When it opened in 2005, Kingda Ka at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, NJ was the world’s tallest and fastest roller coaster. It takes riders up 456 feet and reaches a top speed of 128 mph!  Since then, an even faster roller coaster was unveiled—the Formula Rossa at Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi. The Formula reaches an astonishing top speed of 149.1 mph in 4.9 seconds flat and generates 1.7 Gs. The ride is so intense, passengers are issued goggles to protect their eyes from the desert sand. If you like roller coasters, then you will agree that there are times when it can be a thrill to give up control. Of course, with a roller coaster, we only have to lose control briefly (the Kingda Ka lasts for 50.6 seconds).

One of the most significant things the COVID-19 invasion has done is diminish our sense of control over our own lives.  We can’t do many of the things we used to do or go to  places we want to go when we want to go. Stores hours have been cut. Our favorite restaurants are pick-up only. Movie theaters have been closed. Festivals have been canceled. Vacations have been postponed. Many of us can’t even go to work! We find ourselves feeling as though our lives are on pause as we wait for things to return to normal. Feeling out of control is stressful. It can cause us to feel irritable and angry and anxious. Left unchecked, stress over time can lead to depression.

NCSC Weighs in On Mental Health and Your Security Clearance

If you find yourself feeling anxious or depressed in a way that interferes with your life, consider reaching out for professional help. If you possess a security clearance or are in the process of a clearance investigation, you may be apprehensive about seeking mental health care. The good news is that you don’t have to be. William Evanina, The National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) Director, recently announced that “seeking counseling or undergoing treatment to address psychological concerns resulting from having COVID-19, or from the associated stressful effects of COVID-19, is not in itself considered a negative or disqualifying factor when officials render eligibility determinations…” He goes on to explain that personnel at the NCSC and associated agencies are committed to the ‘Whole Person Concept’ when making security clearance decisions. He suggests that they understand that even psychologically healthy people may experience stress related to the current pandemic and its effects on their lives. He advises employees in positions of trust to seek help if needed.

There are many people with past and present mental health challenges who hold security clearances and function successfully in positions of trust. In fact, I often quip that if access was denied to all those with mental health problems (probably around 20% of the federal and contracted workforce), the federal government would shut down. The obvious lesson here is that Mr. Evanina’s statement is sincere and sound. In my work with federal adjudicating agencies, I have found adjudicators understand life erupts at times and people will have troubles. They are fair and careful in comparing each person’s case to adjudicative guidelines (Security Executive Agent Directive 4; SEAD 4) which provide mitigating factors, like voluntarily seeking counseling, in the context of mental health symptoms. In fact, my experience has taught that adjudicators look more favorably on people who take steps to address their problems than on those who have mental health issues but do nothing to remedy them. Bottom line, if you find yourself feeling stressed out, frustrated, or down because of the pandemic, one more way you can take back control of your life is to reach out for professional help.

Stress Management Techniques for the Roller Coaster Ride

There are generally two ways to deal with stress: change the situation or change the way you think about the situation. We can wear masks, wash our hands, and practice sensible separating behaviors to slow the spread of the virus, but there is little we can do on our own to change the fact that we are in the midst of a pandemic. What we can change is how we think about and how we respond to this very undesirable situation.

Start with deciding to live your life right now, right where you are. Decide to live life with intentionality. Think about what is important to you and find ways to pursue your goals. If you must, modify your goals or set new ones. Choose meaningful, enjoyable activities that help you feel productive and rejuvenated. For those working from home, pay attention to your work-life balance. Keep connected to the supportive people in your life. Reach out when you feel overwhelmed. Find ways to give to others. Understand that you do not have to put your life on hold.

It’s fun to ride a roller coaster, but it sure does feel good to put your feet back on the ground when it’s over. And post pandemic, our feet will land back on the ground at the end of the ride.

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Dr. Scott Edwards is President and Chief Psychologist at ClearancePsych, a nationwide collaborative of cleared psychologists bringing clearance professionals, attorneys, and those seeking clearance access to security clearance psychological evaluations and consultation. For more information, visit www.clearancepsych.com.