What can we do when are faced with loss, when we are faced with a world that seems unrecognizable? The pandemic has forced many of us to reckon with difficult feelings and situations, and is having a documented negative impact on the mental health of a growing number of people. In the same breath, some are finding new paths of resilience as well as the time and space to slow down and reconnect with family, friends, and themselves. One powerful tool some are turning to are contemplative practices such as yoga or mindfulness.
While these practices have been available at the Austen Riggs Center for patients for some time, the pandemic has necessitated new approaches that are physically distant or virtual. Heather Churchill, PsyD, explains how these adaptations are impacting the Health and Wellness Program and what it has done to both meet the needs of patients and keep everyone safe.
How has the Health and Wellness Program adapted to the pandemic?
HC: Like many other services at Riggs, we have tried to transition as much as we can to a virtual space (Zoom) in order to make program offerings, such as yoga and meditation classes, safe and accessible. We have also been taking advantage of the warmer weather while we can and offering outdoor, physically-distanced yoga.
Now, more than ever, these contemplative practices are so important because they can help people manage whatever feelings they may be grappling with, such as: anxiety, fear, sadness, and uncertainty. We are doing everything we can to provide as many health and wellness program options as we can to patients, particularly those who are new to Riggs and in our quarantine phase of care.
How have patients responded to the changes in the program?
HC: For many of our patients, practices that make them focus more on their bodies can be difficult and evoke a lot of feelings or trepidation. This is a particular challenge when you can’t be in the same room with someone to help them through those feelings. In that respect, the pandemic has added an additional hurdle. On the other hand, some patients have found the virtual platform more accessible. Which is to say, we take a very individualized approach to help patients access and make use of the program effectively. Though it ebbs and flows, we continue to see patients consistently using this program and benefiting from the contemplative practices we offer.
What are you learning about health and wellness at Riggs during the pandemic – from patients and from staff?
HC: I think one of the many things we’re grappling with right now is a lot of loss; it has been a huge loss not be in person with other people in group settings across the community, including the Health and Wellness Program. The gift of Yoga Nidra and yoga and all contemplative practices is that they help to process that loss even as you're sort of experiencing it because you can't necessarily be in close proximity with people but the whole point is to try to help people sit with, be with, and then process some of the loss, some of the feelings.
It is a remarkable tool, particularly right now, and I hope that people are able to take advantage of it as much as they can and come to us if they are really struggling–if they just can’t handle doing it over Zoom or it stirs up terrible feelings–so we can work with them around that to help them problem solve.
What are some general tips for health and wellness during COVID-19? How do you make it part of your daily life during stressful/uncertain times?
HC: It is important that people take care of themselves–sleep well, eat well, exercise often–while recognizing that we live in unprecedented times and feelings of anxiety, fear, and helplessness are inevitable and normal. Part of our task right now is to try to bear, as best we can, all that we've lost, sit with all the difficult feelings that come up, and hold on to some kind of hope that things will shift and change. Whether people utilize yoga, meditation, prayer, walking, or some other contemplative practice, it is an important time to be able to take that space and find a place of calm in your mind.
Is there anything else new going on with the Health and Wellness Program?
HC: We are working with Research Psychologist and Grand Rounds Coordinator Dr. Katie Lewis to bring in, for patients and staff, some interesting speakers who explore the link between the gut (what people are calling the second brain) and the mind, who have specialized knowledge around mind-body practices, and who are experts in issues around chronic pain. Being able to draw from a broader, more diverse, and more geographically distant pool of speakers during this age of virtual meetings is providing us with a unique opportunity for ongoing education and learning that we are excited to explore.