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Well-being and Productivity in the Time of COVID-19

Lydia Minatoya, Ph.D.

Well-being is thought to be an expression of our humanity and health.  Feelings of well-being are more than the continuous stringing together of pleasurable moments. And, although happiness is an important component, well-being is more than feeling good.

an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Nazi death camp survivor -- deepened Freud’s view of human well-being beyond love and work.  Frankl observed that--even when facing certain death, in conditions of extreme cruelty and randomness -- people still chose to help one another, to use their limited-time performing small, ordinary. life-affirming acts.  Frankl identified this deeply human motivation as the will for “Meaning”.  Even in situations of misery, or when performing seemingly insignificant, undistinguished actions--such as feeling muscles and movement meet surface and speed as we run, or noticing dust, light and the beauty of particles floating in space as we sweep a room-- Frankl believed, “Meaning” can provide us with a sense of life’s purpose and dignity.  Through caring about and finding meaning in something bigger than the immediate moment, in something bigger than our self-interest, Frankel believed we can experience emotional/spiritual well-being.   

  • We experience love, work, meaning and well-being in our brains’ frontal lobe or forebrain--the most complex and most-recently evolved portion of the human brain.  Our forebrains give us the capacity to reason, consider, plan, create and communicate.
  • Humans also interact with the world through the earliest-evolving part of our brains: the brain stem or hindbrain.  The hindbrain is the center of automatic functions such as breathing, heartbeat, digestion and temperature regulation.
  • Additionally, we are governed by our hyper-vigilant, midbrain which is essential for our survival as a species. Ever-alert for potential threat, the midbrain automatically triggers survival behaviors of fight/flight/freeze but is not capable of reasoning or problem solving.  

Humans can focus our forebrains on goals of well-being and emotional/social fulfillment, when we feel secure that our basic, safety-needs will be met.  Alarm about health, housing, access to food—fundamental worries during C-19—trigger our midbrains and our instinctual, default, reaction is to narrow our focus to personal survival.

COVID-19 is an international pandemic, unpredictable in course and duration. 

  • Because it involves an unfamiliar virus, that is contagious even when no symptoms are present, COVID-19 makes us feel vulnerable and anxious.
  • Additionally, COVID-19 is potentially lethal, especially to our most vulnerable group members. For these reasons, its sudden arrival-- in our awareness and our communities—has triggered midbrain reactions of “severe sudden stress”.

Severe sudden stress occurs in situations that directly happen to us—such as natural disasters, pandemics, accidents—and may occur when we learn shocking news about the lives and safety of family, friends and people with whom we identify. 

Initially, in this pandemic, we feared that we and our loved ones could fall gravely ill, at any moment.  The virus was invisible and potentially everywhere.  Our stress- reactions likely included:

  • anxiety,
  • confusion,
  • slowed thinking,
  • emotionality or emotional numbness
  • constant seeking of up-dated information, about the virus and its path of contagion.

If you or family members have been infected by the virus or work with COVID-19 patients in health care, you will experience much greater physical and emotional stress.  People who work in essential services where contact with the general public is ongoing and/or who have lived through epidemics in other times and places may also experience greater stress.

Faced with the sudden-stress of learning about COVID-19, people initially tended to prioritize their own and their family’s safety. 

  • Therefore, in early-mid March, Americans focused on stocking-up on food, hand and home sanitizers. paper products, bottled water, gasoline.  We acted with urgency and some amount of agitation-- preparing for uncertainty as if for a siege or extended weather catastrophe. 
  • This was a natural, instinctive reaction and not a sign of selfishness or shallow character. Faced with sudden threat, our hyper-vigilant midbrains automatically triggered biochemical reactions associated with fight/flight/freeze evolution-linked, safety behaviors.  
  • Also natural was our subsequent lessening of hoarding behavior and the establishing of social norms for prioritizing distribution of scarce goods, as our reasoning forebrains regained control of our thinking and planning .

