Mind Over Matter

We’ve said goodbye to the longest year on record, but few of us have escaped unscathed. Mental illnesses have surged, and loneliness abounds. Still, as we look ahead to a new year, let us also resolve to work toward a strong mind and a new attitude.

mental health
Photos by Lauren Jeziorski

I’ll go out on a limb and say that you’re probably with me in pure elation that 2020 is in our rearview. It was, by too many accounts, tumultuous. Only a couple weeks into quarantine I found myself drawing on lessons I had learned in therapy to help cope with the realities beginning to unfold. At the time, I had no idea that we were heading into a months-long pandemic that would separate us in almost every way from the life that we were used to.

Some people only mildly altered their state of living – choosing to operate as if we were hearing different statistics about COVID-19. Others struggled many times over to find an upside to a difficult time wrought with layers of social ills.

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Any chance for a fresh start, a clean slate, is cause for celebration. Thus, the elation. But I have also pondered exactly how we are to feel uplifted after experiencing the hardships of 2020. My first thoughts went to mental wellness as the introduction to healing.

Within 10 minutes I was reaching out to Aja Burks, owner and lead therapist at Transformative Mind Counseling in Southfield. I asked her somberly, but deeply curiously: How do you feel good when nothing is positive? 

Burks responded: “While there are many things that may feel heavy, acknowledging the pain that we’re experiencing will allow us to identify ways we can overcome our pain. I’m certain that if we give ourselves a chance, we can embrace courage and see hope.”

If Burks is correct in the assertion that an important first step to healing is facing the pain, then we have to have honest conversations about how we have actually been impacted.

So, let’s be honest about some of what we’ve braved.

Spotting the Problem

In 2020, the rates of depression, anxiety and substance abuse rose. A survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation in mid-July found that 53% of adults in the United States reported that their mental health had been negatively impacted because of worry and stress caused by the pandemic, compared to 32% in March. The same survey found a 12% increase in alcohol consumption or substance abuse. 

Another Kaiser Family Foundation health tracking poll conducted in July found that Black people, at 57%, were second to Hispanics, at 63%, who say that worry or stress related to the pandemic has caused them to experience adverse effects on their mental health and wellbeing.

Domestic violence has also surged around the world. This highlights the relationship between abusive behavior and contributing factors leading to increased stress, such as income insecurity and families being in close contact for prolonged periods of time.

Remember that abuse is not only physical. Emotional, verbal and psychological abuse are also highly damaging. In a recent article cited in The New England Journal of Medicine, one in four women and one in 10 men experience intimate partner violence.

Whether you call it domestic violence or intimate partner violence, the people on the receiving end of abuse are of all races, cultures, genders, sexual orientations, socioeconomic classes and religions. What is alarming is that the very thing that was intended to keep us safe from COVID-19 is the same thing that puts abuse victims in harm’s way – isolation.   

Pervasive during the pandemic has been the lack of social connectedness that, for some, has resulted in isolation and loneliness. This was a growing concern globally prior to the pandemic, but the mandatory stay-at-home orders exacerbated the issue. 

In 2018, the U.K. appointed a minister for loneliness after 9 million people in Britain reported always feeling lonely, according to a 2017 report. A similar problem exists here at home, also. In a May 2020 Time magazine article, “COVID-19 is Making America’s Loneliness Epidemic Even Worse,” writer Jamie Ducharme points to a survey conducted by social advice company SocialPro that revealed roughly a third of American adults reported feeling lonelier than usual since the stay-at-home orders went into effect.

Burks says, “Recognizing and addressing loneliness is important because it can be detrimental to your mental and physical health. Not addressing loneliness can lead to symptoms of depression and anxiety.” Being lonely hit uncomfortably close to home for me. As a woman who lives for a Sunday brunch paired with soul-lifting conversations, good food and a mimosa, I struggled at the beginning of the pandemic. 

Accepting Change 

Finding activities to fill my time had been part of my single lady DNA. I was just beginning to learn how to enjoy my own company and how to not feel like I have to fill my every minute. I wasn’t ready for what being COVID cautious had in store for me, and I’d spend many days searching for what to do with myself.

What I did is what Burks says is important to conquering loneliness. I got creative about tapping into ways to connect with others. For me, that meant meeting up with friends who valued the same social-distancing boundaries. A new bicycle, new roller skates, grilling in the park and virtual house parties on the social networking app Houseparty helped to keep me connected to the outdoors, and to friends and family.

According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, minority-owned small businesses suffered tremendous economic fallout due to the pandemic, and small business owners have a heightened concern about the pandemic’s impact on their mental health.

