Researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison provide a tool kit for people struggling with pandemic stress.

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It is clear the coronavirus pandemic is taking a significant emotional toll even on those without a SARS-CoV-2 infection.

The Kaiser Family Foundation Health Tracking Poll from July 2020 found that 53% of respondents reported pandemic-related stress negatively affecting their health.

The majority of those polled felt the worst was yet to come. Five months from that last sampling, the future remains uncertain even as the first coronavirus vaccines start to emerge.

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“Traditionally, the focus in psychology research has been on treatment of mental illness,” says Christy Wilson-Mendenhall of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin–Madison (UW–Madison) and a co-author of a new paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

Struggling to cope with the pandemic, however, is not a matter of mental illness.

“We are hoping to broaden the conversation to advocate cultivating well-being at any stage, even when you are relatively healthy,” says Wilson-Mendenhall. “These skills help make us more resilient in moments like we are experiencing now.”

The study presents a four-part, self-taught program for mental well-being that can benefit anyone struggling with stress.

“It is really the ‘how’ of well-being,” Wilson-Mendenhall explains.

Wilson-Mendenhall and her colleagues — lead author Dr. Cortland Dahl and Dr. Richard Davidson, both of UW–Madison — have constructed a framework atop four pillars, or practices. They are well-regarded mental health skills that anyone can learn:

  • awareness — a conscious focusing on one’s surrounding environment and senses
  • connection — appreciation of others in one’s life, as well as compassion and kindness
  • insight — an interest in self-knowledge and curiosity
  • purpose — developing a clear sense of one’s values and motivations

Dr. Dahl says:

“There are qualities of a healthy mind that many people do not know are even trainable. We do not think of them as skills. Many of us have thought we are hardwired to be like this or that, but the reality is these qualities are much more trainable and malleable than we think. It is a very empowering view of the human mind — we can learn to be in the driver’s seat of our own mind.”

The researchers want their framework to be available to as many people as possible.

They look forward to healthcare professionals and researchers using the program in their own interactions with people who have a difficult time.

The research is published under a Creative Commons License, so it is freely available to any interested party.

Existing studies support the value of the researchers’ four pillars.

Awareness, for example, involves a self-conscious awareness of being aware. Also called mindfulness, it has been found to reduce stress, promote positive feelings, and reduce the distractibility that can allow unwanted information to get in the way of being able to think clearly, a source of harmful stress.

A person can learn awareness through a range of mental practices, including meditation.

Purpose — having motivating short- and long-term goals — has also been linked to mental and physical well-being.

Dr. Davidson explains: “[The insight pillar is] just about getting curious about your own preconceived thoughts and opinions. Your brain is not set.”

Recognizing that Americans are in the midst of an exceptional period of social unrest and a pandemic, he adds, “You can question your own assumptions and biases, and this has tremendous potential to heal the division and ‘othering’ that we see in today’s society.”

The researchers based their work on the brain’s remarkable elasticity that allows it to adapt to and overcome difficulties. The paper’s title refers to “the plasticity of well-being.”

Dr. Dahl explains: “This work is parallel with what we are learning about human biology. We are just at the beginning of understanding that our biology is also malleable.” He sees reason for optimism in this.

“We are not born a certain fixed way,” says Dr. Dahl. “Our brains and nervous systems and biology can be shaped. That is such a hopeful view to have — there are many ways we can influence our minds, brains, and bodies for the better.

Having published their framework, the authors of the paper are curious about how widely it will be accepted. The four pillars predate modern Western science, so the researchers expect that they will need to be presented thoughtfully to people so as not to trigger cultural biases.

The authors also have plans to investigate the use of their framework for building resilience and mitigating depression. Other Center for Healthy Minds and UW–Madison projects are already seeing encouraging results from the use of the framework in the form of a mobile application.

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