After initial reactions to sudden stress our bodies prioritize recovery and gradual return to normalcy.

  • However, re-adjustment takes considerable energy, which waxes and wanes.
  • In addition, it takes time for our brains to absorb changing circumstances, relaxing somewhat from high danger/high alert survival reactions of anger, fear and immobility (fight/flight/freeze) but remaining sensitized to re-alert.

Similarly, our social systems seek ways to regain a sense of normalcy and functioning.

  • With COVID-19, our stress was reduced by the rules, structures and predictability provided by healthcare science and through a renewal of individual and collective forebrain-based behaviors that support well-being.  This was exemplified by feelings of “we’re in this together”/love, flexible problem-solving/work, and a cooperative drive to serve shared humanity/meaning. 
  • With “stay home” orders, 6 ft. spatial distancing and other rules from health authorities, levels went down for both infection-rates and our “free-floating-anxiety”.  Following science-based rules helped us feel more secure from contagion in our homes and less worried about unwittingly infecting others.
  • However, anxiety from other uncertainties went up and we shifted our worry to questions like: how would the switch to online learning impact us, how would we homeschool our children, when would we return to work? 
  • The positive aspect of these secondary worries is that they are forebrain generated and related to problem-solving and strategizing how to regain a sense of predictability and control in our daily lives. 

This evolving, wave-like, mid-stage pattern of relaxing and re-alert is where we, in WA state, have been since the early weeks of April 2020.   Indeed, it may be a stage we remain in for quite a while, as the wind-down from high-alert over viral unpredictability and economic vulnerability will occur over time and in waves. 

Be kind to yourself and others.  Recognize we are sharing an extraordinary time where within weeks, our lifelong assumption that our daily routines were not life-threatening was upended and everything we did on auto pilot—commute, shop, go to class, see friends— had to be re-configured and planned.

Recognize that a world-wide pandemic is both a fundamental game-changer and a temporary, period of time.  

  • Years from now, school-children will ask you, “What was it like?  How did you act?”  Try to find moments where you can be calm and mindful.  Step out of the current anxiety and view the moment as a piece of historical time.  Consider taking photos of your masks, your computer set-up on your kitchen table, the flowers/pretty weeds you see on your walks.  People are putting teddy bears in their windows to give neighborhood children a spotting-game to play, perhaps take photos of them. 
  • Consider how you’d like to reply to the question of: how did you act? Recognize that observing spatial distance and staying home are honorable acts serving the common good and be proud!

Recognize that feelings you are experiencing such as: loss of efficiency, frustration, tiredness, worry, difficulty “getting moving”, disappointment—are not symptoms that “something is wrong with you” but rather are evidence that in a period of world-suffering and uncertainty--slowed-reaction-time is an expression of being human.  

Be patient with yourself and others. Recognize that we all are expending enormous yet invisible amounts of energy, accommodating thousands of micro-changes in our routines, as well as physiologically, phasing-down from high-alert over unexpected threat.

Limit exposure to News.  Watch updates about COVID-19 once a day or less.  News of international and national hostilities and tragedies also increase stress, and during COVID-19, you may want to limit activities such as watching the news and consuming entertainment media that features violence/crime/horror.

Build your team(s).  This is the “love” part of well-being. 

  • Actively establish mutual, supportive connections with your housemates, family members, instructors, friends, college and community service-providers. Communicate with them, ask for and offer help. Share humor, gripes, information about resources, observations on the unexpected beauty of life. 
  • In a time of spatial distancing, don’t let yourself or others become socially isolated. 

