Ellie Olson was making an important point when an off-screen request demanded her attention. “One moment,” she said, briefly disappearing from Zoom to deal with what turned out to be a dead bug emergency.
Like so many people in the summer of 2022, Olson’s family was home under COVID-19 restrictions, requiring her to juggle remote work and child care. “What were we saying about the effects on focus and concentration?” she laughed, retracing her train of thought. “It feels like we really need to be having this conversation right now.”
Olson directs the Center for Wellness and Counseling, which provides counseling to Augsburg students and promotes well-being across campus. She and her team have witnessed firsthand the mental and emotional effects of the last two years. Those experiences, Olson said, shape her recommendations for meeting our current moment with grace—ongoing disruptions, new variants, and all.
Q: As a mental health professional, how would you describe this stage of the COVID-19 pandemic? How are people responding to it?
A: One of the things I really think is important to acknowledge is the level of energy that has been drained from us as a result of the trauma of COVID. As we move out of that trauma stage and what some researchers and the media have called the “languishing” phase, I always remind people that energy drain is not just about the physical. It’s emotional, it’s cognitive, it’s spiritual, it’s social. And there’s been so much drain. All the energy that’s gone into rethinking how we live our lives has had a huge impact on where we are now. It’s still impacting how much energy we have to give to our lives and our responsibilities.
I frequently present on this topic, and when I name this lack of energy and suggest that we need to do less, I get a sense of relief from a lot of people. We’re not in this fight-or-flight trauma like we were during the first months of the pandemic, but many of us don’t feel a lot of energy or engagement, and I think that’s normal right now given what we’ve been through. We need to give space to honor how hard people have been working, and to acknowledge that the work we put in while struggling is meaningful, even apart from productivity and outcomes.
Q: How does this play out in your work with students and campus partners?
A: One thing that has consistently become more present is the importance of meaning. Being forced out of “normal” over the past two years has really given people an opportunity to tune in to what is and is not meaningful. If we’re going to give our limited sources of energy to something, it needs to have value; people want to engage, but the “budget request” has to either be high in meaning or low in energy.
Here’s an example: We have a counselor who facilitates a group about understanding and working with emotions that has been very well-received in years past. But this year, students just weren’t engaging with it in the same way. Instead of continuing to offer an experience that was kind of like a class, we started a walking group instead. We just said, hey, come over to the CWC, and we’re going to go for an hour-long walk in the neighborhood to explore and connect, and then we’re going to come back and have dinner together. Maybe students don’t have the mental headspace to engage in extra learning after class, but they can go for a walk. This was a better fit for our students’ energy; it was better attended and a more connecting experience.
How else can we adjust the things that we’re offering, so that they don’t require as much energy or risk-taking as some of what we were doing in the past? We see mental health and wellness as not just the business of the CWC. It’s the business of everyone on campus, and how we step into that business differs by role.
Q: As we head into the fall, what are some strategies or techniques that can help people thrive right now?
The first thing I would offer is not to go into this phase of life with the goal of returning to “normal,” or that the people around you will behave like they did before COVID. I think we have to go into this phase thinking about what our lives are like now, and how we can best create a structure that takes into account where we’ve been as opposed to what things used to be.
This is not going to feel good to the perfectionists in the world—and I’m one of them—but part of this is lowering expectations of yourself and the people around you. When we don’t set realistic expectations that take into account where we are now, then we just create more burnout, more stress, more self-criticism, and less motivation. People are motivated when they feel like they can meet or exceed expectations. It’s important for us to remember that in lowering expectations now, we’re creating a groundwork for people to be more productive in the future.
It’s also important to acknowledge that motivation is sometimes created; it doesn’t just arrive. This is where setting lower expectations is really important, because some of us wait to feel like we want to do a thing instead of trying to create motivation by taking small actions. I tell students to set a really small goal, and if you can’t meet that goal, cool: that’s data that we need to set a smaller one. As we start to do that, we create motivation rather than waiting for motivation to find us.
Lastly, have grace with yourself and others right now. Honestly, grace is always important, so this is a trait that we could stand to utilize now and forever. Just to recognize that people are juggling a lot, that we all have limited capacity—and while we may regain some capacity, we are still limited at this point. To own that and give yourself some grace, and to give grace to the people around you. Having grace and compassion for all that we have been through and are still going through can go a long way in this moment.
Top Image: Ellie Olson, director of Augsburg’s Center for Wellness and Counseling. (Photo by Rebecca Slater)