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By Beverly Ford
2020 has been a difficult year for so many reasons: COVID-19 and related health concerns, lost jobs, closed schools, and social isolation to name a few.
“It’s quite normal to feel stressed and worried,” says Dr. Michelle Durham, a psychiatrist at Boston Medical Center and assistant professor of psychiatry at Boston School of Medicine. “We’ve never been through anything like this.” In fact, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll in July, 53% of adults in the United States say their mental health has been negatively impacted by stress and worry over COVID. But with all the changes at home and at work, many people have less time than ever to prioritize their mental health.
To find out how busy people—from working parents, to students, to business leaders, to frontline workers—can find little moments for mental health care in 2020, we asked those busy people themselves. Read on to see what they said.
Nneka Nwokeji, nurse at Boston Medical Center
Nneka Nwokeji lives with the fear of COVID every day. As a front-line worker with 20-years of nursing experience, she not only deals with a high-pressure day job, she also goes home to another job as an unpaid teacher to a 13-year-old daughter, a distance learner ever since her school closed due to the virus.
Doing double duty as nurse and teacher is stressful enough, Nwokeji says, but it’s nothing compared to the concern she has over possibly bringing COVID home to her family.
“When fear grips you, you can’t do anything,” she says. “That’s why I try to think positive. Think good thoughts and that fear will melt away.”
To help maintain that positive mindset in the midst of busy days, Nwokeji says she prays every day, and uses meditation, deep breathing exercises, and mindfulness to relieve stress.
“Those are excellent ways to get your mind off of things,” says Durham. Prayer, meditation, and other calming techniques work to ground people and help them better handle the stress in their lives. According to research published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, mindfulness practices alter activity in the amygdala and increase the connections between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex in the brain, both of which help people be less reactive to stress and recover from stress better when they do experience it.
These practices also give busy individuals a break from their phones, computers, and televisions, allowing them quiet moments of undisturbed relaxation, Durham explains.
Hannah Schweitzer, senior at Boston University
Hannah Schweitzer, a 21-year-old senior at Boston University who plans to graduate in December, is worried about finding a job when she tries to join a COVID-era workforce. It wouldn’t be the first time COVID has messed up her career plans. Her hopes for a summer internship in 2020 suddenly vaporized in COVID’s wake, leaving her wondering what she’d do for work or how she’d pay for the apartment she was planning to move into. “I’ve been very stressed out about my future,” admits the advertising and history major. “I don’t know what’s going to happen with my career or how the pandemic is going to affect that.”
Instead of letting those issues dominate her thinking, however, Schweitzer improvised— literally—by joining an improvisational group at school.
“It’s been a big de-stressor for me,” she says, explaining that the Zoom-centered improvisational group allows her “to escape myself and become a character.”
Joining an online group provides an opportunity to interact with others while maintaining social distancing, says Durham. And realizing when you’re under stress and reacting to it, like Schweitzer does, helps people get through those crisis situations, she adds.
Jane Winterling, director of the Vermont Recovery Education Project at the Copeland Center for Wellness and Recovery
Finding virtual social connections has helped Jane Winterling, 71, with her mental state too. Winterling, who lives alone in Vermont, realized she had started feeling anxious and stressed about social situations simply when going to the grocery store in recent months. “Given that social norms are not reliable right now, I find that incredibly stressful and anxiety-producing,” she says.
To combat those feelings, Winterling joined an online support group that has helped her realize the many things she has to be grateful for. She also participates in online seminars on wellness, an area of interest for Winterling as an employee of the Copeland Center for Wellness and Recovery.
“We are social beings and not being able to go out with our family and friends can be very isolating,” says Durham, adding that finding ways to connect with others virtually or by phone can help revive those feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Expressing gratitude, like Winterling’s group encouraged her to do, has also been shown to improve mood. You can try this in your own life by starting a gratitude journal, in which you write down several things you’re grateful for—big or small—each day.
Linda Nathan, executive director, Center for Artistry and Scholarship; co-director, Perrone Sizer Institute for Creative Leadership; lecturer, Harvard Graduate School of Education
As a non-profit leader, Linda Nathan is used to working hard and dealing with professional stressors. But in the era of social distancing, with time with her parents, children, and grandkids limited, she’s found a new mental health challenge: “It’s stressful to be alone,” she says.
Linda Nathan has found moments for her mental health in pottery. “It’s totally consuming,” she says. “I can’t think about anything else when I’m doing it.”
That’s a good thing, says Durham, because it not only means you are using your hands—and probably a different part of your brain—it also takes you away from other stress-inducing activities.
“Taking on a few hobbies is a fantastic way to remove yourself from all the news that seems to be negative these days,” Durham says.
These are just some of the ways to find moments for your mental health, Durham adds. In addition, “we know that sleep and exercise on a daily basis are good for not only your physical health but your mental health as well,” she says. If you’re working from home, take advantage of the time you normally would spend commuting to an office in order to get enough sleep. Or schedule a block of time mid-day to go for a walk or run.
But be aware of when little moments caring for your mental health aren’t enough, Durham notes. “When you find things are impacting your functioning—when you can’t engage in normal activities; when something is different from your baseline—it’s time to start thinking about professional help.” Therapy, after all, is just one more way you can schedule a dedicated block of time for mental health care into your day.
Helpful resources for taking care of your mental health
These nonprofit organizations can offer support and guidance to those seeking to improve their mental health.