From Well-Being to Well Living
Did you know the words stress, uncertainty, and self-care were some of the most searched online keywords since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and its related lockdown?
On the one hand, the trending keywords hint at the suddenness of the chaos called COVID-19 — a pandemic whose scale was not a part of our lived experiences for the majority of the world’s population today. On the other hand, and upon a closer look, these searches also reveal the unpreparedness of our own societies, specifically, in terms of mental well-being and support systems.
The unforeseen pandemic forced us to renegotiate our lives and living, disrupting status quo, challenging us to look for different ways while meandering through a “new normal” amid the crisis. At its peak, the pandemic instilled a general unease in connecting with others, forging a different culture of connection where communication was within barriers of distancing, and in many cases, viewed as risky and potentially fatal too. Indeed, stress, uncertainty, and self-care have been the common link. Yet, they mean different things to different people.
The pandemic and its related lockdown have not been a homogeneous effect, and I say this from my own little experience of working in well-being during the pandemic related lockdown in India during 2020. I conducted a series of web-based workshops for a local charity and experienced firsthand the differences in the lived experiences of a pandemic through shared anecdotes and creative activities.
'You' and your unique situation
Being on the same boat, yet not quite in the same journey, these activities helped with an understanding of difference, while simultaneously offering the possibility to learn together, albeit differently from one another. You see, the thing about well-being is not just about finding oneself in a certain situation but also in and of you— the you in your situation.
Well-being is about awareness and acknowledgement of difference within and without oneself.
For instance, in an activity with the participants, I encouraged everyone to write with their body parts instead of a pen or pencil. They were requested, for example, to write letters and numbers in the air with their elbows, knees, tongue, and left hand. Initially, most of my participants found the exercise “awkward” and “funny” as they gestured creatively on camera, sharing these moments with everyone.
Although the scope of the session did not allow us to look at the theme of the body, issues of difference, and disability in great depth, the exercise offered the participants another perspective on their own abilities and the way it may be represented to themselves and others. For instance, some shared that they struggled to twist their tongues or bend their knees, while others who had imagined they could not write with their left hands did so with great ease.
In a way, this exercise offered an awareness to the participants about the others in their group but also presented the opportunity to know a little more about themselves—at least in that moment. This was a shared experience of difference, and even if an "awkward" one, this awkwardness was an awareness of vulnerability and its acknowledgment for oneself and others. This was also the ice-breaking session to introduce the very concept of stress.
That thing called Survival...
‘Should I play dead?’, ‘Should I run?’, ‘Should I stay and fight?’, thought Early Human as they bumped into a Sabertooth tiger. Hormones flooded the bloodstream as emotional excitement followed. Pounding heart. Beads of sweat. Shortness of breath. Staring at each other, there stood the beast of prey and the human with its spear in an encounter challenging survival.
These neuro-behavioral defense responses to perceived threat stimuli have been classified as the system of Freeze, Flight, or Fight. In our modern day lives, although the chances of being chomped up by a tiger is rather slim for most of us, this survival mechanism of ‘Freeze, Flight, or Fight’ is still our bodies’ automatic reaction to a threat stressor. Meanwhile, the beast of prey has morphed into tight deadlines, death of a loved one, divorce, job loss, an injury or chronic illness, fear of missing out, demands to stay relevant, and so much more. It cannot be fully avoided. It will, as it has, continue to evolve. Infact, stress is very much a part of our everyday lives today.
And yes, stressful situations are, just that- stressful, but stress often gets bad press. However, in a life-threatening situation, stress can quickly trigger physiological changes that can choreograph the body to protect itself from impending danger. In a non-life-threatening situation, stress can provide a short and sudden burst of energy with added excitement and motivation. Chronic stress, however, is extremely straining on the body and mind, and can contribute to complications that heavily compromise overall wellbeing. Stress responses triggering the survival mechanism are akin to raising an alarm in situations of imbalance, and chronic stress is constantly sounding this alarm. Or, let’s say, it is similar to confronting a Sabertooth tiger about to attack you 'on repeat mode.'