Refine your definition of productivity to let “work” complement well-being

  • Don’t place unrealistic demands on your time, energy, brain and body.
  • Relinquish perfectionism.  Employers, instructors, transfer-colleges and people in your life prefer sincerity, flexibility, willingness to work, ability to set limits, honesty and humor over a 4.0 GPA. 
  • Focus on behaviors you can control.    Try to create a sense of order and routine.  Set-up a study space. Develop a daily schedule that breaks big tasks into manageable “chunks”.  Plan separate times for reading, completing assignments, and posting questions and comments.   Schedule multiple short breaks and times for eating, sleep, exercise, solo-time and time for connecting with others.   Read “Online Success: Student Tips in the Time of COVID-19" (scroll down) at
  • As you work to be “productive” include behaviors that maintain your health. Eat small, frequent, meals with fruits and vegetables, whole grains, protein, water.  Sleep 7 hours per night in a cool, dark, quiet room.  Visit

Practice Relaxation Skills that work for you. 

  • Accept that your/everyone’s world has changed and look for ways to find beauty, happiness, light within this new world.  A student at NSC tapped her curiosity, playfulness and adventurousness and described approaching COVID-19 life-changes as if a world-traveler. “I tell myself, I’m in a whole new country and culture.  I look around for what is interesting; how I can make good memories here.”
  • Visit this website --used by UC Berkeley and other major universities-- links students with many, less-than-3-minute, guided-exercises that promote relaxation, mindfulness, breathing for calm and for energy, pain-reduction, body acceptance, etc. Usually available through university subscription, during COVID-19, these videos are free.
  • Spring Quarter 2020, Mondays and Wednesdays at noon, The NSC Roy Flores Wellness Center offers Mindfulness Workshops via Zoom.

In “Why You Should Ignore all that COVID Virus-Inspired Productivity Pressure”, social scientist Aisah S. Ahmed notes that global catastrophes change the world.   

  • This can be a good thing.   
  • After WWII came racial integration of the armed services and then of society, the GI bill® which vastly extended the possibility of college and home ownership, the United Nations, the appreciation of STEM thinking. 

This autumn or next January or whenever we develop a vaccine and people again feel secure in their jobs--which may take some time--we won’t just go back to where we were in January 2020.   

  • During this time of global pandemic, we have been changing the ways we: connect, learn, provide care, imagine and create.   
  • We have been learning that our individual and family health and safety, indeed our very lives, depend on caring about the health, safety and lives of everyone.
  • Gradually, we may be finding our day to day, quality of life becoming less based on status objects and achievements and more based on authentic relationship and supporting the common-good.

When accosted by a life-threatening, global pandemic, it’s difficult not to think of mortality.  Our time is limited.  Human brains are wired to be altruistic.  At 19 months babies--even when hungry—pick up and hand over food items they like, to researchers who have dropped them and seem to need help.  In real life, we’ve all seen heart-warming news reports of kindness in time of need.

With COVID-19, the world has been given a pause--however unintentional and unwelcomed-- during which old assumptions have been suspended.   If we are observant, imaginative and courageous we may learn individual and global lessons about things such as:

  • Humility and Patience—we do not control the world; life unfolds at its own inconvenient pace. But if we pay attention, we may find ourselves moved and enriched.
  • Kindness and Kindred-ness—we are all in this together. If we can be generous, and a little flexible, shared humanity can be deeply rewarding.
  • Collaborative Problem-Solving—many and diverse minds devise stronger solutions, more quickly, and build rapport doing so.
  •  Meaning—life is short, weird, unpredictable, beautiful and full of joy and sadness.


  • Website used by UC Berkeley and other major universities that links students with many, less-than-3-minute, guided-exercises that promote relaxation, mindfulness, breathing for calm and energy, pain-reduction, body acceptance, etc. Usually available through university subscription, during COVID-19, these videos are free.
  • American Psychological Association provides information about building resilience—the ability to bounce back from hardship.
  • This site provides interesting and useful information about mindful resilience from a research/practitioner associated with UC Berkeley’s Science for the Greater Good Center
  • COVID-19 Well-being Toolkit and Resources – University of Wisconsin Center for Healthy Mind
  • Loving Kindness Practice (instruction + audio) - Center for Greater Good