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W&M wellness expert gives advice on flourishing amidst change

  • McLeod Tyler Wellness Center
    Health & Wellness:  The McLeod Tyler Wellness Center at William & Mary houses the Office of Health Promotion, Counseling Center, Health Center and Campus Recreation’s wellness programing under one roof along with the Center for Mindfulness and Authentic Excellence.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Physical and mental health and wellness are at the forefront as people cope with changes to their daily lives and the anxiety surrounding the current COVID-19 situation.

Kelly Crace, William & Mary’s associate vice president for health & wellness, oversees Campus Recreation, the Counseling Center, Health Promotion and the Student Health Center. He has received numerous requests for helpful information as the disease’s impact is felt locally as well as globally.

The departments of Health & Wellness have created a Virtual Health & Wellness website, which includes programs, videos and articles designed to enhance wellness and resilience.  It will feature live wellness and fitness programs, which will also be archived for use anytime.

W&M News asked Crace to talk about ways people can cope and take care of themselves during this time of heightened stress.

What’s your advice for managing anxiety about the current COVID-19 pandemic?

Worry and fear has its place in situations like this.  Fear is actually a healthy, protective emotion that is associated with importance and our perceived level of control.  We can’t feel fear over something unimportant to us.

When we worry, it’s always about something that matters to us.  Worry is about the future and its function is to protect us from future hurt.  The problem is that our body has trouble distinguishing from what we’re really experiencing versus what we’re imagining.

So if we’re worrying about something that may happen, our body will start reacting in anticipation of it or as if it is already happening.  This creates stress and, if not managed properly, leads to anxiety.

The key is to distinguish effective worry from ineffective worry.  Effective worry is when it motivates us to act with prudent caution and to focus on actions that are purposeful and within our scope of control.

The worry surrounding this pandemic can positively motivate us to take it seriously, to be more active in our preventive health measures, to check in with others and to be mindful that we need to work together.  Ineffective worry is when we chase calm by either demanding or needing control or needing for it not to be serious.

The need for control can result in obsessive spinning, constant searching for information or compulsive rituals that can eventually turn unhealthy.  There is a difference between a healthy routine and ritual.

You control a routine; a ritual controls you.  One is a value; the other is a need.  Ineffective worry can affect our immune system and make us even more vulnerable to what we fear.

How much is too much when it comes to taking in news and information on COVID-19?

As we try to better understand this crisis, it is easy to get sucked into a ruminative pattern of information seeking.  Be open to the impact that your information gathering is having on you.

Set healthy boundaries.  Search for credible sources that can update you in a few brief minutes and be sensitive to the frequency of updates that starts to feel unhealthy for you.

Brief news podcasts are often a way to stay updated without being caught in a loop of evocative media.  It is also okay to boundary conversations with others and encourage them to move to other topics.

What should you tell people around you such as family and friends, as well as children, to help with processing this situation?

We can confidently infer that everyone is experiencing change right now.  But we can’t generalize what this change means for every student, parent, faculty and staff member.

Take time to reflect and understand what this change truly means to you and don’t judge what you learn. As you understand how this is affecting you, it’s then important to determine how you want to talk about it with others.

Be sensitive to impact.  You may want to talk a lot about this, but others may not.  Some may want to have intellectual conversations, while others want to process their feelings.

Be mindful of the support you are seeking and look for people who can provide that type of support.  Be sensitive to the support others are seeking from you.  It’s OK to boundary how much you are there for others; keep your well being at a high priority.

What are some healthy ways to take care of yourself during this uncertain time?

It’s important to develop a range of self-care choices and activities.  Don’t limit it to just one.  Examples of healthy self-care:

Verbal expression: Talking with someone you trust about what you’re feeling and thinking.  Connect with people who not only support you and may share your views, but also with people who may have different perspectives.

Physical expression: Converting your emotional energy to physical expression, such as exercise, yoga, nature walks, progressive relaxation and breath work.

Creative expression: Any form of creative expression, such as writing, art or music, whether you are skilled or not.

Meditative expression: Meditative or spiritual forms of expression or reflection.  Examples are mindfulness training, meditation, guided imagery, prayer and nature walks.

Temporary break: Taking a temporary reprieve from your stress through distraction.  Examples are watching TV, reading, socializing, working or studying.  Distraction should not be the only self-care strategy you have, but it is healthy occasionally.

What else is true? Reminding yourself that there is a broader reality to your current emotion and identifying things about your life and others that are true and right.

When working with injured athletes and performing artists, we will often use their recovery period as a time to develop new skills in coping and self-care.  During this challenging transition, consider adding a new tool to your resilience toolkit.  Take a virtual mindfulness class, learn meditation, engage in a remote creative art therapy course, find out what all this fuss is about breathing, sign up for a remote personal training program, learn to play a musical instrument.  See this as an opportunity to grow during hardship.

This Q&A was adapted from the more extensive article "Flourishing during Unexpected, Uncertain and Unwanted Change" on the Virtual Health & Wellness website.