The opposite of anxiety is actually action — being able to respond. There are so many actions that we can take in response to the Corona crisis: reach out to those who might be lonely, offer to help out with deliveries, help make some connections, or provide information that people might need. Whatever we do, the best way to keep our brains healthy is to find some type of action.
As a part of my series about the things we can do to remain hopeful and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Donna Volpitta. As the Founder and Education Director at Pathways to Empower (http://www.pathwaystoempower.com), Donna Volpitta, Ed.D. makes the brain science of resilience and mental health easy to understand and apply. Her Resilient Mindset Model has been applied to areas of leadership from parenting to corporate management.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Many years ago, when I was a classroom teacher, one of my supervisors came to observe and evaluate my teaching. I was feeling pretty good about the lesson, so when I received some “not-so-stellar” numbers, I asked the supervisor why. She looked at me and said, “Shut up- you talk too much. It isn’t about giving information to the students, it is about helping them to construct their own understanding. You need to have students interact more.” That moment changed my trajectory. I spent the rest of my teaching career developing routines to support my students in working together to come to an understanding of the lessons. It was through that lens that I entered my doctoral program determined to understand the impact of social learning, which ultimately led to the brain science of resilience and mental health.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
The book Out of Character: Surprising Truths about the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us by David Desteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo provided the real “Ah-ha” moment for me. They reflect upon their experiments putting people into moral dilemmas and seeing how they respond in order to give us a better understanding of the decisions that we make. Ultimately, they conclude that most people think aboutdecisions that we make as “good” vs. “bad,” but really, to our brains, those decisions are “long-term” vs. “short-term.” Remember Fred Flintstone with the angel and the devil popping up over his shoulder when he had to make a tough decision? According to their work, Desteno and Valdesolo say that it isn’t an angel and a devil, but rather an ant and a grasshopper, which they drew from Aesop’s fable. After I read the book, I contacted David Desteno and asked him if I could use the ant and the grasshopper in a model that I was creating about the brain. He said that I could, as long as I didn’t make the grasshopper the bad guy.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective, can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
In my work, I talk to people about the brain science of resilience and mental health. Before the COVID-19 Crisis, we were experiencing several crises that were much less immediate, such as climate change and the rising levels of anxiety, depression, addiction and suicide, particularly among young people. Some of our modern lifestyle choices have set us up for significant problems, and I see this time as an opportunity for a turning-point. Here are my five reasons to be hopeful:
- This is an opportunity to teach resilience
Modern life has allowed so many people to protect and micromanage their kids, which has led to a number of young adults who are not prepared to handle common challenges. I love Julie Lythcott-Haims’ book “How to Raise an Adult” because it shines a light on the basic skills that young adults seem to be lacking. This crisis is going to take some of that ability to shelter kids away, and kids are going to be forced to handle some challenges that they may not have been exposed to otherwise. The key is for parents to understand that this can actually be a good thing and that they have the opportunity to support their children in learning to handle those challenges. I always say that our response to any challenge is based on the way that we think about four Ss: self, situation, supports and strategies. We develop out thoughts around those four Ss based on the challenges that we handle throughout our lives. If we never learn to handle small challenges, we do not build up our capacity to handle the larger challenges. Parents can use this as an opportunity to help their kids develop thinking around those four Ss.
2. This is an opportunity to develop critical brain systems & balance brain chemicals
This goes along with the idea of building resilience because when we learn to handle challenges, we are naturally helping to foster mental health. Our brains were designed to seek challenges. When we work hard towards a goal, struggling and working with different strategies, our brain receives neurochemicals. Think about those neurochemicals as messages to our brain. When we struggle and work hard and then finally succeed, we get a big burst of neurochemical rewards — dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin — all of which help to keep our brains healthy and motivated toward working on another goal. If we are just getting those neurochemicals from immediate rewards (say, a “like” on social media), we are priming the brain for addiction. I love to say to people that self-esteem is not a gift you can give, it is a neurochemical response you rob someone of when you don’t let them struggle.
