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Charlottesville experts, locals find relief in a stressful world

As Charlottesville-area residents go about their day-to-day routines, many frequently check their phones and laptops for the latest news since the Oct. 7 deadly surprise attack in Israel by the Hamas terror group.

Some say they’re worried about the possibility of another world war. Others, overwhelmed by the painful images and horrific deaths, find it difficult to concentrate on work or other tasks.

“It is understandable to be anxious when wars are going on, even if they’re not in your own backyard. It’s hard to get away from the immediacy of it with it being on the news all the time,” Dr. Phyllis Koch-Sheras, a Charlottesville clinical psychologist, told The Daily Progress. “Every time we see something about the war, we get retraumatized. As human beings, we’re going to hopefully feel empathy for people who are suffering, and there is so much suffering in the world right now.”

Vigils have been held in Charlottesville to remember those who’ve been killed and rallies have been held calling for peace.

Those gatherings attracted hundreds, many of whom are there to sympathize. But for others, the conflicts overseas are personal; they have friends, family and colleagues who go to sleep with the sound of rockets exploding overhead, wake up without power, try to live their daily lives without knowing if they’ll be alive tomorrow.

For many in Charlottesville, the wars overseas are not limited to headlines and news broadcasts, said Charlottesville International Rescue Committee Director Harriet Kuhr. Not only is Charlottesville an educational and cultural center that attracts people from around the world, but it’s also a city that has welcomed more than 5,000 refugees from 32 countries since 1998, she said.

With worries about the current state of the world — not only in the Middle East, but also the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine that started in February 2022 — in addition to anxiety about inflation, layoffs, work burnout and the lingering impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, many in the community report feeling immense stress.

The Daily Progress asked some Charlottesville experts and people in the community for advice on how to restore inner serenity and foster resilience during these challenging times.

University of Virginia education professor Patricia “Tish” Jennings is an internationally recognized leader in the fields of social and emotional learning and mindfulness.

“This is a really difficult time, and what I’ve found helpful under these circumstances is connecting with the body,” she said.

This is needed, Jennings said, because the stress response involves a physiological reaction whereby certain hormones and neurotransmitters are activated. These cause our heart rate and breathing to increase and can lead to feelings of anxiety, hypervigilance and difficulty focusing on tasks, she explained.

“Intentional slow breathing directly impacts respiratory rate, which can be physiological and psychological calming. Also, noticing the weight of the body, either the weight of the torso on a chair, or feet on the floor, can help promote a feeling of being grounded,” said Jennings.

There’s a reason why slow, deep abdominal breaths work to restore calm, said Anthony Davis, a veteran, success and stress coach and director at the Center for Personal Leadership and Development headquartered in Charlottesville. It has to do with the vagus nerve, nature’s stress reliever.

“Through the process of the abdominal breath and pressing your stomach out and in, your diaphragm raises and lowers a small distance. When it moves up and down, it rubs against your vagus nerve. Science has shown when the vagus nerve is stimulated, it automatically releases anti-stress hormones,” said Davis.

Transforming the mind by partnering with an expert and committing to change is also vital as a long-term solution to emotional struggles, said Davis. “Transformation is a choice to create change in a person’s life. Every thought creates a chemical reaction that affects our health. When we choose to resolve our inner challenges … we can then live healthier, rewarding lives.”

Andrea Johnson is a transformational leadership coach sought after by Charlottesville-area community leaders and executives to empower work spaces. She shares guidance to help nurture well-being, which can apply to everyone whether at work or life in general.

“Ultimately, understanding what is and what is not in your control, is the first step to managing your stress and anxiety,” Johnson said. “The attitude with which you approach the answer to that question will make all the difference. You can control how you react to the stressful and anxiety-producing events, and you can also control how you act moving forward.”

This is important to achieve, Johnson said, because restoring emotional balance allows you the space to process the hard or traumatic things that are causing your stress. “Resilience, the ability to bounce back from dealing with all that stress, is like a muscle you can develop. The more you practice stepping back and processing the hard stuff, the faster and more efficiently you rebound.”

Johnson also pointed out that shouldering too much stress can hinder you from being present. “You miss out on the joy and wonder of individual moments.”

For immediate relief in quieting the mind — if your mind is running away with anxious thoughts — Johnson recommended using the classic “Countdown Method.” “Counting down from five to one, walk through the five senses,” she said. For example:

“I can see five things”: Name things you can see.“I can hear four things”: Name things you can hear.“I can touch three things”: Name them, touch them.“I can smell two things”: Name them, then take a deep breath.“I can taste one thing”: Name it and swallow, maybe even take a drink of your coffee if that’s what you can taste.

“What this does is make me present,” emphasized Johnson. “It gets me out of my head and back into my body, which then allows me to think in a more rational, logical way, to work through the current situation.”

Koch-Sheras added that meditating and focusing attention on what we can do to create harmony in the world can boost our emotional immune system. “Take some deep breaths, and cultivate compassion, rather than anger. Perhaps if enough people do that around the world, there will be an end to war someday,” said Koch-Sheras.

While staying informed about world events is important, especially if you have family and friends in the affected locations, research cited by the American Psychological Association warns that overexposure to media during a crisis could be harmful to mental and physical health.

Additionally, a study published by the National Institutes of Health concludes that fear of nuclear war could increase the risk of mental disorders in adolescents.

Jennings also noted that stress is contagious, so adults need to be careful how things are framed for children.

“One recommendation is to stay off social media if possible during such world-shaking traumas,” said Jennings. “When we feel threat, there’s a natural tendency to become hypervigilant about following the news. I recommend that when people are feeling this distress, they avoid social media that has a built-in tendency to polarize opinion in the extremes, which can reinforce fear and anxiety.”

The Daily Progress spoke to Charlottesville residents, who shared their practices and plans for when the anxiety becomes overwhelming.

Inessa Telefus said she remembers what helped her when she first heard about Russia’s invasion. Telefus was concerned for her family in Russia as well as those suffering in Ukraine. But regularly staying in touch with her loved ones, both then and now, alleviates the worry. “Hearing their voices … keeping connected with those I love, helps me stay grounded and also reminds me to try to make the world a better place,” she said.

Meanwhile, Charlottesville artist Chicho Lorenzo, known for his murals throughout the city, pours his energy into painting angels in his recent artwork that is being displayed at a Live Arts exhibit taking place through December. He said he was inspired by a recent gathering on the Downtown Mall where songs were sung about peace and angels protecting us all in times of war. “In these times of uncertainty … I’m more conscious of my responsibility as an artist … to collectively find hope,” he said.

David Gordon, a parent of a child with severe disabilities and one of the founders of the Virginia Institute of Autism, knows firsthand how to overcome challenges. He said we each have the ability to transform this fractured world. “This requires us … to practice acts of kindness every day and to believe in a vision that we can, through love … build a very different future.”


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