Stressed. Unhappy. Tense. Overwhelmed. Unsettled. Exhausted.
The adjectives that people use to describe themselves during this era — with the coronavirus pandemic and protests over racial injustice — show a rising general anxiety. But researchers at UW–Madison are working to find ways to help people improve their mental and emotional well-being.
On June 16, faculty members Richard Davidson and Alvin Thomas spoke with Mike Knetter, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association, during The UW Now Livestream event. Davidson, founder of the UW’s Center for Healthy Minds, noted that the pandemic has put a strain on people’s emotional support networks.
“This phrase ‘social distancing’ is a very unfortunate phrase that has been chosen,” he said, “because what we are being asked to do is be physically distant, but we can be physically distant at the same time that we are socially connected, thanks to the kind of technology that we are using this evening.”
Davidson’s work looks into the ways that contemplative practices change people’s neurological structures. By focusing on gratitude — on the things that they have rather than the things they lack — people can train their brains to be more positive.
“Right now, there’s a lot of forces which are inducing fear and anxiety,” he said. “And so the very mechanisms in our brain which produce suffering can also be harnessed for awakening, for flourishing. Neuroplasticity can actually be directed intentionally.”
Thomas, an assistant professor of human development and family studies in the School of Human Ecology, added that the current crises in America combine to increase the psychological toll on African Americans.
“The confluence of the killings of black people by police and the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic represent an additional psychological tax on an already overburdened people,” he said. “The psychological impact of racism and its related trauma is not new. During what passes for normal, black people deal with a daily dose of stress from discrimination from both personal and institutional experiences.”
Thomas’s research looks at how to create more positive effects on the lives and development of black boys and men. American society he says, has seldom listened to the needs of its black people.
“Men were talking, and institutions were not listening or hearing, because black men were not talking in the way we expected or in the spaces that we demanded that they talk,” he said. “Black people are crying out, and America is not listening and not responding because it hears the noise and not the pain.”
Both Thomas and Davidson talked about ways that racism not only has a psychological effect but a measurable medical effect, as well: black Americans are suffering from COVID-19 at higher rates than white Americans. Thomas offered several resources to those who would like to address the psychological effects of racism: Black Males’ Mental Health Support Group, Our Mental Health Minute, Therapy for Black Men, Eustress, Black Mental Health Resources, and the Center for Popular Democracy.
Both faculty members took questions from some of the hundreds of viewers who followed the event on YouTube. Thomas called on viewers to feel the gravity of the moment, noting that 2020 could mark an epochal change, just as 9/11 did a generation earlier.
“We need to look forward very soberly,” he said. “We cannot bounce back to what used to be. We have to embrace the collective humanity of all and bounce forward.”
Davidson offered a message of hope: better emotional wellness can be achieved through intentional training. Just as humans improved dental health by making a concerted effort to train themselves to brush their teeth — a practice that was unknown just a few hundred years ago — so can people, through concerted effort, teach themselves to develop good mental health habits.
“Spending a few moments actually intentionally appreciating others who have helped us during time can be an elixir for the soul and assist us through this period,” he said.
The UW Now Livestream is itself a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Though originally planned as a series of events in cities across the United States, it is instead offered via YouTube and will continue through the early summer. The next event will be June 23, and its topic is the future of consumer behavior.