3. This is an opportunity to forge stronger relationships
We are social beings and our brains are designed to form relationships with others. In the model that I created to help people understand the brain, I include the tools of a healthy brain. Two of the tools directly relate to our relationships with others. The first, which I used a walkie-talkie to represent is just our connection with others. For many people, time has been such a barrier to interacting with our family members, and this quarantine can be a gift of family time if we use it as such. As a mom of four adolescence, I know that it is important to balance family time and time with friends, so we are making sure to schedule in time and activities together and to encourage kids to engage in on-line social get-togethers with friends. Another one of the tools, represented by a merit badge, is “compassion, pride, and gratitude.” Our brains are healthier when we engage in these activities, so we can use this time together to reach out to others digitally or by phone to see if we can offer support.
4. This is an opportunity to develop creative problem-solving skills
I have talked a lot about individuals and families, but now I want to turn to how we might be optimistic in a wider sense. As a nation and a world, this crisis is going to push us to be creative about our problem-solving, which I believe is ultimately going to help us to be able to handle some of the other longer-term crises. We are beginning to recognize just how inter-dependent we have become and that it is critical that we work together in order to handle challenges ahead. Climate change is something that has truly concerned me for a while. Perhaps addressing this more immediate crisis will help us to recognize that we can we make some changes in lifestyle that will help the planet. A few weeks ago, I do not think that many people would have been able to envision all of the changes that we have made.
5. This is an opportunity to set priorities for our future
All of this leads to the most important reason to be hopeful: this can be a turning point for setting priorities for our future. In our brains, we have two primary systems, one that is in charge of our fast, reactive responses (system 1) and one that guides our slow, analytic thinking (system 2). These systems also respond in different time frames. System 1 is in charge of decisions for the here and now; system 2 is in charge of decisions for the future. When we are babies, our System 1 is in place, but not our system 2. As our brains develop, we form the ability to self-regulate, which means we understand how to defer our immediate desires for longer-term benefits. We need to have that same discipline in order to address the larger priorities for the future of the world, and I am hopeful that the Corona Crisis might serve as our wake-up call for that.
From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
One of my favorite TED talks is Kelly McGonigal’s talk called How to Make Stress Your Friend. In it, she outlines the science behind stress and how our thoughts about stress effect our physiological response to it. If we look at stress as negative, our body responds to it in negative ways. Instead, we need to look at challenge and stress as an opportunity, a chance to act and respond. So, with that background, here are my 5 steps:
- Breathe: Take a moment to step back and take some breaths because that can calm your brain and help you to know how to respond effectively.
- Refer to the serenity prayer: decide what parts of this you can control and let the other parts go.
- Action: The opposite of anxiety is actually action — being able to respond. There are so many actions that we can take in response to the Corona crisis: reach out to those who might be lonely, offer to help out with deliveries, help make some connections, or provide information that people might need. Whatever we do, the best way to keep our brains healthy is to find some type of action.
- Practice Gratitude: Even in the toughest times, there are things that we can find to be grateful for. The more that we recognize that, the better our mental health.
- Foster Social Connections: We need to be quarantining, but we don’t need to cut all social ties. There are so many ways to use this time to reach out to social connections, from Zoom happy hours to Instagram dance parties. That social connection is critical for brain health.
What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious? I would say that the best resources are community resources — opportunities to take action and make social connections.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
I have a great friend from college named Chris Waddell who was paralyzed and became the most decorated male paralympic skier in the world. When he retired from professional sports, he asked me to create a resilience education program with him. Throughout the program, Nametags, he asks students to repeat the phrase, “It’s not what happens to you; it’s what you do with what happens to you.” That is my favorite life lesson quote.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Funny, I do feel like I am trying to start a movement — a movement of people who understand the brain science of resilience and mental health. I feel like understanding the brain can change everything. We need to understand how to proactively develop mental health.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
At Pathways to Empower, we want to provide tools to help people through this crisis. We are launching an on-line platform for parents of young children to help them to understand how to build resilience, foster mental health and forge stronger relationships with their kids. We also decided to slash all of our prices down to $5 per download so that we can make every tool affordable and immediately available for parents.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!