Mental health experts address community’s feelings of loss

Feeling a bit edgy? Irritated and argumentative? Mental health experts say that’s normal, especially as efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 have led to restricting public activities, and has threatened our very way of life.

“There’s a collective loss and a collective grief,” said Gunnison County Health and Human Services Director Joni Reynolds. “Think about our own loss — our sense of normalcy has shifted … it's a good time to think about what loss means and what it means with a collective loss for an entire community.”

Reynolds addressed that community loss during meetings last week, both with Gunnison County Commissioners and with emergency operations staff. A frustration has been observed among community members due to the loss of normalcy. The Times has noted an increase in the amount of virtual “arguing” that has taken place on social media.

Reynolds shared that the community’s loss may be manifested much like grief — in several stages. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance aren’t linear, she said. Rather, they are fluid and a person can move back and forth between them.

“I’m bringing this to our attention. The world, our state, our county is experiencing a significant amount of loss,” Reynolds said. “It’s normalcy, control, economic stability — it’s really relevant to think about.”


Anger as a part of grief

Center for Mental Health Regional Director Kimberly Behounek offered that anger can be referred to as a secondary emotion because humans can resort to anger to protect themselves or to mask other vulnerable feelings.

It is believed, she said, that before we experience anger, we experience another emotion. When we are able to notice the first feeling we can usurp the power anger can have over our ability to effectively respond.

“If your anger is not an instinctive response due to a real threat, then it can be the part of the stages of grief,” Behounek said.

For example, she offered, one could think “this COVID-19 virus will pass sooner because Gunnison County was ahead of flattening the curve in comparison to other places.” One has to realize the hope was denial, and one can become angry and sad at the same time. It is a part of the grief process related to COVID-19.

“Anger is an emotion we all experience,” Behounek said, noting many causes, such as separation, uncertainty, loss of income or the cancelation of important milestones or celebrations. “It is up to the individual to discover when their anger is a result of another unresolved situation or feeling.”

But she said the caveat is that anger is also a natural, instinctive response to threats, and that some anger is necessary for survival.


Global anxiety hits home

Likewise, it’s common to experience generalized anxiety and fear during a pandemic. Local Licensed Professional Counselor Laurie Boscaro said the global impact can influence the individual. Such anxiety and fear can result in a physical response.

“When we experience high levels of fear you can easily experience what we call an ‘amygdala hijack,’” Boscaro said. “This is when the amygdala takes over the frontal lobe and puts us into fight, flight or freeze mode. Without our frontal lobe, we lose rational decision making, emotional regulation, and we become selfish and irrational.”

Boscaro said this response is what causes people to do things like hoard toilet paper and groceries. Suddenly, she said, we find ourselves ready to fight with anyone we see as a threat, anyone that views us as getting in the way of our survival.

“Remember though that we don't have the part of our brain on board that allows us to decide rationally if someone is a threat,” Boscaro continued. “During an amygdala hijack, we also experience an increase in cortisol levels. Cortisol is known to decrease our immune system, which is the last thing any of us needs right now.”

Health impacts can extend beyond just immunity. Behounek said unresolved anger can result in an increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, insomnia and high blood pressure.

“Unresolved anger can consume mental energy, cloud your thinking, and make it harder to enjoy life,” Behounek said. “Relationships and careers may also be impacted by anger due to difficulties others have trusting you, feeling comfortable to speak and interact safely without fear of the potential outcome.”


Maintaining health and happiness

Both Behounek and Boscaro agree — the key to health and happiness is in managing one’s emotions and the remedy can come through awareness and self-discipline.

Boscaro said one way is to listen to your body as it will give you clues as to when you may be getting activated into a fight or flight response so as to avoid the amygdala hijack.

“Breathe deep and focus on finding logical responses to your emotions,” Boscaro said. “Focus on things you are grateful for, such as a comfortable house to isolate in, a sunny day, (or) the smile from a neighbor.”

Behounek said to make a conscious decision about how to respond.

“Many times we think we are responding, but we are reacting with anger,” Behounek said. “If the situation doesn’t involve someone being immediately hurt, then you can take five minutes or overnight to respond. Saying ‘no, I can’t answer that’ or ‘I can’t help you’ is also an acceptable response if you are feeling pressured to answer. Sticking to the facts of the situation while maintaining your own personal boundaries can be helpful as well.”

Boscaro agreed, and reminded community members to be gentle with themselves and each other.

“We're all doing the best we can with what we have,” she said. “You are not alone and tomorrow is a new day.”

(Chris Rourke can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at



(Offered by local mental health professionals Kimberly Behounek and Laurie Boscaro)

> Never think someone is too busy to listen to you express your emotions. Call a friend, mentor or reach out to a professional when you need to.

> While it is vital that we all distance ourselves physically, it is equally important that we stay connected socially. Use your extra time at home to reach out to friends and family. Get creative and create an online talent show, comedy night or dance party.

> While staying informed is important, watching the news all day is not healthy. Set boundaries for yourself around when and how much news you will consume.