UGA well-being coordinator Kizmet Adams leads a yoga session for BeWellUGA on Zoom. (Photo/Lara Strydom) 

BeWellUGA, a mental health initiative for University of Georgia students and staff, is providing free virtual daily mindfulness and yoga sessions to connect the campus community and help people manage anxiety amid the COVID-19 crisis.

“Many things in our life are going to be totally out of control. We need to learn to live with that, and still be able to thrive in situations when life throws you a curveball that is totally out of control,” said UGA well-being coordinator Kizmet Adams.

BeWellUGA was created by the University Health Center prior to the pandemic to provide free mental health workshops and classes, many of which are focused on yoga and mindfulness. Mindfulness is defined as the ability to observe movement or feelings in the present moment.

“Mindfulness is a tool that can help us practice resilience during difficult times,” said Rebecca Shisler Marshall, an associate professor of communication sciences and disorders at UGA and mindfulness researcher.

To continue providing their resources while practicing social distancing measures, BeWellUGA has become BeWellUGA at Home, an online mental health resource for UGA students and faculty.

BeWellUGA at Home’s website includes several resources focused on challenges related to COVID-19, such as a blog from Counseling and Psychiatric Services counselors about how they are personally handling these new circumstances caused by the coronavirus.

BeWellUGA’s live mindfulness sessions are offered everyday at 9 a.m. and 10 a.m., while yoga is offered everyday at 12:00 p.m. There are also several prerecorded mindfulness recordings focused on how to deal with stressful times.

“It helps me take time to get back in touch with what is important, I’m always in a better mood afterwards,” Maria Bowie, a UGA faculty participant of the virtual BeWellUGA programs said.

Marshall, who created prerecorded mindfulness audios for BeWellUGA at Home, said mindfulness can help people clearly process their emotions and anxieties instead of turning to “buffers,” a variety of distractions people use when experiencing uncomfortable emotions. Examples of buffers include social media, food, alcohol and even Netflix.

“Here’s what I notice. I feel a big emotion and I know it’s uncomfortable, so I reach for something in the present moment that’s comfortable, I reach for pleasure, but then I realize that the immediate pleasure doesn’t last. Then I still have emotions that don’t go away,” Marshall said.

Mindfulness was first scientifically proven to help reduce stress as early as the 1980s, specifically in a 1982 study conducted by University of Massachusetts researcher Jon Kabat-Zinn. The practice allows people to recognize what they are feeling because it is focused on actively engaging with one’s present moment and present senses, Marshall said.

People practicing mindfulness then become more comfortable with letting themselves experience the emotion rather than turning to a “buffer” that often leaves people feeling worse than they did initially, Marshall said. This processing of emotions is especially important now, considering the wide range of emotions and anxieties people may be feeling due to COVID-19 and its effects, Marshall said.

Adams, the instructor for the virtual yoga classes, said Yoga is tied to mindfulness because it focuses on connecting the mind with what the body is presently doing.

“In my classes I really emphasize connecting your breath with your body and your brain,” Adams said. “Bring them all together in the same place. And that is present-moment awareness. That’s mindfulness.”

Adams referenced a 2010 Harvard study where researchers reported people’s minds tend to wander away from the present moment 46.9% of the time. The study also revealed that people were most unhappy when their minds were wandering as they thought about past events, events that could happen in the future or events that would never happen.

“The surface of a pond or an ocean is always moving, sometimes it’s really choppy. But if you go deep enough, it’s completely still regardless of what’s going on on the surface. That’s what it’s like in this world. But if you go deep enough inside yourself you can bring yourself to that calm,” Adams said.