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In the midst of COVID-19 social distancing requirements, NWKS learns to cope with isolation

Thursday, April 9, 2020 - At times on April 9, almost 400 people across northwest Kansas were logged into a virtual “Building Resilience” workshop where five nonprofit organizations and four expert guest speakers came together to share their stories and knowledge about overcoming the stresses and hardships of isolation due to the novel Coronavirus pandemic.

Sponsored by Project EVERS and LiveWell Northwest Kansas with additional support from the Northwest Kansas Educational Service Center and the Cheyenne County Health Department, program coordinators enlisted the expertise of ESSDACK of Hutchinson with Glenn Wiebe moderating.

“The world-wide health crisis surrounding COVID-19 has understandably brought on an abundance of caution, confusion and stress,” explained LiveWell Northwest Kansas Director Travis Rickford. “We know people across the rural region are concerned. We are too. This virtual conference is designed to help families build resilience against these stressors.”

“We’re all isolated right now,” continued Project EVERS Director Mike Thornton. “And for many of us, this can be a really complicated and stressful time. So today, we will get together in the best way that we can, to equip you with all that we can.”

Thornton explained that Project EVERS typically focuses on ending violence and its effects in schools. He said the group helps with breaking the cycles of family trauma, and trauma in schools and communities. However, that work is applicable in our regional, rural situation of isolation, as well.

The virtual conference continued with three break out-sessions with keynote speakers from ESSDACK.

In one of the breakout sessions, speaker Rebecca Lewis Pankratz shared her story of growing up in poverty, living among drugs and craving any kind of attention as an outcast at school. She shared her life of living through daily stress and feelings of isolation, and finally gaining courage to leave an abusive husband of 13 years. And, with the faith of God and a woman who showed her kindness and respect, Pankratz was able to start the process of healing.

Now as an accomplished peer poverty counselor, Pankratz has not only escaped the cycle of trauma with her three children, but she has also helped many other families of poverty build their own healthy and successful lives built on a foundation of love.

“The crushing weight of poverty infects every aspect of a person’s life, it continues to spin a person backwards,“ said Pankratz. “With poverty and with trauma, with isolation, all of it, we heal the brain things with a love thing. We counteract hardship with love and that's how we learn to cope and overcome.”

Following Pankratz’s heart-tugging story of overcoming hardship and how her life lessons help people today who are feeling the mental weight of the world pandemic, Katie Perez explained the biology of what is happening in a person’s brain during stress and isolation.

“It helps to normalize and recognize the stresses we are all facing right now,” said Perez. “By understanding the six parts of the brain, and knowing how people’s brains are responding to this collective COVID-19 trauma, we can better overcome.”

Perez explained to over 100 people who attended her breakout session how people dealing with trauma have trouble handling conflicts. They are not as adept at regulating emotions and have difficulty making decisions.

“The Thinking Center of the brain doesn’t reach maturity until a person is at least 25,” she said. “And when a person is experiencing trauma, they quite literally cannot think clearly. It’s almost like their brain is going back in time, before it matured. They have a hard time concentrating, making decisions, or simply being aware of themselves or others.”

Perez went on to explain that the reason people seem to be overreacting, hoarding toilet paper and acting irrationally is because during trauma, our brains are flooded with fear and our bodies go into survival mode. “The fear center of the brain overreacts,” says Perez. “Alarms are signaled to be scared when there really isn’t a threat occurring. …. And our bodies are completely exhausted and overwhelmed because our brain is spending too much effort simply regulating breaths, heart rate and other basic functions.”

Throughout the virtual conference, tips were shared to help people cope with the mental weight we are feeling in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Explanations were given so people can identify resilience as an external factor so that hardships can be overcome internally; and how to shake up the fight, flight, freeze reaction when faced with a problem.

People were especially reminded to reach out for companionship.

“There’s always an underlying sense of stress during times of crisis,” warned Rickford. “The first step a person can make to overcome stress and build resilience is to find someone to connect with on a daily basis. Don’t isolate yourself. Companionship is the first step.”


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