Stephanie Wagner (Interview)

Art by Sam Liacos.
The board-certified health and wellness coach and HealthyMinds Innovations specialist on the importance of awareness and appreciation when practicing self-care and reevaluating relationships.

What does emotional wellness mean to you?

To me, emotional wellness is the capacity to handle the ups and downs of life–along with the associated emotions–in a healthy way. So, rather than getting overwhelmed or overcome  by  emotions, we are able to work with them and bounce back. This is resilience…the ability for us to be able to bounce back from difficulty more quickly. This applies to the challenges of life, but also with challenging emotions, too. Emotions are natural, of course, but it’s when those negative emotions become overwhelming and unworkable that it is difficult.

How can we take better care of ourselves emotionally, in connection with mental health?

We can train our mind in qualities and skills that can help us be more resilient through practices like meditation. Science points to the fact that there are several areas of well-being that can be trained including skills associated with awareness, connection, insight and purpose.

Our brain has the capacity to change due to something called neuroplasticity. When we train our minds, with intention, we harness the capacity of the brain to change in healthier ways so rather than only experiencing well-being in fleeting moments, we can experience it as more of a baseline.

How would you advise one to find a balance in the “new normal,” in regards to the pandemic?

Try and not hold yourself to pre-pandemic standards. I hear people criticizing themselves because they are eating more, having difficulty exercising, and are working more than ever due to the lack of boundaries between work and home life.

Try to have some compassion for yourself in those moments by recognizing that it is normal to have a hard time in the midst of a pandemic. Life is not the same now. Now is the time to adapt.

One way to find balance in the “new normal” is to get clear about your values. What’s important to you? It may be something like generosity, patience, compassion, or even well-being. Once you are clear about that value, think about how you can embody that value. Bring it to mind at the beginning of your day and consider how your activities can be infused with a greater sense of meaning. If well-being is important to you, how can you ensure that your day is infused with a sense of well-being? Maybe it’s taking ten minutes in the morning to get away from your computer or scheduling time during your lunch break to do a quick meditation.

Self-care is a complex concept for women of color, specifically immigrants and first-generation Americans. How would you advise Black, Latinx, Indigenous and POC to practice self-care?

There are a lot of stereotypes out there about what self care is–is self care going to spin class? Eating expensive organic food? Getting a spa treatment? From my perspective, self- care is really individual and it starts with listening to the body.

The origins of the term “self-care” are fascinating and rooted in both medical and activist history. (Here’s a great overview of this history). During the rise of the women’s and civil rights movements, women and people of color viewed controlling their health as a corrective to the failures of a white, patriarchal medical system to properly tend to their needs. The reality is that constantly fighting against systemic racism and sexism is draining and exhausting, without factoring in the additional stressors of a pandemic, political divisiveness and your own interpersonal and work challenges. Practicing self-care is needed for everyone, and I would argue it is especially necessary during this time in history.

One way to practice self-care is to notice how you feel. What is your body calling for at this moment? It might be socially distanced connection, physical activity, a nap, or something else. Using awareness of physical sensations can help us tune into important cues that the body is giving us and then use information to help us practice self-care.

What’s your advice on letting go of what no longer serves us?

One way to do this is to cultivate a sense of healthy curiosity about what we are holding on to.  Often, we hold our beliefs to be true and don’t ever question them. When we find ourselves encountering something ( a person, experience, belief, activity, etc.) that is no longer serving us we can explore by asking a question like: What do I believe to be true here? Why am I hanging on? What do I need to do to let  go? Through doing an intentional inquiry like this, insights may occur that make it easier to let go of what no longer serves us. Here’s a 10 minute meditation to guide this process.

What do you recommend to remain vulnerable?

One way to remain vulnerable is to notice those moments when we contract or harden our hearts against what is happening in a relationship–when we  emotionally/energetically move away from someone and realize that we are shutting down. Contraction often emerges from a place of suffering–we don’t want to be in pain or for things to be difficult. We don’t want conflict. We can notice how painful that experience is and offer ourselves a moment of compassion.

Compassion is connecting to that part of us that doesn’t want to be in pain and the underlying motivation to be free from it. Rather than fighting against our experience, we are kind to it. Connect with the feeling of shutting down and try to be with it–sometimes just in that we can begin to remain open and vulnerable. You can also offer yourself a few moments of compassion by reciting a phrase or two in your mind: May I be free from suffering. May I remain open.

How do you think our relationship with intimacy is changing because of the pandemic?

From my perspective, this is context dependent. Intimacy in relationships outside of work may have deepened. For those that are living with others, increased time spent in the same living space may help us get to know those we share a home with in new ways.

Others may have found that social connections outside of home are more intentional and thoughtful. Many have experienced deepened intimacy from exploring new things together, since many common pre-COVID19 activities are no longer available to us.

On the flip side of that, work relationships may lack intimacy. Remote work doesn’t naturally allow for personal “water cooler” conversations. Meetings on Zoom lead straight into business, without a lot of social interaction at the start of the meeting. This can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Our freely available meditation app has several COVID-related meditations to choose from that can help you stay connected, even when you are socially distanced.

We’re seeing a lot of people reevaluate their relationship with others and themselves. What should we keep in mind when reevaluating how we love?

Life in the midst of a pandemic can leave us hyper-focused on the negative and taking certain relationships in our lives for granted. Being in close quarters can exacerbate issues and bring them to the surface. While it’s important to raise these issues, it’s also important to notice the positive within these relationships, especially as things become challenging.

As we re-evaluate how we love, we can look at what aspects of the relationships we are noticing, and how we express it. One way to express love is through appreciation. Appreciation is simply noticing the positive. We can appreciate the qualities or skills about our loved ones and, if inspired, express it. It’s a win-win. We feel a burst of positive energy when we express appreciation and it feels good to be on the receiving end, too. Check out this appreciation practice to give it a try.

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