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Flourishing during Unexpected, Uncertain and Unwanted Change

Our world and university are managing an unprecedented change that affects everyone who is connected to this community. How do we healthfully manage the wide range of emotions and thoughts associated with this pandemic?

The Psychology of Change

All change is accompanied by stress because our minds are aware that we’re leaving or losing something that was known and moving towards something that is uncertain. The mind processes that as loss and fear/worry. Even positive change is stressful. But if the change is unexpected, unwanted, and accompanied by greater uncertainty than normal, the experience of loss and worry are amplified.

Students left for Spring Break, many of them tired from midterms and relishing the opportunity to restore, have fun, or engage in meaningful service projects. Some were hoping this would be their best Spring Break because it was the last before they graduated. Some were heading to conference competitions. By the beginning of Spring Break, some students were changing their plans due to travel warnings, but few could have anticipated that they would not be returning. Many of our international students who were staying could not have anticipated that their community of peers and friends would not be returning.

The worry associated with change causes our mind to project forward. It’s hard to just stay in the present with so much changing on a daily basis. The “what if” questions occur in our mind and if there are no clear answers, our worry escalates. While there is a lot of discussion about the anxiety associated with this pandemic, there is also a profound sense of loss that we are experiencing. Much of our worry is tied to loss and hurt. Students are feeling the loss of the community where they have developed a sense of adult independence. They are feeling the loss of both the planned and organic discussions that occur both in and out of the classroom that enrich their learning and quality of lives. They are feeling the loss of their extracurricular involvement, events and competitions that brought uniqueness and distinction to their WM experience. They are feeling the loss of their in-person social support network and wellness activities to help them manage the stress of this relentless world. On a daily basis, they are reminded of both the small and large things that will be completely different for the second half of this semester, especially for our graduates (both undergrad and grad).

Parents are adjusting to their adult student being back at home for an extended period of time. Parents “gear up” for the visits during the planned breaks of the academic year. Yes, we love our children and love their visits, but we do have to adjust when they return to us. Parents have their own “what if” worries. Faculty are having to tread into unknown waters of pedagogy that may or may not be congruent with their preferred or valued form of teaching. It feeds into our own insecurities and worries about doing our job well and being thoughtful about teaching and learning amidst an environment of anxiety. Staff are adjusting to providing services and support in a manner and in conditions that are not a normal part of their training and professional development. For some, their daily work is about managing crises, but you know, just because it is familiar, it never gets easier or more comfortable. Both faculty and staff are having to figure out how to teach or work from a small room in their house while possibly taking care of children or extended family. It’s absurd... and it’s our new normal. We all have our own “what ifs.”

There are also the personal and cultural factors that can serve to buffer or amplify our feelings. Some are excited by change, some dread it. Some like control, others need it. Some manage uncertainty by faith, others manage uncertainty by the search for facts and data. Some come from cultures where they have experienced awfulness and trauma, some come from cultures that have been relatively protected. None of these are binary, they are a continuum and we’re dynamic, we move on these continuums.

We’re all in it. We’re in the loss, we’re in the worry. And while we’re all in it, our personal experiences of it can be widely variable.

So what do we do about it?

How do we flourish through unwanted uncertainty?

The “Work” of Wellness & Resilience
A single column table for formatting purposes.
Fear has its Place

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 strain.

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. Likewise, the need for this to not be real or serious can result in reckless behavior that results in amplifying the problem. Ineffective worry affects our immune system and makes us even more vulnerable to what we fear.

The Trap of Chasing Calm or Happiness

So, how do you keep fear in its healthy perspective? For many, it looks like an intense rush to things that are soothing, calming and that evoke happy feelings. Unfortunately, this is a trap during unexpected, unwanted change. It over-sensitizes us to our current emotions and we start to over-define ourselves by the emotions we are currently feeling. So, rather than chasing calm, strive for healthy self-care. Instead of chasing happiness, strive for purpose and meaning.

Trust is the one thing that keeps fear in perspective. But it’s not passive trust. It’s not “Oh, I just have faith everything will be okay.” It’s a deeper form of trust. It’s a trust in knowing what is important to you each day, what it looks like in action, what it looks like healthy, and when it’s hard and unfair, what healthy coping looks like. That is the deepest form of trust. That kind of trust takes work but it’s work that leads to resilience.

Become Values-Focused Amidst Uncertainty

Start every day with “What matters today?” and of those things, “What matters most?” Crystallizing and prioritizing a sense of purpose and meaning to each day moves you from fear-based thinking to values-centered thinking. We have a sense of agency and control when we can act on things that matter to us. This current situation has challenged our ability to act on our values in the way we prefer or in the routine we most want. But it hasn’t taken away our ability to act on what matters to us. It just may look different. Our purpose and meaning also encompasses a constellation of values, not just one. This can be a time when we reorganize our time and energy around a different harmony of our values. What mattered most on Tuesdays on campus may look different than what matters most on Tuesdays at home. But something will matter. Tune into that. At the end of each day, make sure you take time to appreciate where you acted with purpose. We often skim over purposeful activities but reflecting about our engagement in those purposeful activities is what cultivates meaning in our lives. Take a moment and mindfully appreciate where, how and why you courageously stepped into purpose each day. It matters during uncertainty and loss.

