Photo by artist Stephanie Ryan

This week we asked two mental health professionals in our community to share insights on navigating life and wellness in this season of quarantine.

Regardless of our individual situations, it’s important to remember that every person in our community is experiencing some level of anxiety right now. A global pandemic is a stressor. Many of us wake up each morning wondering if we’ve wandered into the pages of a dystopian novel. As the consequences of the quarantine encroach on every area of our lives and as the virus continues to spread, we face a constant, invisible, and largely unknown threat. We crave connection and community but we need to stay apart, and seeing others only on screens or behind masks makes us feel even more distant.

We know all of this, of course, but it’s really important to normalize the stress and anxiety we’re feeling right now, says Dari Sweeton, a Borough resident and Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) with an office in Chadds Ford at Barbara W Shaffer, Ph.D & Associates. “People say, ‘since I’m not starving or sick, and I’m still working, I don’t have a right to feel freaked out and stressed.’ But we’re all living with this chronic feeling of threat and experiencing this vulnerability that those of us not living at the poverty line aren’t used to.”

Winden Rowe, a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a practice in Kennett Square, agrees. “People are talking a lot about facing uncertainty,” she says, “but the truth is that it’s always been there—we just can’t distract ourselves from it anymore.”

It’s not only OK to feel anxious and stressed, it’s completely normal. It’s also helpful to understand that we all process and express the symptoms of this stress differently.


The Science of Stress

Winden, whose perspective is informed by the trauma model, explains that “stress and trauma are like first cousins” in terms of how our bodies process them. Stress is shorter term, but any unresolved cycles of toxic stress affect everything from our relationships to our immune system. The more scientists discover about the nervous system, she says, the clearer it is that our mental and physical wellness are completely integrated.

We all self-regulate in different ways, Winden says, as we experience a fight-or-flight response to various threats. There are some simple things to pay attention to, such as elevated heart rate, interrupted sleep patterns, changes in digestion, difficulty breathing deeply, increased substance use, irritability. “We live in a culture where it’s not OK to not be OK,” she says. “But in the midst of this pandemic stress—and what will be post-pandemic stress—we need to look at what we’re experiencing with compassionate inquiry, not judgement, and be more self-forgiving as we look for the root cause of what we’re experiencing.”

Experts say walking is one of the best antidotes to stress and anxiety. Photo by Dylan Francis.


A Quick “Cure”

One of the best ways to help mitigate stress and anxiety is, at its core, quite simple. “Body movement is so critical right now,” Winden says. We see it in the fight-or-flight pattern in the animal kingdom. “When an animal’s brain is dumping stress chemicals into its body, it moves to burn off that stress. The human model, on the other hand, tends to be ‘keep calm and carry on.’” And when we don’t move, that adrenalin remains and manifests itself in those familiar symptoms of stress.

Winden refers to daily physical activity as “squeezing the sponge.” And walking, she says, is the best activity we can do. It’s a complex neurophysiological process, but in a nutshell, walking helps us to detox from stress and recalibrates a kind of metronome inside our bodies.


Take Time to Take Care

Taking good care of ourselves right now is about more than washing our hands, physical distancing, and wearing a mask. “Everyone is different, and it’s important to identify what balance and self-care look like for you,” Dari says. “Some people aren’t outdoorsy, for example, and going on a hike is not going to be therapeutic.” So whether self-care means reading a book, watching a movie, gardening, cooking, knitting—or going for a hike or something else—it’s important to make space for those things.

Self-care also involves not making lists of “shoulds” for ourselves. “Telling yourself that, since you’re home, you should be productive and, for example, clean out all the closets, is very unhelpful,” Dari says. “You’re going to be busy and tired in different ways.” While many of us were very busy at the beginning of the quarantine, adjusting to a totally different way of living our lives, the temptation now is to think we should be settled, better at it, or in some sort of flow. “But this is the first time any of us have been in the fifth week of a lockdown,” Dari says. There’s no roadmap for this, and putting these kinds of expectations on ourselves only leads to more stress.

It’s also important to make time to grieve, Dari says. “It’s sad. The news is sad, even if it doesn’t affect us personally. Hearing about deaths in the thousands, about unemployment and overwhelming needs, about high school seniors missing important celebrations and milestones, is all sad. So make space for that, have a good cry—and then go do something you enjoy.”

“The quarantine is also going to impact you differently if you’re an introvert or an extrovert,” Dari says. “An introvert might be fried by Zoom meetings and maybe relieved they can stay at home and not have to say no to things. And a high-energy extrovert might feel thwarted by isolation. Identify how your personality works and what self-care is for you in light of that. It’s also important not to compare yourself to others. Some people are bored with not enough to do, and others have more to do, or what they’re doing is more complicated now.”

“I would love to see everyone really assessing their lifestyle, and not going back to ‘normal’ but to something better,” Dari says, “being more intentional with all running around we do and the activities we choose, sharing with our neighbors on an ongoing basis, thinking about our impact on the environment, and how we spend our time, energy, and money.”

A Few Helpful Resources

Winden is offering an hour-long “Noon Zoom” every Wednesday that’s free to the community. “Its goal and purpose is to promote wellness,” she says. Each week she invites a colleague to teach participants something, such as a breathing or yoga technique, and she explains some of the science behind these methods of promoting wellness. Email Winden or connect with her on Instagram or Facebook to receive the link.

Dari also notes that the Department of Human Services (DHS) has added a statewide Support & Referral Helpline that’s staffed 24/7 by skilled and compassionate caseworkers to counsel Pennsylvanians struggling with anxiety and other challenging emotions due to the COVID-19 emergency and refer them to community-based resources that can further help to meet individual needs. The number to call is 1-855-284-2494. She stresses that someone doesn’t have to be in the middle of a crisis to call. “If you’re stressed or anxious and need someone to talk to, just call this number,” she says.

Breathe, move, be well. It’s true what they say—we will get through this.

Click here for more helpful resources on mental wellness.