seemingly ordinary connection between women is probably one of the strongest links of all, especially in times of prolonged crisis like the ongoing pandemic. She examines why female relationships and friendships play such an important role these days.
First and foremost, with the COVID crisis making work/study/stay at home the new normal, the setup disproportionately affects women than it does men, especially for Filipina women as many of them are still expected to operate under traditional gender norms that give them the burden of family and house work.
Imagine having to do all your work-work duties and more while at home, and simultaneously help children with online class during the day, take breaks to make meals, clean up after meals, help children review in the evening, and have all the other extra tasks like Zoom meetings, receiving multiple deliveries, maybe even laundry, family phone calls, a dog waiting to be fed, and more queuing in the background. (And, even for women that do have house help at home to assist them with, at the end of the day, they still oversee or are involved in all these activities much more than any other member of the family).
Female connections come into play here because on really, really stressful days, there's really no one else in the world who will truly, truly commiserate with you more than other women who just get it. Women-only wine nights are important, ladies!
But really, alcohol or no alcohol involved, these connections play a huge role in keeping women sane these days because of the empathy they provide that no one else can. Spouses, work friends, and even alone time can also be sources of de-stressing, but knowing that the person listening to you knows exactly what you mean, down to the experience of caring for a toddler during a big conference video call with execs, is a big, big help.
Small acts like entertaining conversations (read: having the patience to go through whiney texts) about your friend's bad day, being an active listener when someone decides to ring you, and taking the time to respond when help is asked for (no mater how little or how much you say) are life-saving, sanity-preserving gestures.
Act when an opportunity to do these things presents itself, but at the same time, reach out yourself if it's you that needs to decompress via the help of a gal pal. Girls have to have each other's backs these days.
Second, according to a research published by TIME last year that Dr. Gia cited, women are thrice as likely to report feeling severe symptoms of compromised mental health than men. So in reality, even though women might not realize it, their feelings of "not being in the mood to do much today" or something as commonplace as chronic tiredness might actually already signal the beginnings of a mental health issue.
Of course this is not to say that being stressed out—a normal life experience—automatically means that something is seriously wrong.
These findings simply suggest that the reality women live and the stresses that come with this reality put them more at risk of experiencing severe stress. And because of the COVID crisis, all the not so great things about being a woman are magnified, thus contributing to the likelihood of women's mental health states being in worse shape than any other group's.
Things like women filling in more high-risk jobs (e.g.: nurses, midwives, other health-related jobs), facing more economic uncertainty, experiencing higher rates of job loss, and once again, taking up most of house and family work are all risk factors worsened by today's circumstances.
As a result of stress, women have reported experiencing things like loss of appetite, anxiety, difficulty in concentrating on or completing every day tasks, sleep irregularities, and even feelings of depression and isolation.
Again, we reiterate that these are common manifestations of prolonged stress and anyone experiencing them shouldn't do either of two things: self-diagnose and assume you have a mental health issue, or discount the severity of what you are going through and fall back on the "wala lang 'yan "attitude.
So what's a girl to do if she feels that she's crossed the threshold of normal, every day stress and is at risk of developing a mental health issue? Of course, we always recommend booking an appointment with a professional. Only a psychologist can provide you with an accurate diagnosis of your experiences and the appropriate help you need.
But if, for whatever reason, seeing a psychologist isn't possible, your first line of defense is joining a support group.
A support group, casually speaking, sits somewhere between a barkada and a formal advice-giving body. Support groups have members going through similar experiences, and the space it provides is confidential, non-judgmental, non-confrontational, encouraging, caring, and informative. You are not treated like a patient in a support group and the goal is not to pressure yourself to get better, but rather, to get psychological and emotional support you need during a difficult time.
Support groups are a great way to give and receive information you need about your situation, to talk things out, to validate your emotions, and to help other members if you're able to do so. They ultimately make you feel a little less alone in your experiences, and that in itself is a very powerful tool to help stressed out women keep their chin up these days.
Support groups can be formed by a professional or a lay person who simply wants to be of help to others. You yourself can form one and lead this safe space that many women today are in need of.
Last but certainly not the least, women can brush up on their listening and communication skills to be of even more help to their girl friends that need to talk things out. The importance of communication really cannot be underestimated, so there are tips Dr. Gia gave to keep in mind to make sure you're able to be an effective communicator.
Remember first that people who need to talk oftentimes just need someone to listen. As the listener, do just that: listen. Talk later. Allow the person to tell their story and express their feelings and you'll be surprised at hoe much better you can make them feel with minimal words. The validation of their experiences through you listening can be enough.
And when you do talk, keep the following in mind.
- Don't compare your own experiences with theirs, most especially if it's to "prove" to them that if you were able to get through something, they can, too. Different people have different thresholds of pain, stress, loneliness, and other negative feelings, and by telling them that others have surpassed those things, all it does is show them that others are doing a better job than they are. You risk worsening the problem.
- Don't give advice unless it's explicitly asked for. Again, talking it out can be enough to provide the person clarity and drain themselves of the big emotions stopping them from reacting more logically and calmly. Assume that talking it out is sufficient, and only provide words of wisdom if requested.
- Don't invalidate someone's feelings by saying they've overreacted, are just imagining their stresses, that they'll get over it, or anything similar to those statements. This makes them feel so much more alone in their experiences and it lessens the likelihood of them ever wanting to reach out to you or other friends for help. Doing so can embarrass a person or make their experiences appear trivial and unimportant, and as someone's friend, we're sure this is the last thing that you want to do when they go to you for comfort.
Special thanks to Telus International PH for organizing an online event that allowed us all to learn from Dr. Gia Sison.
Lead photos via Pexels and Unsplash