People of all ages are stretching out for yoga outdoors, participating in virtual book clubs, visiting drive-thru mosques and exercising in front of computer screens. From group therapy to physical training, locally accessible forms of self-help are available to provide a sense of well-mindedness, safety and community amidst an isolating pandemic.


Editor’s Note: This story is part of a series on Orange County’s mental health. All stories are produced by students in a digital journalism course at Chapman University. This story, the first in the series, was written by Nanette Lui and edited by Ethan Williams. Click here to see the full series. To inquire or write us about our Voice of OC Youth Media program or this piece of work, send an email to squick@voiceofoc.org.


Community

Community is necessary for survival, according to Author Frances Moore Lappé in an article by the Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue.

“We humans wither outside of community,” Lappé said, “It isn’t a luxury. Community is essential to our well being.”

Psychology Today states that over time, humans evolved into social creatures out of necessity, as cooperating with others would increase one’s chance of survival. Today, people still require forms of social interaction and belonging within a community for an overall healthier well being. 

Jhoanna Belfer, owner of Bel Canto Books in Long Beach, holds two monthly virtual book clubs: the Book of the Month Book Club and the Burning Issues Book Club. Belfer finds that her own mental health has been aided through her book store and interactions with book club members.  

“A big part of having a bookstore, to me, has always been that sense of community,” Belfer said. “As a big reader, and somebody who loves ideas, I can literally spend hours talking to somebody about great books. I feel like most readers are the same way.”

At the start of each Book of the Month meeting, Belfer takes time to ask what has been keeping everyone sane.

“It just gives people a moment to think about something that’s nice and that they’re happy for and to share it with other people,” Belfer said.

One of Belfer’s book club members is a retired individual who does not feel comfortable going outside since the COVID-19 pandemic. She finds the book club, currently meeting virtually, to be one of her few outlets to meet strangers of varying backgrounds with similar interests. 

Therapy

The American Psychological Association recommends therapy when an issue causes emotional distress or inhibits one’s daily life, such as: 

  • The issue has negatively impacted school, work, or relationships
  • The issue results in prolonged feelings of helplessness and/or sadness
  • The issue does not improve despite help from loved ones
  • The issue affects one’s concentration with daily activities 
  • The issue causes excessive worry 
  • The issue results in actions that harm the individual or others

Psychotherapy is a more traditional approach towards mental health, which falls into the following categories, according to the American Psychological Association:  

  • Psychoanalysis Therapy: Through analyzing the interactions between therapist and patient, individuals learn of their unconscious motivations behind problematic behaviors and thoughts. 
  • Behavior Therapy: This form of treatment trains the patient’s reaction to certain situations.
  • Cognitive Therapy: With this treatment, people’s thoughts are more considered than their actions. 
  • Humanistic Therapy: This treatment recognizes people’s potential to make rational decisions. 
  • Integrative Therapy: Therapists integrate various approaches for their treatment.

GoodTherapy Blog states some benefits of therapy include:

  • Learning more about oneself through gentle guidance from therapists
  • Inspiring the patient to achieve goals in realistic ways
  • Developing healthier relationships
  • Developing better mind and body wellness
  • An overall improvement in the quality of life

Physical Activity

Exercise is a commonly neglected method in mental health care, as stated by experts in an article from PubMed Central.

High-movement exercises such as running, swimming, and dancing help to improve mood “[likely] caused by [an] exercise-induced increase in blood circulation to the brain,” according to the article. While physical activity improves sleep, stress-relief, stamina and weight reduction, it can also boost one’s self confidence. 

Alek Barrera, owner of A7 Personal Training in Corona Del Mar, holds both online and in-person training sessions to improve people’s physical health and simultaneously provide an escape from daily stressors. 

“We make sure our trainers are engaging with people on a personal level,” Barrera said. “We noticed more clients this year want to train as a way to vent. They see us almost like counselors while training.”

Barrera also recommends people include other healthy habits in their daily routines, like taking walks outdoors in the sunlight, maximizing hours of rest, and stretching before bed to relax the mind. 

