by Brett Mulder, PsyD
MGH Aspire Director of Teen and Adult Services
Aspire utilizes a “3 S” framework to guide the curriculum that underlies our programming and prioritizes what we focus on in our groups and activities. The 3 S’s are: self-awareness, social competency, and stress management. Stress management has always been a particular interest of mine, but our experience living through a pandemic has brought it into sharper focus with renewed importance.
In a study published by the CDC in August, approximately 40% of adults surveyed reported at least one mental or behavioral health condition. Symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder were most common (i.e., 30.9%). These statistics are staggering. Furthermore, the mental health impact of the pandemic has disproportionally impacted young adults (i.e., aged 18-24), Black and Hispanic groups, unpaid caregivers for adults, and essential workers. These larger cultural trends emerged in conversation with teenagers and young adults, parents, and colleagues at Aspire. The social isolation, chronic stress, ongoing uncertainty, systemic inequities, and radical disruption to everyday routines became shared themes in our collective disruption.
A silver lining, in this most unusual of circumstances, is that the stigma associated with mental health is diminishing. Coping now has become an activity that we are engaged in together. Personally, I began a daily practice meditation a few months before the start of the pandemic and have continued it to the present. I was moved at how profoundly these practices brought increased awareness of my feelings, thoughts, sensations, and perceptions in the present moment. These practices helped me to remain present and better cope with feelings of fear, anxiety, anger, depression, loss, joy, pleasure, and love. I also found that meditative practices can create a sense of calm and inner peace that helps me to be more compassionate and less reactive to my emotions. I derive a sense of purpose through being helpful to others and in my work at Aspire, I re-approached the topic of stress management with a curiosity, openness, authenticity, and vulnerability.
In our virtual summer program at Aspire, I taught weekly sessions on how to manage the impact of ongoing stress through practice of a meditative or mindfulness exercise. I was struck by different reactions to meditation. Some teens found meditative practices calming, regulating, and centering. Another teen remarked to me, “I hate meditating! The world can feel like a cheese grater is going over my senses! I don’t want to focus on my senses. My senses exhaust me!” Paradoxically, both teens are correct. Mindfulness brings awareness to what we are experiencing in the moment, with a stance that practices nonjudgment, acceptance, and curiosity. Autism is a way of experiencing the world that colors the texture of one’s sensations and perceptions. A sensation of sound can be experienced as soothing and another as excruciating; and we brought this self-awareness to meditative exercises. For example, some teens found the repetitive sound of light rain relaxing and unexpected loud noises excruciating. We then did a meditative exercise, listening to the sound of rain falling on a cabin roof, and the activity created a sense of calm and peace.
We are all doing our best to cope in our shared predicament of the pandemic. I’ll end this reflection by sharing a practice that I now do on a daily basis. I adapted a gratitude practice of starting or ending a day with statements of gratitude, to an ongoing reflection throughout the day. Catch moments as you experience them; not five times or ten times a day, but hundreds and hundreds of times. And say to yourself what you are grateful for. “I’m grateful I’m healthy today.” “I’m grateful for the feeling of the sun on my face.” “I’m grateful I can still see.” “I’m grateful for the taste of this food.” “I’m grateful that zoom meeting is over.” Have fun with the exercise. Be playful with your everyday experience in a radical embrace of gratitude throughout your day. It is helping me. It might help you. Give it a try or share with a friend if something else is working for you. And remember to take care of yourself.