By Jennifer Khil, August 12 2020 —
Dr. Jacqueline Smith, an associate professor and director of mental health and wellness in the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Calgary, recently hosted an online workshop on emotional wellness titled Learning How to Be Attentive to Both Positive and Negative Feelings as part of the Summer Wellness Series 2020.
The webinar focused on emotional regulation through awareness, identification, cultivating healthy practices and behaviours, and a variety of other tips and topics for mental and emotional well-being.
“I was really excited when I first heard about the Summer Wellness Series because I think we don’t talk enough about emotional wellness, especially now that we’re living in unprecedented times and we’re really riding the emotional waves of COVID-19—and we have been for the past four months,” said Smith in an interview with The Gauntlet. “I think as the science is trying to catch up with this pandemic and as a society we’re really attempting to adjust in so many different ways to our ever-changing environment and way of living, it’s normal that people are feeling anxious and overwhelmed and sad and depressed, because there are so many factors involved and impacting us as social human beings.
“To be able to really put that conversation out in the open is important, and for some reason we don’t talk a lot about it, and I felt in a sense that COVID was almost an invitation to do that.”
Normalizing conversations about mental and emotional health are important, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect mental and emotional wellness.
“I just really wanted to normalize the experience. We talked about the mental health continuum, because there’s a lot of stigma around mental health and illness,” said Smith. “I wanted to say that if you’re experiencing anxiety and depression — which are the two big mental health disorders that are being identified during COVID — you are one in ten Canadians, and if in general you experience mental illness, you are one in five Canadians, so it’s a common experience.”
Hosting the workshop online was a unique experience for Smith.
“I am a community educator and I do a lot of these presentations, but I’ve never done one online before,” said Smith. “What I really wanted to do with this presentation was allow people to experience being able to emotionally regulate, which I think is really empowering, and also to validate that they’re probably doing a lot of these things already.
“I wanted to introduce different ideas and to put in their mind that emotional wellness has to be purposeful, intentional and daily — we have to do these daily practices in order to stay well.”
Smith emphasized the importance of sitting with both positive and negative emotions day-to-day.
“What I like about the continuum is that it’s bidirectional, because it’s important to know that our lives change from day to day — that’s why I wanted to acknowledge riding the emotional waves of the good and the bad,” she said. “As humans, we tend to want to get away from the uncomfortable, so it’s about realizing that this is a part of life and to be able to stay emotionally well we have to be able to sit with both the good and the bad. It’s about becoming aware of how our circumstances can trigger our emotions, and most importantly, once we’ve identified them what we need to do to take care of ourselves.
“We had 260 people register, which says something about the importance of this topic — it was a University of Calgary webinar, and I think that academic settings can lead to stress and competing responsibilities, so it’s important that we learn self care management, normalize these conversations and bring them down to real life, simple terms,” she added.
“I wanted to give really practical tips. One of my favourite topics is neuroplasticity, and it’s the science that tells us that we can change the way our brains respond to stress — that we actually can teach an old dog new tricks. And it involves just training your brain. It’s all about habit, doing healthy things over and over, and daily intentional practices that can produce change and make a huge difference.”
As a researcher, it was important to Smith that everything presented in the conversation was backed up by science.
“We talked about making adjustments to our life that are so basic, I think a lot of it people are already doing,” says Smith. “And what was important to me as a researcher was that everything I talked about was informed by the science, because there’s a sense of credibility about these conversations.
“I wanted to leave it in a positive light, and one thing I learned is that even when things seem out of our control, there’s always one thing that is within our control, and that is our decision to choose purposeful self-care practices that I hope I made accessible enough that people can draw on what they’re already doing or make shifts and realize that if some of their coping strategies have been maladaptive, there is hope to change that around.
“Yes, we are living within a pandemic, and for some these struggles existed even before and beyond COVID, but there are ways we can ride these emotional waves of life. Emotional discomfort, when accepted, rises and crests and falls into a series of waves, and each wave washes part of us away, and deposits treasures we never imagined.”
For Smith, the chance to host the webinar was helpful for her own self-care practice.
“It was really exciting to be able to do this, and it even forced me to dust off some of the practices that I’ve been putting aside. These are exciting conversations for me, and I’m really proud of the University of Calgary, the whole Campus Mental Health Strategy, and the entire Summer Wellness Series. The optics of that really demonstrate the university’s stance and prioritization of mental health and wellness. I was just happy to contribute to that conversation and hopefully support those who are interested as well.”