By Stephanie Goodling
On Monday, April 13, Jewish Family Service of the Lehigh Valley hosted a free webinar via Zoom entitled, “Mindfulness and Stress Reduction During COVID-19.” Over 30 people tuned in to learn about how to better handle the stress brought on by living through a pandemic.
Stuart Horowitz, LCSW, ACSW, QCSW, led the webinar. Horowitz is chair of the JFS clinical committee, and as JFS Executive Director Debbie Zoller said in her introduction of him, he has “done just about everything a person can do as a social worker.” This includes leading seminars on post-traumatic stress disorder after 9/11 and decades of practice with clients of all ages.
Webinar participants were greeted with the song “Lean On Me” as they waited for the presentation to begin, and indeed, Horowitz emphasized throughout his talk that it is important to take care of ourselves during this time, and then in turn, we can care for our communities.
“The outbreak of coronavirus can be stressful and overwhelming for some,” said Horowitz. “This is a pandemic, and there are a lot of people filled with a lot of anxiety and depression over this. Adults and children can experience these and a variety of strong emotions in different ways.”
Horowitz listed many symptoms that people may be experiencing right now, from feeling on edge, anxious, angry, numb, helpless or re-experiencing earlier traumatic events to changes in sleeping or eating patterns, difficulty sleeping or concentrating, worsening of mental health conditions or other chronic health problems, and increased use of alcohol, tobacco or other drugs. Some people experience some of these more than others, and some may not even realize they’re experiencing them.
“Everyone reacts differently to stressful situations,” explained Horowitz. “Some people have referred to some of these symptoms as ‘disaster shock,’ but it could just be adjusting to an abnormal situation. It is normal in an abnormal situation to have these symptoms and behaviours.”
In order to combat these feelings, Horowitz recommends trying mindfulness techniques. These are exercises which help ground your thoughts in the present moment.
“What mindfulness does is, it turns down emotions and heightens the part of the brain involved in making rational decisions,” said Horowitz. “The core of mindfulness is engagement of attention and awareness in absence of reactivity or judgement. It is an open, accepting attention to and awareness of internal and external sensations.”
Horowitz led the group in a short mindfulness practice, having them focus on their breaths as they did some deep breathing. Then, they tried making a fist and squeezing their muscles for five seconds before releasing. Another idea is positive imagery, such as walking through a favorite place in your mind.
“Try monitoring your stress,” suggested Horowitz. “Rate it on a scale of 10, most, to 1, mildly stressed. When you get a sense of how stressed you are, you can start asking yourself, what is it that is stressing me? That might be a good time to say, I need to take a breath.”
Horowitz also addressed questions that came in from the audience, a lot of them from parents concerned with how to help their children cope with the outbreak, including cancelled milestones such as graduation.
For parents of all ages, Horowitz recommends: “Talk with them about it. Answer questions and share facts in ways they can understand. Reassure your child or teen that they are safe and let them know it’s OK if they feel upset. Share with them how you deal with your own stress so they can learn how to cope from you.”
In addition to mindfulness, the best ways to cope are basic self-care: avoiding sugar, alcohol and drugs, getting plenty of sleep, exercise, making time to unwind and doing some activities you enjoy and connecting with others to talk to people you trust about concerns and how you're feeling. Horowitz emphasized the importance of getting outside, even if it’s just five minutes a day.
The leaders of JFS and Federation want everyone to know that they are still here for the community.
“I’m working very closely with leadership of all agencies. We are still working,” said Zoller, who hopes to present future webinars.
If you’d like to listen to the full webinar, it is available at jfslv.org/coronavirushelp.