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May 13, 2021

Ask the Expert: Five tips for going back into the real world

This story is part of a Mental Health Awareness Month series highlighting Michigan State University research and expert knowledge.

"Ask the Expert" articles provide information and insights from MSU scientists, researchers and scholars about national and global issues, complex research and general-interest subjects based on their areas of academic expertise and study. They may feature historical information, background, research findings, or offer tips.


In honor of May as Mental Health Awareness Month, MSU's Claudia Finkelstein, associate professor of family medicine at MSU’s College of Human Medicine, offers tips on how each of us can reenter “normal” life. 


Claudia Finkelstein, associate professor of family medicine at MSU’s College of Human Medicine.


After a long year of change and adjusting to ever shifting goal posts of “the new normal,” we seem to be heading out of the worst of it. There is cautious optimism about the months ahead based on current trends. Along with optimism, there is a vague pervasive anxiety about how to navigate the times ahead. Even Saturday Night Live is aware of the anxiety and awkwardness of this long-awaited stage of the pandemic.


Here are five tips to help you in your reemergence.


1.    Do not forget joy, whimsy and laughter. People have suffered. People are suffering. In our desire to help, sometimes we lose focus on some simple joyful things that can restore us. A good laugh — even at a blooper reel can be restorative. Snuggling — a baby, a puppy, or a vaccinated loved one will send oxytocin through the roof. And remember these paraphrased words from Aron Sousa, dean of MSU’s College of Human Medicine, “If you’re going to be exhausted, you might as well have a little whimsy.” So, do laugh, snuggle and do something whimsical.


2.    Don’t be a jerk. Seems self-evident doesn’t it? However, whether in traffic, in public or in the comments sections of whatever we read, there is no lack of evidence that there is a lot of pent-up anger going around. It is so normal to prefer anger — which is energizing and helps us feel self-righteous — to sadness or grief. However, allowing the sadness and grief (and anything else) to arise will help us to move on. So, do become aware of signs of your own anger arising, and ask yourself what is the emotion behind the anger? See if allowing that emotion to exist will also help it to pass.


3.    Remember what is “my business, your business, universal business” and respond accordingly. Being annoyed that other people in your work group or family are not living their lives according to your standards is rarely (actually never) fruitful. The fact that “Shirley” doesn’t do things the way you would have is her business unless you supervise her. The fact that you did a great job and are happy with the outcome is your business. The fact that it’s 39 degrees in May is universal business – fruitless to be mad – just put on a sweater.


4.    Try to find common ground. This one may seem like a huge challenge. These days we are certainly divided. However, usually there is some basic value that we can agree on. The common ground may be as simple as “we hope for safety and good health for our whole community.”


5.    Keep an eye on yourself and each other. Although some of these tips are lighthearted, it is a challenging time for many. We often have no idea what burdens others are carrying. You never know what power a kind word carries.


During this mental health awareness month, remember to heed the words of Bill and Ted: “Be excellent to each other.”


To hear more on the topic from Finkelstein, listen to the MSU Today Podcast with Russ White.


If you or a loved one are in distress, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1- 800-273-8255 or message the Crisis Text Line by sending HOME to 741741.

By: Claudia Finkelstein

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