We are all feeling the effects of a global pandemic that physically separates us from those we love, upends how we work, limits our play, and challenges our lives. Stress and strain on our mental health is one of the only certainties in these uncertain times.
Prior to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), one in five Americans reported suffering from mental illness, including anxiety and depression. In our new world, a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that nearly 50 percent of Americans are experiencing elevated mental health issues, including stress, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, or suicidal thoughts. The Washington Post reports a 1,000 percent uptick in calls to a federal emergency hotline for emotional distress. These numbers highlight two undeniable realities: (1) if you are experiencing stress, you are not alone; and (2) nurturing our well-being is not a nice-to-have, it’s essential.
As a civic manager, you are uniquely on the frontlines of both complying with shelter-in-place orders and creating a safe societal solution for an unknown future. It’s a tall order.
And, amid it all, you have the power to calm your mind, strengthen your body, and act with purpose. Just like strengthening a muscle, you can build mental health with time, dedication, and practice. To get you started, here are the eight most popular, high-impact mental health strategies of the civic leaders I work with:
Take a mindful minute. Set a timer for 60 seconds. Breathe normally and count your breaths on the exhale. When the timer sounds, take note of how many breaths you took. Throughout the day when you need a moment for serenity, close your eyes and count your breaths that number of times on the exhale. This balances your nervous system back to a neutral state.
2. Name It, Tame It
When you notice a challenging emotion, simply name it, like “fear,” “overwhelm,” “anger,” “frustration,” or “sadness.” Affective labeling significantly reduces amygdala activity, the brain’s fight-flight-freeze-fire-up center, reducing stress and unhooking you from ruminating thoughts and feelings.
3. Move Your Body
Move your body for 20 minutes each day. Mix it up between YouTube exercise videos, yoga, walks, runs, or weights. (It's worth checking your local gym and studio websites. Many are streaming free online classes during the public health crisis.) Movement not only improves physical health, it improves mental wellness, creativity, and a sense of purpose.
4. Two-Minute Holiday
Step outside and soak in nature for two minutes. Look at the sky. Gaze at a tree. Feel the spring breeze. Nature improves our brain’s functioning and overall sense of well-being, and helps us feel more relaxed, inspired, and connected. During shelter-in-place, getting a good dose of the outdoors is that much more important.
5. Self-Compassion Break
When in a moment of struggle, put your hand on your heart and close your eyes. Say to yourself, “This is hard. This is really hard. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease.” Include any additional messages you need to hear. Compassion is the desire to relieve suffering—both our own and that of others. When we acknowledge that something is hard (rather than brushing it under the rug), it actually improves our motivation and goal achievement, in addition to our sense of peace.
6. Log Three Good Things
Write down three things that were awesome about your day: What made you happy? What are you proud of? What challenges did you overcome? Continue this exercise for two weeks for feel good results that can last up to six months.
7. Flip a 180
Get a sticky note. Write down what has you troubled. Now, turn the paper over and flip a 180. What is the 180-degree opposite of your present state? What would it be like if your day looked more like your 180? From your 180, write one simple step you can take to move in that direction and then take action. Flipping a 180 helps shift you out of rumination into a growth mindset, building your resilience.
Close your eyes. As you inhale, think of a word or phrase that describes you as a local government leader. As you exhale, think of how your advocacy is helping society. Selecting words that describe who you are and what you want to advance connects you to a purpose greater than yourself, generating awe and calm.
Now more than ever, we need to take time, make space, and engage support to be healthy and lead effectively in civic life today. Thank you for your tremendous service and for who you are and all you do. From my heart of hearts, I appreciate you.
Frieda K. Edgette is the award-winning founder of Courage to Run and Novos Consulting, a civic-minded coaching and organizational strategy firm operating at the intersection of civic engagement, innovation, and well-being. She has facilitated more than 200 civic change initiatives on five continents and helped emerging to veteran civic leaders through unpredictable environments while maintaining health. She instructs resilient leadership at Stanford Continuing Studies and is an internationally certified leadership coach. Follow her at @friedakedgette.
For additional information, visit ICMA’s Coronavirus Resource page.