Community Experiences During the Pandemic:

Part II

Albert & Jessie Danielsen Institute

Research & Management Teams

 

At the Danielsen Institute we aim to strengthen and improve our clinical services through dialogue between client and therapist, and by using psychotherapy research to engage many voices in the “conversation.” Integrating research and practice facilitates an ongoing process of reflection, learning, and growth in dialogue within our community of practice. The stressful context of the COVID-19 pandemic has led us to explore its impact on the Danielsen’s community of clients. During late spring and summer, we asked the community about mental health and well-being in the context of the pandemic. In Part I, we offered a summary of challenges, benefits, and new insights based on community responses with the hope that we can learn from one another during these difficult times.

Here, In Part II, we summarize additional findings related to mental health and well-being. Our focus with this particular set of findings is making sense of the community’s reported experiences with factors that are positively related to psychological well-being or a sense of meaning and purpose. We recognize that the Danielsen represents a diverse community with unique experiences and life contexts, so these patterns will not apply to everyone. However, we share some of the emerging trends in order to spark curiosity, prompt self-reflection, and further conversation in therapy about coping strategies that can help us reimagine daily life during this unusual time.

 

What factors are associated with well-being during the pandemic?

Psychological well-being exists along a continuum and includes feeling a sense of vitality, purpose, self-acceptance, mastery, and an orientation toward personal growth even in the midst of challenges. We found three key factors that are related to greater psychological well-being during the pandemic:

 

Connection with Nature

People tended to report higher psychological well-being when regularly connecting with their natural environment. This can range from spending time outside to bringing the natural world inside. Research suggests that connecting with the natural world can help regulate distressing emotions and provide a source of healing, grounding, and transcendence. Integrating nature into daily life might be even more important in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, as we grapple with existential anxieties about the virus as a destructive force of nature and spend longer periods indoors. We recognize the significant diversity in clients’ living situations, with some having less access to nature spaces. Further, the increasingly cold weather creates additional challenges to spending time outside. Here are a few creative ways to engage with nature as we transition into a New England winter:

Consider ways to bring nature inside by getting a plant or a pet, using items from the natural world in decorating for holidays, adding an occasional flower bouquet to your grocery order, or creating a mason jar terrarium at home.

Take mindful walks outside, focusing on your five senses (what do I see, smell, hear, etc.), or do a mindfulness practice looking out your window.

Dress warmly and enjoy one of Boston Parks and Recreation’s parks, playgrounds, or other outdoor spaces currently accessible to the public.

Use your imagination to transcend your living space – add nature backgrounds to electronic devices, watch nature shows, place your work-from-home desk near a window, listen to recordings of nature sounds, develop a ritual of opening your blinds each morning, or look up online videos of beautiful nature around the world.

 

Cultivating Personal Interests

Clients reporting greater psychological well-being are also finding ways to actively engage with personal interests in life. Of course, for some, the pandemic has resulted in increased demands for time, attention, and energy, leaving even less space for restorative activity.  However, in our Part I findings, we found that some clients had more time and had managed to turn their circumstances for decreased social, travel, and work demands into a fruitful reengagement with personal interests.  They were able to return to old hobbies, cultivate new interests, and develop new ways of structuring time to find a sense of enjoyment and/or accomplishment, benefitting their psychological well-being. If you have found yourself with more time, here are a few ideas to spark your curiosity:

Learn more about your heritage and culture by talking to people in your family and/or kinship network. Consider activities (e.g., recipes, types of music, handcrafts, etc.) and inter-generational stories that can be a source of solidarity and connection.

Experiment with art (e.g., painting, coloring, sculpting), writing or reading poetry, dance, yoga, creating music, or other forms of symbolizing your experience.

Consider activities that you often don’t have time for (e.g., games, reading, puzzles, baking, knitting, rock collecting). Re-engage with the goal of being present and enjoying the moment.

Connect with a family member, friend, or coworker around a shared interest. Maybe someone mentioned their shared affinity for photography or 90s movies?

Incorporate a new form of physical movement where you might be able to track your progress (e.g. stretch, dance, hand strengtheners, workout videos, etc.)

