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The Psychological Reason It's So Hard to Work Today After the Riot — and How to Cope

@anelehbakota | Twenty20

People across the country are still reeling after pro-Trump rioters violently stormed the U.S. Capitol Wednesday. Many are feeling nervous, anxious, distracted, in a fog or overwhelmed. And many are wondering how to focus on work when nothing feels certain.

Here's some expert advice on how to cope.

Know that how you feel is normal (and biological)

Extraordinary events like this, "take us even further outside of our comfort zone," Dr. Daniel Z. Lieberman, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, tells CNBC Make It. "We can't rely on the natural habits and instincts that we've developed to carry us through complicated days," he says.

"It's natural to feel anxious, scared or a little bit paralyzed," Arianna Galligher, associate director of the STAR Trauma Recovery Center at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells CNBC Make It.

There's even a biological reason why you might feel this way: The human body is very well-suited to coping with individual stresses, but it's not capable of dealing with chronic stress, Lieberman says. For months, we have been living in fear of the Covid-19 pandemic, while also experiencing political violence.

"When we have an immediate stress, the level of cortisol in the brain lights up — and that's actually good for the brain, that helps the brain stay healthy," Lieberman says. "But if you've got chronic stresses, and you've got, not spikes of cortisol, but high levels going all the time, that's actually toxic and it kills brain cells."

Assess your abilities and set a realistic goal

In order to function at our full capacity, we need to integrate two parts of our human cognition: conscious internal thought, which we use when we make plans, and instinctual emotion, which is what we experience when things happen to us, Lieberman says.

"People need to recognize that they are currently at risk of being unbalanced," he says.

Take note of how you feel and think through what you're able to get done, he suggests.

"Can I not function at all? Can I function at half of my normal rate? Do I want to attempt to function at my full capacity?" he says. Making a conscious rational decision about what you're going to do will give you a sense of control and a goal to work toward, he says.

Communicate honestly

If you can't function at your full rate, it's important to communicate to your boss and your coworkers what they can expect from you today, Lieberman says. "That that will make everybody feel less stressed out and more in control," he says.

This requires speaking from a place of honesty and vulnerability, which can feel intimidating for some people, Galligher says. It helps to articulate what you need (whether it's more time to complete a deadline, or a mental health day off) to your manager, or have an idea of what might help your situation, she says.

"Being able to just acknowledge with your boss that, 'Hey, this has been a little bit of a struggle, and you're working on coping, but it's not so easy,'" she says.

Limit your media exposure

In times of crisis, there's a tendency to seek out any news or information on social media about what's going on. "There is this constant worry that something's going to happen and we're going to miss out," Lieberman says.

It also often feels like staying attached to the news and staying fully informed will be comforting. "But we're wrong about that," Lieberman says. While it's good to be informed to a point, further exposure to the news will make you feel worse, he says.

Set a time limit for the amount of news you're going to watch or read (for example, less than an hour or only two hours), and stick to it, Lieberman says. Don't put the news on while you are trying to work, because it will only heighten your feelings and cause a distraction. Also budget your social media time and avoid doom-scrolling.

"Decide in advance how much time you're going to spend, and then try to take back control."

Be mindful of your anger

In the midst of yesterday's violence and mayhem, there are not clear, tangible steps that average people can take to improve the situation. So it's natural to feel angry or powerless right now, Lieberman says. "We kind of feel like these people have no right to be doing this."

As a result, people tend to displace that kind of anger onto people around them, simply because it needs an outlet. "Ironically, at the time when we really should be giving each other emotional support, we're at risk of doing the opposite, and attacking people," he says.

Instead of amplifying the distress you feel, consider a relaxation technique like deep breathing, which has been shown to calm down angry feelings. Exercise can also reduce stress that causes anger.

Check out: How to figure out if you need a career coach, a life coach or a therapist

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