Featured Team Members: Brian Leidal, MA, LPC | Kirsten Bolt, M.Ed., LMFT | Mariah Loftin, MA, LPC | Jonathan Mitchell, MA, LPC
In an effort to “flatten the curve” and halt the spread of COVID-19, public health officials are asking people to shelter at home, drastically alter their daily lives, decrease physical interaction, and engage in rigorous hygiene practices. A few weeks ago, the term “social distancing” wasn’t even on our collective radar. Today, schools, businesses, and places of worship have closed and gatherings large and small have been postponed or canceled. The world is adjusting to a somewhat sudden and very new “normal.” So, how do we cope with these sudden changes? How do we adapt to increased physical distance and decreased social connection? How do we tend to our emotional well-being in the midst of COVID-19? Below, Open Sky’s clinical experts offer tangible guidance to help individuals and families navigate this unprecedented time.
Jonathan Mitchell, MA, LPC (Senior Clinical Therapist – adolescent boys): To keep social isolation from feeling like emotional isolation, we first need to recognize the understandable challenges that come with “social distancing.” I think this begins by stating the obvious for many people: this is really hard! We thrive being in connection with others. We like to be heard and understood, to receive others’ perspectives on our life, and to share our own. So, before we rush to finding solutions, it’s best to first recognize and become aware of any difficult feelings we may be having. It’s normal to feel sad, lonely, afraid, and so much more during these times. By first acknowledging our own feelings, we can be much more effective in attending to our own needs.
Once we are aware of how we are feeling, the next equally critical, yet often challenging step is acceptance. Meaning, can we accept that we do in fact feel alone, stressed, or overwhelmed? If so, can we acknowledge—without judgment—that we want to feel a different way? In short, however we feel, it’s okay. Then, we can get connected with others. We can share with those closest to us how we are struggling and what we might need for support. This could be a family member or roommate at home. Or, it could be a friend or loved one down the street or across the country via a simple phone call or through a video chat. Through sharing the vulnerable aspects of ourselves with those who accept us for who we are, we get better at accepting and having compassion for ourselves.
Some may find themselves also benefitting from connection with their larger communities and other external resources. For Open Sky parents (current and alumni), this is an opportune time to participate in the weekly Monday Night Parent Support Call. At the start of the call, Family Wellness Counselor, Norman Elizondo leads everyone in meditation, interoception (the process of bringing awareness to physical sensations throughout the body), and other mindfulness practices. Then, in an open forum, parents can share the anxieties and stress or encouragement and successes related to their child in wilderness or their lives since. Open Sky Alumni Students also have the opportunity to join the Alumni Student reConnect Call on the third Thursday of each month. Similarly, Norman leads alumni students through mindfulness and centering skills, followed by an open forum for sharing updates, challenges, achievements, etc. Staying grounded and connected within a group is a great way to feel less emotionally distant during a time of “social distancing.”
Brian Leidal, MA, LPC (Clinical Therapist – adolescent boys and young adults): In times of stress, it’s important to slow down and take the time to notice patterns in oneself and others. Mindfulness and meditation practices help us find calm, be in the present moment, and improve the skill of noticing thoughts as they arise. Just like we exercise to maintain a healthy body and build physical strength, balance, and endurance, meditation is like going to the “gym” for a healthy mind. It helps us slow down and become grounded, present, and relaxed. This is crucial when the world seems to be spinning around us.
The more we practice mindfulness, the more the brain is going to take to it and will be able to stay grounded when life’s stresses and pressures rise. If you don’t already have a meditation practice, now is the perfect time to start one! Starting small but frequently helps the brain adjust. Tell the others in your home that you’re going to take some brain space. Close the door and set a two-minute timer to sit silently and settle the brain. Your mind may wander and that is okay. Feel free to bring a notepad or journal, not with the goal of writing, but to jot down thoughts that come up and won’t leave. Bring your attention back to your breath and the rise and fall of your belly as you breathe. After doing this for two minutes at a time several days in a row, increase your practice to three minutes, four minutes, and so on.
For a helpful guided meditation, access Family Wellness Counselor Norman Elizondo’s guided meditation series on the SKYlights Podcast. (You can listen on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.) He leads listeners through a 5-minute, 10-minute, and 20-minute practice.
Focused breathing exercises also ground us when our anxiety is building. With focused breathing, you are activating the vagus nerve, which directly communicates to the nervous system to slow down and become settled. Try one of these breathing exercises:
Mariah Loftin, MA, LPC (Senior Clinical Therapist – young adults): Schedules and routines create a reduction in overall stress by helping one’s nervous system to settle down. Our nervous systems crave structure. By relaxing into a supportive structure, our nervous system moves out of the “fight or flight” response.
In the absence of our normal routines while social distancing, it becomes easy to go down the rabbit hole of news headlines, scroll endlessly through social media, or spend a whole day watching TV. Instead, write down a daily plan and keep to it. Be proactive and create a wellness plan, incorporating physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual practices. Be sure to designate portions of your day to intentional time spent with those in your home and other portions to intentional time spent alone. Here are some components to build into your routine.
Another important component is rest, which can look different for everyone. The important thing to keep in mind is to recognize the crossover when we’ve eaten up the restful part of whatever we’re doing, and rest becomes isolation, numb emotions, and lack of engagement.
Kirsten Bolt, MEd, LMFT (Senior Clinical Therapist – adolescent girls): By spending so much time together under one roof, conflict is bound to arise. In these moments, you may need to take some space in separate rooms to regulate. Within about 10 minutes, return to work through the conflict. To regulate and process, use the same skills we teach our students and parents at Open Sky (found in the Student and Family Pathways). For example:
Remember, many therapists are practicing teletherapy during this time. If you have struggles with your loved ones in the home, find a therapist to help you and your family process through the struggles, develop healthy coping skills, and build relationship and communication skills. Open Sky also offers Parent Coaching services—a useful resource for parents to examine their parenting styles, personal wellness, family dynamics, and family patterns/history.