Mental Wellness and Resiliency: Adjusting to Life and Addressing Challenges During Uncertain Times
By Ryann Leonard, PhD
Feeling fatigued? More impatient than normal? Are you finding it hard to balance working from or just being at home? You are not alone. These are all signs that your mental wellness is being challenged by uncertainty and stress. Currently, COVID-19 has influenced the wellness of most of us across the globe whether that be emotionally, physically, or mentally. We are living in rapidly changing times where we are constantly bombarded with media and messaging about what we should do, or should know, or how we should feel during this time. Plus, we know that all the rules might change tomorrow. It is overwhelming. For me, I have seen this most in my area of influence, which is education.
I have been a college instructor for almost 20 years. I have been teaching online and working somewhat remotely for almost 10. However, many of my colleagues and students were thrust online this quarter/semester with little to no preparation time. Additionally, many are living in fluid life circumstances that have potentially major consequences. These are amazing people. People who face adversity head on. People who have such resiliency normally yet now, they are struggling to complete basic tasks. This article is for you. Hopefully, this will help you understand a bit more about they “why” and help you to find some ways to manage daily life.
I know for myself, my colleagues, and my students we have experienced changes over the past several weeks. Cognitively some have been confused, worried, and self-blaming while others suddenly have strong determination and focus. Emotionally, some have been experiencing shock, grief, fear, sadness while others feel challenged or motivated to help. Socially, some may be feeling isolated or suddenly connecting in deeper ways. Physically, many of us are tired, irritable, have headaches and muscle tension yet some are incredibly alert and ready to respond.
How do these opposites exist? Stress. Stress starts deep in the brain, in the amygdala, and is a very natural response to experienced fear or challenge. It is often discussed as producing the “Flight, fight or freeze” response as hormones flush through our body. The main stress hormone is cortisol and it works with other parts of your brain to control mood, motivation, and fear levels (Webmd, 2018).
For some, they experience Eustress, or positive stress, and their body functions better, becomes more focused, and more motivated during periods of stress (American Addiction Centers, 2015). Others of us have negative reactions to stress. Often this distress is caused by acute stress experienced in limited events and for some they may live in persistent episodic acute stress (Freshwater, 2018). If these experiences of stress become more long term, like in a pandemic, or are not addressed they can lead to chronic stress. Chronic stress wears us down and causes long term negative reactions in our minds and body. Reactions where the symptoms described above become long lasting and resistant to change. This is something we want to prevent.
Prevention or mitigation is critical for dealing with stress. There are some activities that can help. Exercise and meditation are the two most researched and easily accessible forms of self-care. Even 20 minutes of exercise a day can help to reduce cortisol levels and improve functioning. Additionally, set boundaries, making connections, and manage your diet. The working from home/homeschooling/caretaking/…/ lives we are living right now will benefit from scheduling and setting boundaries. What time will you dedicate to each activity per day? Try to stick to that schedule. It will help your brain to focus. Next, keep connected. Who are the people you can go to for a laugh or a cry? Be there for each other. I have my group and we meet weekly just to chat. It is one of my favorite times per week. Lastly, manage your diet. What are you putting in to both your body and mind? Do you need to buy less or more snacks this week? Do you need to watch less news and more cute cat videos? How do you feel after digesting food and media? That will tell you a lot about what you might need to change. Overall, be kind and give grace to yourself and others. Try to remove the negatives and hold on to the positives. And above all, reach out if it is just too much.
Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
SAMHSA’s Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990 (Toll Free – English and Español)
SMS: Text TalkWithUs to 66746
American Addiction Centers (2015). Types of stressors (eustress vs. distress). Retrieved May 13, 2020 from https://www.mentalhelp.net/stress/types-of-stressors-eustress-vs-distress/
Freshwater, S (2018). 3 types of stress and health hazards. Retrieved May 13, 2020 from https://spacioustherapy.com/3-types-stress-health-hazards/
WebMD, LLC. (2018). What is Cortisol? Retrieved May 13, 2020 from https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/what-is-cortisol#1