Ryan Lee, founder of Balance 24/7, offers courses that focus on the health and wellness aspects of Tai Chi and Qigong, gentle movements that require great focus. 

Lee’s standard online classes include 50 minutes of standing activity, beginning each class with body awareness warmups and key focus discussions. 

Screenshot of virtual “Tai Chi Qigong PowerHour” with Ryan Lee of Balance 24/7.

“[Tai Chi and Qigong are] ideal for cultivating a stronger mind, body and health by using gentle flowing body movements, which are easy to learn and a pleasure to practice daily,” Lee said. “In this class, my students are taught exercises in a specific way, allowing the body to accelerate its own rebalancing and self-healing abilities.”

Religion

A quarter of the U.S. population have strengthened their religious beliefs as a result of the pandemic, according to Pew Research Center.

Rod Gomez, a pastor at Compass Bible Church in Aliso Viejo, finds that in times of need, people become acutely aware of an inner yearning for something more in life. 

“Humans are complex: we’re a body and soul, not just material, so mental health can be what’s going on underneath the surface,” Gomez said. “Is your life in alignment with the God who made you? Are you living the way that he’s prescribed, in the scriptures?”

Gomez finds the primary tenant of Christianity is that people’s sins can be forgiven through Jesus’ death and resurrection on the cross. Romans 8:28 in the Bible states “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

“For Christians, that [verse] is enormously comforting,” Gomez explained. “No matter what happens, God is good, and he’s going to make all things work in his glory and my ultimate good pleasure. In the meantime, that means we have to suffer through some trials and difficulties.”

Mustafa Umar, the education and outreach director at the Islamic Institute of Orange County in Anaheim, believes people turn to Islam during difficulty for guidance on life and navigating through challenges.

“While daily prayers and fasting help to increase one’s self-discipline, both acts can also provide peace in people’s lives,” said Umar. 

Additionally, Islam reminds people they were created for a particular purpose, which includes being tested in life. The afterlife of paradise, according to Umar, will follow if people are patient and do the right thing during those life tests. 

“I had a very difficult upbringing with my family,” Umar said. “I went through depression and even had suicidal thoughts on quite a few occasions when I was young. Islam helped me deal with those feelings by contextualizing my purpose of life. Now, I have forgiven my parents. I probably wouldn’t have been able to accomplish [that] without Islam in my life.” 

Spirituality

Spirituality often becomes valuable to individuals in times of emotional distress, physical or mental ailments, loss or when nearing death, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists

Spirituality is defined as involving oneself with the human soul and spirit rather than material things. As stated by RC Psych, spirituality encourages activities such as yoga, meditation, time in nature and painting.

Laura Sexauer, a yoga instructor at SunSpark Yoga in Old Towne Orange, prefers to teach slower paced yoga sessions to pivot students’ focus on the inner world. 

“Recently, I’ve ventured into teaching Vinyasa flow yoga, which links movement to breath,” Sexauer explained. 

According to Sexauer, spirituality involves the daily acknowledgment of the unity of all beings. Spirituality finds hope in hopelessness, and encourages surrendering to the forces of nature that people cannot control. Yoga serves to reinforce these beliefs. 

“The literal definition of yoga is union,” said Sexauer. 

“Yoga has changed my life for the better,” Sexauer said. “When I speak the words of my mantra, I am filled with a warm sensation in my heart and belly. I hope that all of the students I serve are able to connect with that sense of support and guidance in their daily lives.”

Mari Fix, co-founder of the Fragrance of Sound, leads guided meditation practices utilizing sound baths. Fix believes the goal of meditation is to bring individuals to the present and in a neutral headspace. 

“When a person starts meditating, they usually notice they’re quite occupied in their mind,” Fix said. “Meditation shows them their mind is busy thinking a number of things and that they have little control over it.” 

Fix finds that meditation reveals people are too busy worrying about the future or ruminating about the past to truly live in the present. 

Meditation exists to lift your energy and spirit out of trauma and pull you to the present, taking you into the journey of a true discovery into your actual being, Fix said.

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