Michele Pearson, owner of Detroit-based Beignets, LLC,  says the secret to staying sane is acceptance and perseverance. Her popular food truck is in its peak season April through August. Prior to the pandemic, Pearson had plans to open a storefront having experienced exponential growth and success for the past seven years. But in 2020, Beignets, LLC did not operate at all.

Pearson, who is also a yoga teacher, says her hopes are rooted in the fact that things always change. She says, “Things may become more difficult, they may become less difficult – but they will never stay the same. I’ve learned in my pursuit and exploration into my mental health that things are forever in flux. Holding fast to this truth has helped me during the most difficult times, and it gives me the strength to keep moving forward and remain diligent.”

Pearson’s perspective while facing an obviously difficult time is what mental health professionals are hoping we all take into the new year: a very focused approach to self-care that includes mental wellness. Surilla Lawrence with the Relationship Center of Michigan spoke with me about the importance of finding your footing on stable ground in difficult times, especially as it relates to the flurry of events last year.

Lawrence says, “Instead of focusing on all the things that have contributed to the downfall or the set-back or the frustration or resentment that you currently feel, learn to accept that all of it is true. Even in the midst of it, still choose to see the lesson that you can pull out of this pandemic. Every experience we have in life serves a purpose.”

She encourages us to move forward, understand that hard times will come but that we should wrap our minds around changing the way we think and behave. She says we need to ask ourselves what the teachable moments were – and how to build from there.

Healing Space

As difficult as 2020 was, I’ve seen so many people empowered to serve themselves and their communities differently. We are already moving with that energy into 2021, being intentional about how we show up for ourselves despite our surroundings and the challenges that are bound to be present. It is an act of courage to prioritize your mental wellness.

It is hard work, and when you can’t achieve it alone, ask for help. There are too many resources and tools to be out here by yourself trying to figure things out. Technology has changed the game in terms of exposure and access to mental health care and wellness techniques. 

There are articles and listservs that offer information about maintaining a healthy mindset as part of your daily self-care regimen. If you’re active on social media, you can design your entire timeline to be nothing but uplifting, therapy-inspired content. 

Whole virtual communities exist that you can join, such as Therapy for Black Girls and Therapy for Black Men. I follow a number of therapists on Instagram that provide free content to feed your mind and encourage self-reflection.

I’ve been enjoying therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab’s community (@nedratawwab). She describes herself on Instagram as a “boundaries expert.” She challenges her followers to heal and provides advice on navigating hard times and difficult relationships. 

But as someone who accepted therapy as part of my ongoing self-care life plan four years ago, I can say there is nothing better than developing a one-on-one relationship with a therapist or other professional that meets your personal needs. Everyone’s mental wellness journey is different, but we should all be on one.

 Both therapists interviewed for this article highlighted moments of personal self-reflection as important to our ability to thrive in any situation. It’s also a necessary component to healing and planning. This is the time of year when people are developing New Year’s resolutions or breaking out the canvas to complete a vision board, but experts advocate for maintaining that state of mind for more than just a season or brainstorming session.

Lawrence says, “It’s important to have self-reflection time because it introduces you to yourself. Sometimes we lose sight of who we are.” She says we must consider “what we need moving forward and on what brings you peace, what brings you focus and what brings you clarity.”

Burks says, “To self-reflect, we increase our personal competency in who we are and what we are capable of. One of the most important aspects of self-reflection is being honest in our own experiences. If we’re honest, we can truly identify our tenacity for making change even through a difficult time.”

Pouring into yourself matters. How you treat yourself matters. Your perseverance depends on it. Take heed to the late Kobe Bryant’s “mamba mentality” as it relates to your mental wellness – just try to get better every day. If you feel overwhelmed and can’t get fired up, give yourself a little grace. Start where you can. 

And be grateful. Gratitude is a scientifically proven gateway to being healthy and happy. You’ve likely heard this before and maybe you were skeptical, like I was. When life is cluttered with hardship after hardship, it may be difficult to see past the clouds to identify anything to be grateful for. I get it, and many of you reading this article have probably been there, too.

But even in those times, there are things to give thanks for. Bring it down to the things that you take for granted. Be thankful for your breath. Be thankful for your toes. Be thankful for the tree that gave you shade on a hot day. Be thankful for your grade school teacher who saved you from a bad grade. Researchers say showing gratitude can result in fewer aches and pains, improved sleep, better relationships, and can counteract depression and suicidal thoughts.

Seems too simple, maybe, but I’ve bought into the idea, and I can promise you that it definitely doesn’t hurt. That said … I’m grateful for the opportunity to share this article with you, and I hope that someone will read it and find the strength to focus their energy on improving their health by focusing on mental wellness. I’m grateful for the paper these words are printed on. Your turn. 

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