Overwhelmed by what felt like an onslaught of bad news coming at her from around the world, Pat Pheifer was beginning to feel her stress levels rise.
“I’m a news junkie, which doesn’t help the anxiety level,” explained Pheifer, who worked as a reporter for the Star Tribune for 39 years before retiring to live in a small village in Mexico. “I’m reading about horrible news day after day after day in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Strib, MinnPost, the Atlantic. It’s been too much.”
The news Pheifer had been reading was focused on COVID-19, and, as a woman living alone in a remote area of the world, she felt particularly vulnerable. During a FaceTime chat with a friend back in Minnesota, Pheifer heard about “Resiliency Skills Amid COVID-19,” a free online workshop offered via Zoom by People Incorporated’s Training Institute, a division of the St. Paul-based nonprofit that provides integrated mental health services.
“We got to talking about how our anxiety levels are really high,” Pheifer recalled. “My friend has worked in the mental health field for a long time and she recommended that I sign up for this class.”
While the Training Institute’s classes are usually designed to provide continuing education (CE) credits for mental health professionals, this course was created with laypeople in mind, explained Russ Turner, People Incorporated Training Institute director.
As word about COVID-19 and its dangers started to spread, Turner began to think that this was an opportunity for him to use his years of training experience to create a course that could help regular people understand the human body’s response to stress — and learn ways to cope.
“The pandemic comes in and I’m sitting here with 14 years of work in all these files and I’m thinking, ‘What can we put out? How can I help?’” Turner said. “We’re already putting out a ton of online content anyway, so I thought, ‘Let’s do something on resiliency. And let’s design it so anyone can benefit. ’”
Though his usual training workshops last as much longer, Turner decided that this free program needed to be just one hour. In this time of “shelter in place,” he explained, many people are busy working from home or helping their children go to school online. Plus, anxiety around this new reality can make it hard for anyone to concentrate for long, uninterrupted periods of time, he said.
“I’m used to working in three-hour segments in workshops. Changing it into the one-hour webinar, I feel like, ‘I’ve got to motor here,’ but somehow I think it worked out.”
And offering the classes for free was a no-brainer.
“This is an important service we can offer to the community,” Turner said. “We don’t need to charge for this one.”
Turner pulled the course together quickly, drawing from similar in-person workshops he’d offered at the Training Institute. He has the topic down cold, so it was easy to do, he said. In the end, Turner decided to offer the program as a four-session workshop series.
People Incorporated staff sent out notices about the new learning opportunities to their email lists, and participants quickly started signing up. The first sessions, held in early April, sold out. A second session is available in May, with others available weekly.
“Not long after we sent out the notice,” Turner said, “my administrator guy said, ‘Your classes are full with 100 people. They were full right away. I said, ‘Oh, man. I guess I hit a nerve.’”
Because the resiliency skills courses are designed “more for regular folks, people who are interested in mental health,” Turner explained that he worked hard to provide content that is practically based and helpful, skill-based information that can be used in this current time of crisis — and beyond.
Stress originates in the brain, but it impacts the entire body. Because of this, Turner believes it is important that workshop participants gain a baseline understanding of how the brain functions in response to stress.
“I take 20 to 25 minutes to explain how the brain works,” he said. “I talk about how it scans the environment for stress and sets off stress responses and how it is overwhelming for the primitive survival part of your brain to get a message to be frightened all of the time. We establish that and then explain ways to address it. I do all that from a biological perspective.”
Once basic understanding of the impact of stress on the brain is established, Turner moves into providing tips that can help balance the autonomic nervous system, or the parts of the nervous system that control bodily functions that people do not consciously direct, like breathing, heartbeat, and digestion.
He provides helpful strategies for calming the body’s stress response, like splashing cold water on your face, employing paced breathing exercises and triggering the body’s saliva reflex with tools like citrus fruit and gum. These are techniques that are often suggested by mental health professionals when helping their clients cope with stress. Understanding these techniques and why they work to calm the brain and body can help people feel like they can take control of their own lives, Turner said.
“We’re trying to remind people that we all need to start using the skills that mental health professionals and therapists teach their clients all the time. In my trainings, I just run through some of the simplest strategies to reset your stress biology.” In subsequent workshops, he expands on these techniques.
Turner said his tips are all grounded in science and biology, not theory or popular trends.
“For instance, when I talk about the vagus nerve and strategies I’m advocating for triggering it to calm the stress response, I like to talk specifically about the biology,” Turner said. “Otherwise it just sounds like some ‘Here’s Five Tips’ article that you can get in any newsletter. I’m trying to turn this workshop into a proper educational experience.’
Avoiding “psychological mumbo-jumbo” and arming participants with facts and education helps them regain a sense of control in an otherwise uncontrollable situation, Turner said. Understanding the brain and body’s response to stress can help a person feel more in charge of their lives and capable of surviving the long march toward normal life.
“When you are aware,” Turner said, “you are halfway there.”
The first sessions were attended by a range of participants, Turner said. He was heartened to realize that his students, all isolated in their separate environments, were united in one goal: understanding how to use basic techniques to build resilience in response to societal stress.
When Turner scanned the group of participants on his computer, he saw “people at home, of course. Some were in their home offices. Others at their dining-room tables. I could see their dogs. I could see their families.” He learned that many were involved in mental health, either as service providers or as people who normally receive services themselves.
