Isha Metzger (Interview)

Licensed clinical psychologist, assistant professor at University of Georgia, and director of The EMPOWER Lab on how to cope with heartbreak during quarantine and signs of anxiety. 

Art by Sam Liacos.

What does emotional wellness mean to you?
Since I’m a scientist, I’ll start by saying that emotional wellness is one’s ability to successfully navigate life’s stressors and to adapt to changes and difficulties as they arise. For me, it is important to take a holistic approach to emotional wellness, which means being able to regulate our emotions when we are stressed or upset, striving for mastery over our thoughts by ensuring that they are more accurate than inaccurate or more helpful than harmful, and to ensure that our behaviors in response to daily stressors take the form of adaptive coping and are not to avoid, numb, or mask our feelings.

Emotional wellness also means being able to express your emotions in a way that fosters healthy relationships, it means setting appropriate boundaries, practicing self-care, getting plenty of rest, striving for work-life balance, eating right, being physically active, and being mindfully or spiritually grounded. As you can see as my list continues to grow, emotional wellness is an ongoing, life-long process that we have to be conscious to seek, protect, and maintain.

How can we take better care of ourselves emotionally, in regards to our mental health?
When it comes to emotions, people often describe them as feelings. In that regard, one of the most simple and effective things we can do to take better care of our emotional health is to be mindful of where our feelings are in our body or how we feel our emotions. Some people may clench their jaws when they are stressed, some people notice stomach aches when they are worried, others shake or bounce their legs when they are nervous. On the other hand, we get butterflies in our stomachs when we are in love, our hearts beat fast when we’re excited, and we can feel happiness down to our toes! Once we’re aware of how we feel our emotions, we’re able to do conscious things–deep breathing, body scanning, and progressive muscle relaxation–to take better care of ourselves both emotionally and physically, and we are able to use the cognitive energy needed to change our minds or face our stressors as necessary. Also, like we work out to achieve physical health, we can also do things like meditate, paint, write, or otherwise express and exercise our emotional selves to be more healthy

How do you specifically advise brown and Black people to cope and process what feels like a roller-coaster of emotions–especially while being alone in quarantine?
My advice would be to follow your passion, find your purpose, and focus on what you can control in order to realize your fullest potential and experience the most positive emotions. Remember what it feels like to get lost in a book by your favorite Black author, sing your favorite Beyonce song, take a long bath with incense that reminds you of and connects you to your ancestors, actually get on your knees and pray in your closet, like your grandmother taught you. If you’re physically alone in quarantine, remember that you are not alone in your experience. As a collective, we are experiencing varying emotions while in quarantine, and we’re facing a national climate that is calling attention both to our Blackness and our society’s disregard of it. Because of that, I challenge BIPOC to feel every emotion, express every thought, and to push through and resist through living, creating, healing, speaking, singing, shouting, praying, bathing, dancing, thinking, speaking, and literally doing everything you can do to express yourself in light and in love! Dive into your Blackness and let it pour out of you in love. We are so resilient, creative, and full of talent, energy, and light. In times of oppression and isolation, the most radical form of resistance, to me, the most effective way to heal, is to express your thoughts and your emotions through behaviors that mirror your Blackness that is love.

How would you advise one to find a balance in the “new normal,” in regards to the pandemic?
To find balance in the “new normal,” I would suggest that folks be creative and try to find new ways to do the same things they always enjoy. If you miss dates with your girlfriends, plan them on Zoom. If you’re feeling sluggish because you miss going to the gym, now is a great time to try a likely less expensive online program. Be mindful of how you feel and be sure to let your friends and family know when you are needing some extra love. I mentioned focusing on what you can control and that might also mean not checking the news or epidemiological data as often if it brings you stress and you already know you’re doing the most you can to protect yourself and your loved ones. Balance also means setting boundaries and telling your loved ones when you need time or space, or otherwise just want to talk or experience your “normal” relationship within its new constraints, but without having to discuss the pandemic.

How have you seen emotional hurt (such as heartbreak) manifest across other forms of wellness?
Wow. Well, stressors, again, impact our thoughts, our emotions (and feelings or bodily functions), and our behaviors. So, someone experiencing emotional hurt, for instance due to a breakup during quarantine, would be impacted in all of these areas. You might notice more negative, hopeless, or sad thoughts, so you’ll have to be mindful of focusing on thoughts that are positive or those that more accurately describe your relationship. (We tend to remember the good times after a breakup when perhaps the more adaptive thing to do is to focus on the reason you chose to end the relationship).

During heartbreak, you also might notice negative or harmful emotions that you’ll have to combat by focusing on gratitude and future opportunities for healthy relationships, for example. Also, you might notice changes in your behaviors like sleeping or eating more or less, being more easily agitated, jumping into new or risky relationships, etc. and that can be combated by starting and sticking to a new daily a schedule and focusing on self-care despite the disruption to your routine that comes with the loss of a romantic partner.

As some are learning and unlearning generational beliefs and behaviors, what is key to keep in mind?
Habits, or patterns of behavior, are hard to break, and generational beliefs (or chains or curses according to some beliefs) are even more difficult. I suggest seeing a therapist (individual or family), talking to friends and family who are patient with you, being patient with yourself, and talking to yourself the way you would talk to a friend or family member. Also, be patient with your loved ones as well, as they too are humans who make mistakes and are dealing with their own internal and external battles. Through doing this and being consistent in your behaviors and beliefs, my hope is that you would lead as an example towards unlearning in yourself and your family.

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 in regards to our mental health? How can we combat it?
I’ve been thinking a lot about social isolation lately. I’m spending a lot of time with my 9-month-old nephew so it makes me think about socialization and social learning that occurs from human interactions at critical developmental stages and how that will impact us in the long run. For older kiddos, I’m concerned about schooling that will likely take place online (or with some hybrid of in-person and online instruction) and the impact that it will have on their learning, friendships, and emotional wellbeing. For emerging adults, young adults, and adults who are single, I’m concerned about dating and how we’re going to form new relationships both as people are social distancing and post-quarantine when we can resume face-to-face interactions. Parents are more overwhelmed by juggling childcare, education, and employment. As a psychologist, I think that accepting that we will have a “new normal” is one of the first steps, and then it’s important that we are mindful of our day-to-day thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that will allow us to function most optionally now and in the near and distant future.

What are some signs that someone is struggling with anxiety, and how do you advise them to cope?
It’s normal for us to be worried during these “uncertain times.” Signs that someone is struggling with anxiety can be anything that keeps you from engaging in your daily function. If you notice that you aren’t able to concentrate at work or at school, if you see that you’re having any of the physical symptoms that I mentioned (changes in sleep or appetite, headaches, stomachaches) for a prolonged period of time, if you have worries or harmful thoughts that you can’t get rid of, or if you are more irritable or less able to care for your loved ones, you may be struggling with anxiety. If the strategies that I mentioned before [aren’t helping], I would suggest reaching out to a mental health professional for support. For treatment referral information, you can text TalkWithUs to 66746, you can call 1-800-662-HELP, or there are a ton of resources online like Therapy For Black Girls that provide information for BIPOC who would like more culturally informed care