UVA Darden Experts Offer Advice for Cultivating Mental Resilience During the Pandemic

21 May 2020

By Gosia Glinska

As the deaths attributed to COVID-19 rise, businesses close and jobs disappear, it’s hard not to feel anxious or outright scared.

According to a recent national poll conducted by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), 48 percent of Americans are worried about contracting the virus and 40 percent fear becoming seriously ill or dying from it. Thirty-six percent say the pandemic has had a significant impact on their mental health.

“We’re experiencing a range of emotions,” says Jenny Zenner (MBA ’03), a former addictions counselor and currently the technology and West Coast career coach at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. “Many of us are grieving. We don’t feel safe, and it’s important to acknowledge that.”

Fortunately, several experts within the Darden community are sharing evidence-based approaches that can help boost resilience in the face of an uncertain future.

Living With the Great Unknown

There’s a lot we don’t know about COVID-19 and its long-term impact. Unfortunately, the pervasive uncertainty is a known stressor, says Executive MBA Second Year student Michelle Mullany, a licensed therapist and vice president of behavioral health at Main Line Health System in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Even worse, familiar ways of coping are being disrupted. “One important way to deal with stress is by sharing our experiences with others,” says Mullany. “When we get their feedback, even an acknowledgement that something is stressful, that validates our feelings and allows our central nervous system to calm down.”

When we can’t connect with others, we’re left alone with our thoughts, says Mullany. The human tendency to catastrophize, without realizing that negative thoughts are often out of proportion to the actual threats, can lead to anxiety and depression.

As Mullany put it, “If there’s an imbalance between negative and positive thoughts, that’s when we start to go down a slippery slope.”

Being in the Present Moment 

So, what can be done to prevent the downward spiral triggered by relentless stress?

A good place to start is recognize what is happening — not what we think is happening, says Darden Professor Lili Powell, an authority on mindful communication and leadership presence. “Pause and see,” says Powell, “really see what you’re experiencing. Once you have named it, sit with that recognition for a moment. It helps to pay attention to your breathing, which often holds more clues about how you’re really doing.”

What Powell describes is mindfulness, a practice that emphasizes paying attention to emotions, thoughts and physical sensations as they arise in the present moment.

Mindfulness was popularized by the best-selling author of Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, and is now taught throughout the U.S.

“The essence of mindfulness,” says Powell, “is nonjudgmental awareness.” When we judge our emotions as negative, we suppress them, which makes them stronger and more persistent. When we simply observe them with an attitude of “curiosity and goodwill,” as Powell put it, they run their course.

Numerous studies show that being aware of one’s thoughts and emotions, without reacting to them, is a proven antidote to chronic worry and anxiety.

To help deal with powerful emotions in a mindful way, Powell recommends a simple practice: Arrive-Breathe-Connect, which she described in a recent feature on Darden Ideas to Action.

Embracing Physical Activity

Regular physical activity helps lower blood pressure and cholesterol and cuts the risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes and even certain cancers. It’s also beneficial to mental health. “Exercise,” says Mullany, “stimulates the production of endorphins — the positive chemicals in the brain that act as painkillers and elevate mood. It also lowers the body’s stress hormones, such as cortisol.”

Stressful situations often manifest within the body as increased heart rate, muscle tension and gastrointestinal distress. When the body overreacts to stressors that aren’t life-threatening, like persistent worry and negative thoughts, it becomes a problem.

According to Zenner — who is finishing a book, Rewrite Your Stress Story, and leads workshops drawing on her training in addiction counselling — prolonged stress repeatedly activating the fight-or-flight response can take a toll on physical and mental health, interfering with sleep, memory and focus. Physical activity, says Zenner, is key to breaking free from the grip of stress.

Harnessing the Mind-Body Connection

Another potential path to staying strong during the pandemic is yoga, an ancient practice combining physical postures, breathing techniques and meditation. Numerous studies demonstrate that regular yoga practice increases muscle strength, endurance and flexibility. It also has a unique capacity to relax, induce calm and dissipate stress.

According to Matt Andrews (EMBA ’18), a member of the International Association of Yoga Therapists and a co-founder of the Sol Hot Yoga Studio in Carmel, Indiana, consistent yoga practice can help people cope with mental and physical adversity. “There’s a great deal of depth in yoga practice that leads to resilience,” says Andrews. “Especially hot yoga. The heat and sweat amplify stress in a controlled environment where students can safely practice remaining balanced and focused without overreacting to challenging conditions.”

Andrews took up yoga after multiple combat deployments as a bomb-disposal officer in the Middle East. “Hot yoga,” says Matthews, “gave my body, mind and sprit the time and space to heal and made me even more resilient to stress and injury.”

Keeping Things Simple

To regain a sense of control amid chaos and uncertainty, some may be tempted to embark on ambitious self-improvement projects.

Kate Stella (MBA ’12), a health and wellness coach at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston cautions against “going big,” as she put it. “Our lives,” says Stella, “have been uprooted and flipped upside down. We’re trying to create new structures and routines from scratch while doing our jobs and taking care of our kids and loved ones. This significant change coupled with coronavirus-related anxiety and economic uncertainty is a heavy burden that many are carrying right now.”

Noting that everyone’s situation is unique, Stella recommends an inquiry-based approach to stress management. “Ask yourself,” she says, “what matters to you during this perilous time, and start with one small step each day to support that. Do something simple, realistic, like five minutes of guided meditation or going for a walk — something that can be repeated tomorrow, next week and next month.”

Experts estimate that the coronavirus pandemic will persist for many months to come, while a vaccine could take 12 to 18 months to develop and approve for public use. During this unprecedented time, it’s critical to maintain physical and mental health by scheduling self-care, knowing when to seek professional help and supporting those around us.

“The more we advocate for ourselves,” says Zenner, “the better we are. Often, when we reach out and help others, we may feel better ourselves. It’s about agency and feeling that there are things that we can control.”

About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D., MSBA and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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