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Cultivating Mental Wellness

Annie Sedgwick  Follow

Right now, I think we can all appreciate the notion that the quality of our thoughts create the quality of our life. As we remain separated from one another, yet continue to push forward in our work, social connections, and family responsibilities from afar, there are unique stressors that all of us are navigating in different ways.

In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, I sat down with certified mental health counselor Margaret Hynes to understand how this virus might be weighing on more than just our bodies. Margaret – who also happens to be my aunt and current roommate - got real on the connections between our thoughts and our emotions, how to offset any immediate and long-term stressors, and why we can and must continue to prioritize our most important asset: our minds.

  1. Let’s start with science - how is this pandemic affecting our brain?
    • Our minds are wired to address and categorize information we receive into groups, a process that happens very quickly. One category is the different “threats” we receive, which could include anything as small as a bee buzzing around our head or as impactful as an accident involving a loved one.
    • When our brain detects a threat against our mental or physical wellbeing, our bodies initiate a “fight or flight” response. But a third, lesser known option also exists: adjustment. Cultivating a positive mental response is all about our ability to adjust to threats.
    • Though individual responses vary based on our environment, influencers, past experiences and genetics, what we all experience is an increase in cortisol levels, aka, our stress hormone. Being told to stay indoors, to remain vigilant about our health, and to avoid social activities is no doubt increasing cortisol levels, even if it’s only for a moment.
  2. What are some coping strategies recommended in a “normal” environment that are especially useful right now?
    • Meet Yourself Where You Are: Three words: do your best. It’s OK if we aren’t as productive as we once were, or if we’re spending less time giving back, or if we aren’t taking as many steps toward our 10,000-step goal. Give yourself permission to reassess what achievement looks like and to ask for help when you need it. Have compassion for yourself and acknowledge that because this is an unprecedented time, you might have unprecedented responses.
    • Set Mini Goals: Setting mini goals for ourselves lets us approach any overwhelming feelings one moment at a time. Ask yourself: How can I be productive at work and still take care of myself and my family? Those are the goals you should put into practice today.
    • Gratitude: No matter who her patient is, Margaret recommends that every day they write or verbalize three things they were grateful for. During this pandemic, those things might be “the sun was out”, or “my daughter completed her math homework without asking for my help”, or “my dog and I got to relax together for 15 minutes.” These all count and will help enforce your mind to find and hold onto the positives in your day.
    • Mindfulness: Achieving presence through mindfulness keeps us from dwelling in the past or worrying about the future. Allow your mind to exist in a space without judgement, feeling like you have to fix it or prevent it from thinking about a negative storyline
  3. We've heard that taking a break from the news can be beneficial, but in an industry where the news is a part of our work, are there other precautions to take?
    • Avoid Overexposure: One thing you can do is turn it off as soon as you hear or read what you need in order to fulfill your professional duties. Maybe this means watching a sitcom or reality TV instead of your local news at the end of the workday. Avoiding overexposure is key, especially if you notice increased anxiety or irritation.
    • Have Others “Hold Space” For You: Right now especially, we all need to make sure we process the trauma that we’re experiencing, whatever that might be for you. If you’ve had a particularly difficult day, having someone else “hold space for you” by listening allows you to move thoughts and experiences out of your mind, which can help diminish their power over you.
  4. Zooms, Facetimes, and IMing keep us overconnected - how can we protect against tech or work burnout? 
    • Set Boundaries: Know when you can say no, but again, have realistic expectations. WFH means that boundaries might be more blurred than normal, but one important line to create for yourself is the placeholder between the workday and when you go to sleep. Even if you are logged on later in the evening, be sure to schedule time for neutral space that isn’t at all work-related. Having a differentiation between work and the end of your personal day helps you wind down and ultimately have a better sleep.
    • Improve Your Space: A lot of us didn’t have a long-term workspace in our homes before this crisis – so build it and rebuild it now! Do what you can to make your workspace as comfortable and normal as possible, whether it’s buying a whiteboard, adding a few pictures to your desk, or packing a lunch at the beginning of the day.
  5. What are some signs to be cognizant of?
    • We all need to stay especially aware of our internal settings right now and stay in close check to ensure our minds are getting the care they need. If you feel like you’d benefit from help beyond your loved ones, you are not alone! Ask for help as soon as you need it.

One thing Margaret shared that resonated with me is the importance of “and.” As we react to the news we read, the masks we see on our streets, and the stories we hear from those we know working in hotspot hospitals, we don’t have to finish all of our thoughts with a period. We can find middle ground and allow two opposing thoughts to be true at the same time...

  • I hate relying on technology for work, AND it’s incredible that I’m becoming proficient and can carry this with me through my career.
  • It’s really difficult to not see my family and friends, AND I know that they’re there to support me whenever I need it.
  • Teaching my kids, leading my teams, and staying on top of the house seems impossible, AND I’m so appreciative of the people in my life who usually help me accomplish this.

For me, it’s as simple as: this is an uncertain time with so many unknowns, AND it’s powerful to see coworkers leaning on one another, strangers treating each other like family, and the world uniting to spread positivity – even from a distance.

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