Maintaining mental health during pandemic is vital, too

Members of the Manchester community enjoy dance and movement on the North Manchester campus mall

As Manchester marshals its resources to keep students and colleagues physically healthy during the pandemic, mental health is getting attention, too.

On alternating Wednesdays from 11:40 a.m. to noon, the MU community has moved and danced together on the North Manchester campus mall and joined Wellness Wednesdays via Zoom for contemplative practices such as guided meditation.

Dance and meditation are different strategies that may draw different kinds of people, but they share a goal: Relax a little and let the stress melt away.

“Anxiety seems to be the biggest concern I am hearing about, from students and colleagues alike,” says April White ’03, assistant director of counseling services who, with University Pastor Bekah Houff, launched Wellness Wednesdays. “We all have a window of tolerance, a threshold for the amount of adversity we can withstand, while still regulating ourselves within a healthy range of responses.

“What I am seeing right now is that people are often pushed outside of their window of tolerance and are having a much harder time finding balance and the ability to regulate themselves,” adds White. That can lead to anxiety, depression, sleep difficulties, irritability, gastrointestinal problems, high blood pressure and chronic pain, among other problems. For people who suffered these symptoms before, the pandemic often exacerbates them.

Contemplative practices, explains White, address the connections between physical and mental health. Caring for one can have a positive effect on the other and neglecting one can have a negative effect on the other.

“When so much is out of our control, it is important to focus on those things within our control,” adds White. Developing coping strategies like meditation can benefit our physical and mental health and “bring us back to equilibrium.”

 “At a minimum,” says the counselor, "we provide those who attend the opportunity to pause during the course of their day, to intentionally break from whatever they may be experiencing and perhaps catch their breath.”

While contemplative practices are quiet and reflective, Let’s MUve Together brings students and colleagues together for a little let-your-hair-down kind of fun.

English Professor Beate Gilliar (in black and gold), who loves to dance, started Let’s MUve Together this fall on the North Manchester campus. It’s a time for members of the MU community to enjoy movement and dance and help tend to their mental health.

Let’s MUve Together was the brainchild of English Professor Beate Gilliar, who loves to dance and thought others at MU could have fun dancing, too.

Gilliar reached out to Tami Bradburn Hoagland ’95, office manager for MU athletics. “We had hosted flash mobs and other dance move events in the past, and they were well attended,” said Gilliar. She suggested to Hoagland that they create some events on the mall where people wear masks and socially distance but also “relax and practice a bit of mindfulness during lunch hour.”

The 20 minutes of upbeat music, movement and dance was the highlight of Gilliar’s weeks this fall. “Dancing in the wind, enjoying being away from the pandemic with great colleagues and lovely students is so uplifting,” says Gilliar. “I enjoy the rhythms and how they rejuvenate everybody and make us smile and laugh – something we are so direly need.”

Kelsey-Jo Kessie, assistant professor of psychology, looked forward to Let’s MUve Together, too. “I’m able to do something that brings me joy,” she says. “With a constantly churning news cycle and the fatigue people feel from the pandemic, this outdoor togetherness creates a sort of mental hygge,” a Danish word she says is best translated as “coziness.”

“I am in the moment and away from the world,” adds Kessie.

Let’s MUve Together is on hiatus this winter. During the fall, leaders rotated each week. Kessie led one week, as have Gilliar, students Karly Eichenauer and Ava McVey; Jim Brumbaugh-Smith ’84, associate professor of mathematics and computer science; and Elton Skendaj, Muir associate professor of peace studies.

In addition to Let’s MUve Together and Wellness Wednesdays, Manchester colleagues have organized other events that foster connections and ease isolation. Colleagues on the Fort Wayne campus meet monthly for a Zoom lunch, for example. Those seeking comfort that is more spiritual can attend weekly chapel services on Zoom. 

Dance, prayer, sharing a virtual meal with friends, contemplation – all are forms of self-care, which White says we need in these uncertain times. “Having anchors to help ground and center us can give us something to hold on to when we become overwhelmed.”

By Melinda Lantz ’81