Wellness Wednesday: Finding endurance in difficult times

September 16, 2020  //  FOUND IN: Updates & Resources

2020 will undoubtedly go down in each of our personal histories as one of the most challenging, stressful and unpredictable years.

A pandemic creating dramatic changes in our work and personal lives, incidents of racial discrimination and horrific injustice, unprecedented weather events and natural disasters leave many wondering what could be next. How much more could possibly happen in one year?

The long haul

What began in March as a sprint to address the needs of a rapidly-growing number of COVID-19 patients has extended now into a marathon as we continue to face new challenges in our health care system and in our lives. Michigan Medicine faculty and staff are transitioning to a new normal while continuing to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, a situation we know will continue for some time.

“How you coped at the beginning may be very different from how you cope as the situation progresses,” said Cassie Garety James, Ph.D., L.P., clinical psychologist and faculty and staff counselor with the Office of Counseling and Workplace Resilience.

“In the beginning, life was like a sprint. We responded as fast as we could to urgent needs in work and personal life with very little time to reflect. That is an important survival strategy that we need during an immediate crisis,” she said.

Now, while we are adjusting to the new normal and seem to be holding steady, we are also holding our breath, unsure of what the fall and winter will bring. We continue caring for COVID-19 patients while working to increase capacity to serve a growing number of complex, high acuity patients and, at the same time, prepare for a potential resurgence of COVID-19 patients. Many team members continue to work from home to support the ongoing changes and help meet patient, research and educational needs.

The never-slowing pace of health care means, now that we are through the initial crisis of COVID-19, we must find a way to carry on.

Pacing ourselves

“Like a long-distance runner, we have to think about pacing ourselves and listening to our own needs,” said Garety James, “so that we can go the distance in meeting the challenges to come. Adopting an endurance mindset can help you take care of your well-being even in the midst of very difficult times.”

Garety James suggested some specific strategies and questions to help us get started.

Acknowledge experiences and emotions

Acknowledging and validating our own experiences and emotions is an important way to gain valuable data about our well-being and our needs. Garety James said that, while it is healthy to practice gratitude for what we have, individuals should avoid comparing their own feelings to others in a way that dismisses or invalidates their own pain.

 “In acknowledging our experiences as they are, we make room to find out what we need at a given moment,” she said.

Garety James suggests asking yourself these questions:

  • Do you tend to ignore or dismiss your feelings?
  • What is one challenging feeling you can acknowledge today?

Identify needs

As you practice and become more familiar with acknowledging your emotions and experiences, you can begin to understand and address the need that is connected to your feelings. Garety James said we all have a psychological need for safety, predictability and control, yet these are often threatened during difficult times. Therefore, it is important to find simple ways to attend to your needs. For example, to attend to your need for safety, you might listen to a song that reminds you of a time when you felt safe.

Asking yourself the following questions can help create intention around identifying your own needs:

  • What needs are especially important to you?
  • What is the need behind the challenging feeling you are having today?

Allow yourself to be flexible

The third strategy recommended by Garety James is flexibility through self-compassion. She said it is common for people to struggle to re-incorporate activities they know are good for them, like exercising on a regular basis. If committing to these or other activities feels overwhelming, she said that is a signal that you may need to be flexible with yourself.

“Remember that you have endured so much this year,” said Garety James, “and it can sometimes take several months to adapt during very challenging times.”

She recommends taking smaller, more manageable steps and relieving yourself of the expectation that you should be able to perform as you did before.

Try asking yourself these questions:

  • What feels possible and realistic for you?
  • What can you break down into smaller goals to get started?

Endurance to go the distance

As you practice the strategies above and begin to ask yourself these questions, you might not have answers at first. Garety James, who walks viewers through these strategies in the latest episode of the Short Takes Reflect and Recharge video series, said that is okay, and even to be expected.

“I invite you to keep asking the questions anyway,” she said, “because just the act of asking starts you on the path toward attending to your needs so that you can increase your well-being and ultimately find endurance in these difficult times.”

For confidential counseling at no cost, referrals, and information on how to address mental and emotional health concerns, employees can contact the Office of Counseling and Workplace Resilience at counseling.med.umich.edu, or by calling 734-763-5409.