Is the glass half-empty or half-full?
Coping with stress is a skill — a life skill.
Stress is felt and lived differently by everyone. What maybe stressful for one person may not be stressful for another, and even if it is, the response to stress and the coping mechanisms could be vastly different between individuals. Although some cope with stress more effectively and recover from stressful events faster than others, coping mechanisms can be learnt and implemented. So, is the glass half-empty or half- full? Your perspective will help determine this response.
Awareness of symptoms helps with diagnosis and recognizing stressors is a crucial step toward developing tools to deal with stress. In my workshops, my participants shared some of their stressors specific to COVID-19 and the related lockdown. A common factor for these stressors was how the pandemic had changed the lives of the participants in different ways. Some of my participants had lost their jobs, some expressed concerns about sick family and friends, and yet others were left worried about elderly parents or children living alone at another location.
On the one hand, there was the frustration of students lacking sufficient support and the ambiguity of older school goers on the verge of preparing for their career-defining examinations. On the other hand, there were teachers dealing with the additional responsibility of adapting to newer technologies for teaching and evaluation, as well as pay cuts, in some cases. Most of these stressors fed into a sense of uncertainty. Meanwhile, there were a few participants who wanted to keep finding a brighter side as they talked of rediscovering their long-lost hobbies, nurturing skills such as baking, pottery, poetry writing, and gardening, finding time to exercise, eating healthier, reading more, and writing journals, to name a few.
During these sessions, the participants were encouraged to reflect on how the pandemic and the related lockdown had impacted their lives in terms of perceived differences between before and after the pandemic.
These helped explain to a certain degree the levels of stress brought about by sudden changes such as death, illness, and unemployment and stress related to changes in routine such as the pressures of school, work, family, and other responsibilities. The very nature of the epidemic, the ever-evolving research, government guidelines and containment measures, death tolls, and related information—these all added to the atmosphere of dealing with an unknown future, the uncertainty of not knowing, or the inability to accurately predict some semblance of a known “normal.”
My participants and I wondered if we could structure some sense of certainty in the face of unprecedented changes, and how. The idea of this attempt was not to judge whether the glass is half full or half empty but to give back to the participants the power to refill the glass, even amid the crisis. A sense of the familiar in the face of overwhelming change somehow offers a sense of control or of taking back some control.
My participants and I discussed forming a routine that suited them and how having one was helpful to combat uncertainty by establishing some predictability. One way to do this is goal setting, preferably setting small achievable chunks as part of formulating one’s routine. This not only helps to get organized but also brings back a sense of certainty and control by helping the individual to lean into things that one can change within their routine, also a good way of attaining motivation
For some, the glass is half-empty, while it is half-full for others. Coping is a conscious effort that you can still make to refill the glass whether you think it is half-full or half-empty. Coping skills allow you to tolerate, and in some cases, even minimize the negative impact from stressful situations. Coping skills place the power back into your hands by allowing you an opportunity to change the frame of how you perceive yourself and your environment in a moment of felt crisis. And yes, coping strategies can be learnt.
Mental health and well-being could be complicated and sometimes be a long journey. You cannot avoid stress but no one else can manage it for you either. Health and well-being is a commitment but it does not have to be a lonely journey. So, here I am, and I'd like to share with you what I do — empower well-living through creative expressions and conversations.
Presenting the Well Living Space — a safe space where we can all share, learn, grow, relax, and just be. I have in-store for you an exciting workshop where I will hold space for us, so we could explore resources to map our very own wellness growth on this journey. Come, be a part of my first workshop - a storytelling workshop to creatively engage with stress and well living. These workshops also come with special gifts, or free takeaways that you could continue to use as you develop in your well living.
Most importantly, I come to you with the hope that my workshops will empower you with exercises and creative methods to foster conversations because we want to listen to you and empower you to take charge and feel better.
See you soon…
Cognitive Story Teller
"Adapted from 'Stressors: Observations from a Series of Workshops on Stress and Wellbeing conducted in India during the COVID- 19 related Lockdown', https://www.sylff.org/news_voices/29241/".