 

Clarifying Relational Boundaries

People noted greater psychological well-being when they were more self-accepting and had clarity about how to separate their own from others’ expectations.  Maintaining a solid-yet-flexible sense of self can be challenging, particularly during high stress conditions. Relationships during the pandemic may feel especially complicated because individuals differ in their adherence to safety guidelines, and some might feel more open than others to assuming exposure risk. These differences invite negotiation about whether (or how) to spend time with other people, which can result in relational tension and challenge our ability to maintain boundaries for ourselves and with others. Establishing self-other boundaries may include negotiating small living spaces, lack of or too much alone time, and safety practices among housemates (e.g., who can I/we see?). Many in our community have been learning about themselves and working towards greater self-acceptance, including learning how to be alone without falling apart, strengthening relationships in their quarantine bubble,” and balancing desires for closeness and autonomy. All of this can require drawing on skills for managing stress and anxiety to deal with interpersonal differences. Here are a few suggestions worth considering:

Develop open, clear, and honest communication with those in your quarantine “bubble” about your community exposure and discuss ways to manage COVID-19 risk wisely.

Propose specific, creative, and low-risk ways to continue outdoor gatherings even as the weather gets colder; for example, go for a physically distant walk with a friend who agrees to wear a mask.

Reach out to friends and family members who you’ve fallen out of touch with. Plan a meal, game night, poetry reading, or other shared activity together via video chat.

Intentionally validate yourself for your opinions and perspectives while also trying to remain open to understanding other perspectives.

Consider areas of your life where you may need to set boundaries. Strengthen your commitment to care for your mind and body, and let others’ expectations simply “be.”

 

What is the role of spirituality and religion during the pandemic? 

The Danielsen has long welcomed clients’ pluralistic existential, philosophical, religious, and spiritual concerns in therapy. We recognize that spirituality and/or religion (SR) are not important to all Danielsen clients, but among those who indicated SR held importance to them, two factors were related to psychological well-being after accounting for the impact of anxiety and depression:

 

Spiritual Well-Being

Psychological well-being tended to be higher among individuals who reported a positive connection with whatever they considered sacred or ultimate in life.  Spiritual well-being also tended to be higher for those engaged in spiritual seeking, or exploring new or deeper meaning in life, which might be part of a process that leads toward greater wellness. It is easy for spiritual and psychological well-being to take a dip during difficult times, perhaps especially if SR communities or spaces feel less accessible because of physical distancing guidelines, and it might be useful to reflect in therapy on any practices or resources that might be helpful to engage if this is an area of concern. Here are a few potential starting points:

Consider embodied practices (e.g., prayer, meditation, rituals) in your spiritual tradition that can bring a sense of comfort, peace, and grounding amidst stress.

Reflect on what you consider ultimate or most meaningful in life and the kind of person you want to become, including ways this may be shifting or expanding during (and because of) the pandemic.

Explore possibilities for spiritual connection, perhaps online, through attending services or retreats, arranging conversations about spirituality and related themes with friends, or joining groups working toward social justice and caring for others.

 

Spiritual Struggles

Spiritual struggles are common and can include difficulties with doubt, guilt, conflict with the Divine or spiritual communities, angst over ambiguity of meaning, and spiritual disappointment. In many traditions, spiritual struggles are considered a normal, healthy, and inevitable part of spiritual, religious, and/or moral development; however, these struggles can also create distress and anxiety in response to difficult events or stressful transitions in life. Spiritual struggles often prompt the seeking mentioned above, and this is important because seeking, exploring meaning, and healing ways of connecting with the sacred can lead to growth over time. For those less interested in SR pathways toward well-being, there are existential, cultural, and other pathways for seeking in response to struggles. Here are a few ideas:

Cultivate curiosity toward spiritual or existential questions, uncertainties, and ways of discovering meaning. Avoid self-criticism, and instead embrace the unknown as a possibility for deeper connection with the sacred.

Many people struggle with finding meaning in suffering. Seek out new ways of understanding the world and yourself that can bolster your fortitude and self-compassion amidst challenges.

Try engaging with a new perspective outside of your tradition that offers wisdom around spiritual seeking (e.g., read a new book, watch a documentary from another tradition or perspective, listen to a podcast). This might lead to new insights and practices or ways of appreciating strengths within your own tradition or practice.

 

Conclusion

The novelty of the COVID-19 pandemic and its ongoing, changing effects invite many of us to adjust in unfamiliar ways, which can be challenging, rewarding, or some combination of the two. We continue to learn about what might help cultivate greater well-being in these unusual times, and we are grateful for our clients’ collective contributions to these efforts by sharing their wisdom, insight, and creative approaches to addressing these unique struggles.

 

These research findings were supported by a grant (#61603) from the John Templeton Foundation on “Mental Healthcare, Virtue, and Human Flourishing.”