Understand your Personal Experience of Change/Loss

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 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. 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. It’s also okay to boundary how much you are there for others; keep your wellbeing at a high priority.

Possibility versus Probability

Fear causes the possible to feel probable.  When something unwanted is probable, we feel compelled to act in a protective manner.  Fear distorts what is probable, so we should try to discern the probable from the possible.  Keep your actions and decisions focused on the probable.  For instance, I may start “what if-ing” my way to an awful scenario if I were to contract the virus until my body starts responding as if that is going to happen and my actions will follow that panicked scenario.  But given what I know about me and my health, given what I have learned from credible sources about the virus, given the preventive measures I am taking, and given the plan I have in case I contract the virus, it is probable that nothing awful is going to happen if I get sick.  Is it possible that something awful could happen to me? Yes.  Is it probable?  No. 

A faculty member who is still trying to establish their value as an instructor or securing their goals for tenure may start to worry that their evaluations will be based on a form of teaching or adjusted research that is very new and different for them.  The possibility of their review for tenure or their teaching to be negatively impacted starts to feel probable.  But if we focus on the fact that no one knows our life’s work better than us, that we access the resources that are there to help with this adjustment, that we don’t demand more than what is healthy and right in these circumstances, and that we remember that everyone is in this same situation, then we can land on the fact that we are probably going to adjust and move forward with sound (if not optimal) teaching and research.  For us to flourish, we must commit our decisions and actions to the probable.  That is what is so hard about this current situation.  We can’t always discern confidently what is possible versus probable.  But it’s important to try and important to reach out for support in helping with that discernment.  Put your trust in the probable as much as you reasonably can.

Stay Informed, Not Stuck

As we try to better understand this crisis for our individual and community wellbeing, 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. It’s important to remember that the vast number of news portals are vying to hold your attention so you’ll stay with them as their news source. Instead, search for credible sources that can update you in a few brief minutes. 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.

Soothing versus Self-Care

When we are managing difficult emotions, it is normal for us to want to feel better. We want to soothe. When we intend to soothe, we are vulnerable to choosing actions that will change brain chemistry quickly and make us feel better. The things that change brain chemistry the quickest are food, drugs, sex, pain and compelling entertainment. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these things, even the pain associated with exercise. What matters is the intention. When the intention is to feel better, we typically don’t moderate our actions well. Food, alcohol, exercise and Netflix can move from enjoyable activities to unhealthy, excessive, rigid patterns that eventually become problems in themselves.

Self-care, by contrast, is the intention to be healthy. When we intend to be healthy rather than rushing to feel better, we manage and moderate our choices better. And it’s okay if the result of our self-care results in feeling better, it just shouldn’t be the primary reason. If I know it is healthy for me to go on a run, and I find it enjoyable and feel better after a run, then that’s just a bonus. But if I need to feel better, what happens if I go on a run and come home still feeling worried or upset? I will either stop running all together because it didn’t work, or I will run farther and longer until I exhaust myself, or I will choose something more potent to change my brain chemistry. Learn what the difference between enjoyable, healthy self-care and unhealthy soothing looks like for you.

It’s important to develop a range of self-care choices and activities. Don’t limit it to just one. What are 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, breath work, etc. Creative expression – any form of creative expression, such as writing, art, 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, nature walks, etc. 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 ourselves that there is a broader reality to our current emotion and identifying things about our 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.

3 Steps to Coping with Unwanted Change

After we’ve done everything in our control to engage with purpose and healthy self-care, we may still find that we feel bad or scared. Things may happen daily that remind us that this change is unwanted and uncertain. When we’ve done everything we can do, it then becomes about healthy coping. Healthy coping involves three steps: (1) Honor the reaction, but challenge any conclusions. We tend to do just the opposite. We want to run from the hurt and we tend to become very conclusive about our future, our world, and ourselves. Instead, honor and accept the fact that you’re upset because something upsetting has occurred; you’re worried because worrisome things are happening. But challenge your thoughts when you find yourself making judgments or conclusions about you or the world around you. Parents, you don’t have to rescue your student from being upset. Often, acknowledging the difficulty of what they are going through is the support they are seeking. (2) Focus on Self-Care (not to feel better but for the health of it). See previous section. (3) Engage in something of purpose and meaning, even when affected. By engaging in things that matter to you, it reminds you that you can be affected by something but don’t have to be defined by it.

Courage Training

Being healthy and resilient during unexpected, uncertain, and unwanted change is hard. There’s no getting around the work of wellness. But it’s only hard. When we see this work as hard, and only hard, we can step into the work more readily. Because we’ve all done hard. And that’s what courage is – engagement in something right that is hard. It is right to manage this current challenge in a healthy manner. You deserve to be healthy and to flourish. The goal is not to do this fearlessly or calmly, but to engage in this hard, right thing while afraid and upset. Let’s be courageous together.

The departments of Health & Wellness are continually building additions to our website and W&M Wellness app to create a Virtual Health & Wellness space. We are posting videos and articles that are designed to enhance your wellness. We recently had over 160 people join our first live, remote yoga class! Our live programs will also be recorded so they can be played back at your convenience.