Stress and Resiliency

Embracing the Lessons of Current Events
By Rosei Skipper
Photography by

For many Americans the past five months have been the most stressful of our lives. From fighting the COVID-19 pandemic to witnessing racial violence and social unrest to enduring financial hardships to caring for children while working from home to worrying about the upcoming election, our nation has collectively experienced mass trauma this year, and there is currently no end in sight.

Worse, many of our most important coping measures are off-limits. This may be the first time many of us have appreciated how vital our close relationships, traveling, going to the gym and gathering to worship are to our wellness.

What is stress exactly, and how does it manifest in our bodies? While the answer is unique for each human, certain bodily changes are universal. Dr. Anjali Bhagra, associate professor of medicine and the chair of diversity and inclusion at Mayo Clinic, is an expert in the study of stress and resiliency. She is the co-developer and co-director of the Resilience and Leadership in Medicine conference GRIT (Growth, Resilience, Inspiration, Tenacity) for Women in Medicine, and she is particularly passionate about how women have been affected by the current pandemic.

“Our bodies are highly evolved to respond to stress, and it’s very good that acute stress triggers the fight or flight response,” says Bhagra. Powerful chemicals flood the body, allowing us to run faster, think quicker and save ourselves and others from threats.

“The problem is if that system gets triggered continuously,” she adds. “The amygdala, our brain’s fear center, grows stronger. Our prefrontal lobes, the rational area of the brain, are bypassed, and we get stuck in a feedback loop.” Chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure, a weaker immune system and higher blood sugar levels, among other health consequences. It also tends to feel terrible.

The past few months have been particularly challenging because we have so little control over what is happening, and no clear sense of when that will change. Data from a current study shows that women are disproportionately affected by the current pandemic, and Bhagra notes that women are underrepresented in positions of power to make policy responding to the crisis.

“It’s clear that women and people of color are more negatively impacted by the current pandemic,” says Bhagra. “These groups hold more caregiving positions, are often juggling child care responsibilities with work and have less access to health care and other resources.” Intimate partner violence tends to escalate during times of stress, and Bhagra notes that the combination of COVID-19 and George Floyd’s death have made health disparities much more visible.

Bhagra describes what she calls “The Three Fs” of resiliency: faith (which looks different for everyone), family (work and chosen families included!) and fitness. Her conceptualization of fitness is more inclusive than most—she includes mental, emotional and spiritual health in her definition.

According to Bhagra, thinking about doing something isn’t enough. “It’s important to move beyond a zone of concern into a zone of action.” But that doesn’t have to mean stopping life to work on wellness. Bhagra practices what she calls “four minutes of micro-meditation” a day. She starts her day with gratitude and ends with acceptance. In between she “sprinkles kindness,” with simple acts like dropping off a meal for a quarantined friend or buying coffee for the cars behind her at Dunn Brothers. “Don’t underestimate the power of small gestures,” she says. “They can have a powerful impact on our own and others’ wellbeing.”

Family educator Nicole Andrews, who is the school readiness supervisor for Rochester Public Schools Preschool, emphasizes the importance of the village mentality—where humans are interconnected , and we do our best when we help each other. “When you do village work, it is for the collective—the whole—and if one of us isn’t succeeding then all of us aren’t succeeding,” says Andrews. “All of us need to be well.”

Andrews believes that wellness and resiliency look different for each person. She encourages her clients to define their own needs and to celebrate their unique strengths and abilities. For herself, that looks like practicing her faith, embracing her family and close relationships and continuing to work for social justice. She says that all of us, herself included, “need to have a well of people, experiences and strength to draw from.”

Regarding experiences and strength, many of us are confronting systemic racism and internalized prejudice for the first time in our lives. We may be finally acknowledging the tremendous suffering and rage of our Black and brown brothers and sisters, and many feel ashamed for not doing so previously. Combining all this with a pandemic makes it an unusually difficult time in our lives. But it’s one ripe for action and growth as well.

For Andrews, a lifelong social justice advocate, change looks like collective action, increased communication and ongoing equity work. She points out that our BIPOC and immigrant populations have many things to teach us, and that Americans often ignore the tremendous benefits of diversity. She also stresses the importance of getting honest about the hardships that nonwhite Americans experience, both historically and now.

“Real change first starts with acknowledging the truth of our history, no matter how painful,” says Andrews. She emphasizes that we must also invest financially to create real change, saying, “If we ask Black women to educate us about race in America, we need to compensate them in the same way that we pay experts in every other field.”

Local artist Shah Noor Shafqat’s work has been essential for moving through the many tough moments of motherhood, particularly during the pandemic. Her most recent project “Innocent Predators,” featured at the Rochester Art Center, explores the power that babies exert over their caregivers.

“My work is mostly based on my experience as a mother,” says Shafqat. “Motherhood is more than a full-time job, and art has been a source of healing for me during my journey. Creating leaves me feeling less overwhelmed and less stressed.” Her intricate silk paintings and textile work are beautiful from a distance, and increasingly complex as one draws closer. Her newest exhibit is humorous and honest about the realities of motherhood; adorable babies are depicted with evil features and vampire-like teeth. “It’s okay for us to be truthful about how hard parenthood is and to find the laughter in that pain.”

Although Shafqat has degrees in various artistic mediums, she emphasizes that formal education isn’t a prerequisite to creating. “Art is about problem-solving,” she says.

“I feel every woman is capable of doing it. All it takes is practice and exposure.”

All three women emphasized the importance of taking concrete steps to manage stress right now. For Bhagra, acceptance is an important first step towards action. “In the beginning, many of us were in denial about the pandemic. Many people still are. But the energy we spend denying reality is wasted.” Acceptance allows us to start moving forward, with large steps or small.

For me, that looks like taking a few deep breaths, stretching my body and planning a walk with a friend. Life is different this summer, and it may never be the same. But there are new things to appreciate as well and new ways for us to grow. Be well, friends.