Paula Sinisterra (Interview)

Art by Sam Liacos.

Atlanta-based therapist and co-host of mental health podcast, Pretty Mental, on the importance of social support and the manifestation of emotional hurt. 

What does emotional wellness mean to you?
For me, emotional wellness in our modern world means having the opportunity to step out of survival mode and feel balanced and nourished in our minds, bodies, finances, spirituality, and social life. I intentionally say “the opportunity” because the truth is, that our current economic system oppresses large segments of our population and this has made accessing emotional wellness an uphill climb for many. It’s unfortunate that I often find myself saying that having access to adequate mental health care is a privilege and it’s a huge part of the reason why my sister and I created the Pretty Mental podcast for the community, so that we could start dispersing as many mental health tools as possible.

How can we take better care of ourselves emotionally? 
In addition to practicing loads of self-compassion, holding space for whatever emotions are coming up, eating healthy, and moving our bodies, it’s extremely important that we stay as connected as possible to our community. This is because humans are social beings and our nervous system gets regulated in the presence of those we feel safe with. Even if it means Zoom or FaceTime sessions right now, it’s super important to try to find and cultivate human connection to the best of our ability during these times.

How do you specifically advise brown and Black people to cope and process what feels like a roller-coaster of emotions?
Again, I’m going to say community. We all need each other during this time and that is especially true if you are experiencing oppression and feeling unsafe. Although there is a ton of systemic oppression, racism, and abuse that we are currently tasked with dismantling, it has been beautiful to observe how many Black and brown healers are leading the way in creating safe spaces for the community during this time. Therefore, if you are alone in quarantine please try to find a support group and safe space. Social media is a great tool for this. Trying to heal and grieve in total isolation is an extremely difficult, if not impossible, task to take on.

How would you advise one to find a balance in the “new normal,” in regards to the pandemic?
Patience, self-compassion, and mindfulness. We have to recognize that this is an extremely confusing time–almost every week, instructions for what is safe and what isn’t shift and even contradict themselves. Therefore, we are being asked to move like meditators more than ever before. That means, to the best of our ability, taking things one day at a time, one moment at a time.

How have you seen emotional hurt (such as heartbreak) manifest across other forms of wellness?
I have definitely been witness to and personally experienced emotional hurt manifesting across other forms of wellness. We are systems onto ourselves, therefore if one piece of the system experiences pain, chances are it will have a domino effect. The most powerful tool for moving through this, with as little collateral damage as possible, is to lovingly hold space for and not resist any emotions that are coming up. It sounds counterintuitive because when we are in pain we want to stop feeling it as soon as possible, but resistance to the emotions is actually going to increase the duration of the pain and it will make healing more difficult to access.

As some are learning and unlearning generational beliefs and behaviors, what is key to keep in mind?
It’s really important that we don’t take things personally. If we were socialized to hold beliefs and behaviors that are harmful to ourselves or others this does not make us a bad person. This realization matters, because as long as we feel there is a reason to be defensive, this will impede our capacity to open up to new information.

I think one of the long-term effects of the pandemic will be the mental health issues that it’ll leave us with. What do you see the long-term effects being? How can we combat it?
There will definitely be an increase in experiences of trauma during this time. Trauma is what takes place (to varying degrees) when the demands of a situation exceed our capacity to cope with it. This can lead to heightened levels of anxiety, depression, and many other challenging mental health experiences. We can combat the likelihood of being traumatized during this time by reaching out for support and nurturing our wellness in whatever way possible on a daily basis. This can mean anything from working out and eating right all the way to allowing ourselves more time to rest and slow down if our bodies are asking for it.

Many women I’ve spoken to have not been feeling like themselves lately. What do you recommend to those  feel this way to do or keep in mind when moving forward and trying to reignite a flame or not lose themselves? 
When we are going through tough mental health and life experiences, our mind has a tendency to try to convince us that it’s going to last forever. It’s important that we do whatever we can to remind ourselves that this is not the case, while simultaneously meeting ourselves where we’re at with as little judgement as possible. We have to recognize that things like slowing down and grieving may actually be psychologically appropriate responses given the current circumstances. Our resilience will always increase when we create space for tending to our shifting emotional needs on a daily basis.

What do you recommend to remain vulnerable during such uncertain times?
I’m glad you’re asking me this because vulnerability and open-hearted living are essential for emotional wellness. The moment we harden up and close our hearts we are essentially shutting ourselves down and shutting down our connection to life. In order to stay open-hearted during uncertain times, we need to increase our tolerance for uncertainty and again, seek social support. We can increase our tolerance for uncertainty by focusing on what aspects of our life we can keep fairly consistent and making sure that we are not compulsively checking the news and media outlets for a false sense of reassurance. We have to practice dropping our resistance to the gray area of uncertainty and even befriending it. Because the truth is, uncertainty and the experience of living go hand in hand.

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