“I think some were just social-worker-y types who are already in our network,” he said. “But there were also people who just found us on their own, because the words ‘stress’ and ‘resilience’ seem to resonate right now.”
The workshop was structured so that Turner could present while students could ask questions using Zoom’s chat function. Because he knew that this setup didn’t allow for much interaction, Turner also offered an opportunity for people to stay after class and ask questions in a virtual classroom.
He said that participants who stayed after for the chat came from a variety of backgrounds and wanted to find out more about how to apply the skills they’d learned to their real lives. “One was a therapist who worked with mainly women in domestic-abuse situations,” Turner said. “She was really concerned about her clients who are stuck inside the house with their abuser. We talked about ways to reach out to them.”
Other participants just wanted to say hello and check in. “Some people are just dying to talk to someone in person,” he said. “I understand that impulse and I’m great with that.”
Turner said that he hopes that the workshop helped participants understand that the feelings of anxiety and stress they are experiencing are completely normal and expected. He wants them to know that they are not alone.
“People like the validation that what they are feeling is actually pretty normal,” he said. “Mental health starts going downhill when you begin to feel like you’re the only one, when you think things like, ‘It must be me. I’m falling apart.’ When you talk to others, when you see that others are struggling, too, you gain the sense that you are not falling apart, that having these kinds of reactions are totally normal and expected.”
‘It was so useful and so relevant’
Class participants said the workshop felt practical, helpful and even hopeful.
Warren Duncan, director of programming at Hearth Connection, a nonprofit dedicated to strengthening the state’s network of services for people experiencing homelessness, said he heard about “Resiliency Skills Amid COVID-19” because he’s on People Incorporated’s mailing list. He first thought the program was designed for mental health professionals only, but when he realized that the workshop was actually intended for laypeople, he was even more interested.
As a husband and father of two small children, Duncan said that news about COVID-19 has him feeling particularly on edge. And his dependence on his mobile device was only serving to ramp up his anxiety levels. He said he signed up for the workshop hoping that he would “gain tools and resources that I could dig into further.”
He especially appreciated Turner’s focus on the brain and biology — and on offering useful strategies that can turn down anxiety levels.
“One of the things that that stuck out for me was when he talked about the autonomic nervous system,” Duncan said. He’d heard about this before in trauma-informed service trainings, but it hit home this time: “In times like these, we can be stuck on threats and not so much focused on positive things in our lives. With all of the media coverage going on right now it was helpful for me to understand that I am getting stuck.”
To avoid getting stuck, Duncan decided he needed to change his behavior. “Maybe it is not a good idea for me to be checking my phone every three minutes right now,” he said. “I need to cut that down to help me deactivate a little bit.”
Another tip that resonated for Duncan is a paced breathing technique known as “4-7-8 breathing,” or “relaxing breath.”
“Breathing this way four times is a little hack to calm you down,” Duncan explained. “I do that now as I am getting ready for bed, or if I wake up in the middle of the night to deactivate myself and calm my stress response.”
Susan Holter, a licensed alcohol and drug counselor and founder of S. Holter Consulting, has taken many CE courses. When she heard about this workshop, she signed up, mostly with the intent of gaining credits required to keep up her licensure.
It turned out that the class wasn’t a typical CE course, and that was fine with Holter. “I thought this course was incredible,” she said. “It was probably one of the best trainings I’ve ever been to in my life. There was so much information packed into that one hour. It was so useful and so relevant. I will be able to use that information in my life — and with my clients.”
Holter said she especially liked the practical advice that Turner provided, including the cold-water-vagus nerve reset trick. “Do you know how many people start getting hyper aroused and get to the point where they can’t think and can’t talk?” she asked. “Do you know how much it could help if they knew that they could just go into the bathroom and splash cold water on their face? Russ taught us that action resets everything within 30 seconds.”
Duncan added that he also appreciated Turner’s suggestion that participants try to search for any good things that they can take away from this time, like the fact that social distancing has made it possible to spend more time with his family, something he’d been hoping to do before, but never seemed to find time for before.
“I do feel fairly anxious,” he said. “Part of working on that is thinking of ways to not passively think about the source of your anxiety. I’m doing that by reducing the phone time. Russ also said that it’s fine to accept that that it is OK to feel anxious right now. It’s normal.”
Pheifer said she had a few big takeaways from Turner’s workshop.
“I try to at least three or four times a day to remember the breathing exercises that Russ was talking about and practice those,” she said. “I also try something as simple as turning on some soothing music for 15, 20, 30 minutes every day.”
And because Pheifer lives by herself, she has struggled with feelings of isolation. She said the taking the class somehow helped her to feel less alone.
“I try to keep in mind that what’s happening in the world now isn’t a solitary experience,” she said. “We are all in this together. I was reminded of that in class, and somehow that feels really reassuring.”
In this time of mandated social distancing, People Incorporated Training Institute has also partnered with NAMI Minnesota to create another virtual class, called “Discipline Tips for Stressed Parents.” The course is designed to help parents of children with a mental illness and is available for free.
“One of the areas that NAMI is concerned about is parents stuck at home with children or adults who are normally in day programs or foster care situation,” Turner said. “They’re not only at home but also really stuck at home. We wanted to talk about best practices for keeping things calm in the household.”