Elizabeth Okwirry Mitchell (Interview)

Art by Sam Liacos.

 Life coach and past Love In Translation podcast guest on observing our thoughts and the importance of staying present. 

What does emotional wellness mean to you? 
Emotional wellness to me means being able to navigate the good, the bad, and the unknown that comes our way with a sense of peace and calmness.

How can we take better care of ourselves emotionally, in regards to our mental health?  
I believe the most important thing is to think about what you are thinking about. Catch your thought before you attach an emotion to it and that emotion becomes an action and then a consequence that messes up your day. Our thoughts really govern our emotions and if we are self-aware we can catch our thoughts and ask ourselves if we have any evidence that what we are thinking about is really true. As we practice observing our thoughts, we will discover or uncover how our thoughts can be quite deceptive and cause us a lot of unnecessary stress and anguish. 

How would you advise one to find a balance in the “new normal,” in regards to the pandemic? 
Here are a few ways: We need to make meditation a daily practice; it really helps center us and gives us mental clarity. Breathing exercises will help us stay present when we are in a panic. Practicing mindfulness and being self-aware can be quite grounding. The practice of journaling as a stress reliever or as a form of prayer. I would definitely say prayer is essential because we cannot do life as it is without believing there is a God who is in control of the universe even when it doesn’t appear so. Faith is huge because it is believing in that which we cannot see; that is more powerful than anything we can see, especially now when the world seems upside down. People are grieving all kinds of losses. For example, the world as we know it has changed and even though we know it will pass, it doesn’t feel that way–and here again I say, don’t focus on the feelings cause they can lead you into a downward spiral.

I also suggest practicing gratitude for what we do have and what is right in our lives right now. We can always find something to be grateful for–we are alive, we are well, we can see, etc. Whatever you have, choose to see the glass half full and not half empty. Choose to think about what is in your control no matter how small and not about that which you can’t control. Think about what you believe rather than what you fear. On the other hand, mourn your real losses and feel the pain because that will help you push past it. People fear pain because they think it will overtake them, but the opposite is true. If you avoid pain or resist, it will ambush you. In this pandemic, we are dealing with denial (“This virus won’t affect us if we don’t take the precautions”), anger (“It’s taking over my life as I knew it”), sadness, and even depression because we don’t see an end to it. That’s why I can’t reiterate enough how important our thought life is.

This brings me to an important point, and that is to seek a therapist or life coach if everything I have mentioned doesn’t help. Sometimes we need someone else to help guide us back to a place of centeredness. It’s also very important to stay connected to friends or your community of people so you are not isolated and lonely even though you may be physically alone.

How do you specifically advise brown and Black people to cope and process what feels like a roller-coaster of emotions–especially while being alone in quarantine?  
We should follow all the above mentioned recommendations because mental health is not a color or race thing, but that being said it is our history, stigmas, experiences, and beliefs as a people of color that hinder us in this regard. My generation, and older especially, carry a stigma about therapy and think it’s a waste of time to do simple practices like meditation, breathing exercises, and practice self-care in general. A lot of us think that doing these things are a sign that we are not strong. We have been taught that not being able to handle life’s pressures and having to speak to someone about it is a sign of weakness or that in doing so we are admitting that we are crazy and there is something fundamentally wrong with us. None of which is true. Emotional wellness is strength and resilience and leads to superior quality of life as well as longevity of life. Let’s invest in our emotional wholeness and wellbeing as people of color.

How have you seen emotional hurt (such as heartbreak) manifest across other forms of wellness? 
I have seen emotional stress lead to all kinds of physical ailments and disease. Emotional hurt can manifest in so many ways physically. I have seen it show up as backache to chronic headaches to manic behavior. I have witnessed high blood pressure manifest due to emotional hurt. I battle with obesity because I have often been subject to emotional eating. I have had loved ones turn to alcoholism to try and suppress emotional hurt and seen them lose that battle. I have painfully witnessed a loved one going through emotional hurt from a divorce become manic. I have had a loved one who was seemingly well, but had a lot of emotional hurt, end up in the hospital and drop dead from no apparent illness. 

As some are learning and unlearning generational beliefs and behaviors, what is key to keep in mind? 
Keep in mind what works for you in the time you are living in. No two people deal with the same thing identically even in the same circumstances–let alone different generations. We are all so different, and even when we experience the same circumstance it affects us in a very personal way. In our experiences in life we can create core beliefs to survive emotional traumas, and in turn we filter life through these core beliefs.

Self-care can be a complex concept for women of color, specifically immigrants and first-generation Americans. How would you advise women of color to practice self-care? 
So, I’m speaking as a woman of color and as an immigrant with first-gen young adults. I find that as I try to implement what I was taught growing up for myself and my daughters there is a resistance because they are so much more evolved than when I was coming up or my mother or her mother. Yet, we pass down remedies and solutions that don’t necessarily work for the first-gen. ‘Do as I say and not as I do’ no longer works for the first-gen. They question everything, and now there’s Google, online therapists, and life coaches to answer questions. We have raised a generation of self-thinkers and self-starters, and what we used to do that may not have made sense for my generation, we obeyed because that’s just how it was done. I find that the first-gen are so much more willing to pursue self-care and they are stronger for it, because some people of color have to push past traditions set in place to do what they know works. It’s not easy for the first-gen because they are on different levels battling feelings, such as betraying the traditions of their culture–their ancestral lineage. They face levels of guilt-tripping when they choose to go with what works for them.

I think one of the long-term effects of the pandemic will be the mental health issues that it’ll leave us with. What do you see the long-term effects being, mental health wise? And how can we combat it? 
Just look at how after 9/11, going through the airport as we knew it was forever changed. There is always an underlying fear of an attack when we fly. Now with this pandemic, the world is experiencing collective grief. The long-term effects of the pandemic will be loss of life as we know it. The loss of normalcy and a new normal. The fear of the economic toll this pandemic has created. We may also be experiencing anticipatory grief as our minds envision the future and see the worst case scenario. Identify things around you and call them out by name to keep you present, because at the present time nothing in the worst case scenario that we anticipated has happened to us. Use this as a way to control the way you are responding to what’s happening. Allow yourself to cry if you need to, then move on. I cannot reiterate the importance of staying present. Let go of what is out of your control. You can’t control what your neighbor, family, or friend is doing so focus on you. Wash your hands, don’t touch your face when out in public spaces, and stay six feet apart from people. These are things you can control. 

What are some signs that someone is struggling with anxiety, and how do you advise them to cope? 
Anticipatory grief is a state of anxiety. In anxiety, our minds paint worst case scenarios and that’s our mind being protective. We are not to ignore the images that cause us anxiety and try to force them away; this can be quite a painful process. The solution is to find balance in what your thoughts are. There should be a balance in thought and neither scenario should take over. Like I said in the beginning, think about what you are thinking about and work backwards. Don’t let the emotions take over. Replace the worst case scenario with the best case scenario. ‘No point in worrying about having COVID-19 ‘til I do and that’s if I do. What I can control is taking the necessary precautions to prevent catching it.’

What do you recommend to remain vulnerable during such uncertain times?  
Be kind to one another. Give each other grace. Everyone’s level of fear and anxiety manifests in different ways. Someone may be short with you for no apparent reason. Someone may be in denial about COVID-19, because that’s how they cope; they may think if they pretend the pandemic doesn’t exist, maybe it will go away. All you can do is wear your mask and stay six feet away and wash your hands. For those people that you do know, remember how they usually show up in life and give them the benefit of the doubt when they are dealing with fear and anxiety and don’t show up as themselves.

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