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‘An underlying level of hopefulness’: What to be thankful for during the pandemic

There’s a theory in the field of psychiatry and mental health that’s known as resiliency.

When times get tough, the theory goes, we can build up our mental fortitude for use when we face bigger challenges down the road.

With that line of thinking, perhaps the minefield that has been 2020 is providing each of us an opportunity to increase our resiliency. And perhaps there’s no better time to appreciate what we have than a Thanksgiving Day that is likely more lonely and more difficult to celebrate than any other in recent memory.

“We can build it like a muscle, that’s the good news,” said Anne Mason, the doctor of nursing program director for Washington State University’s College of Nursing and a practicing psychiatric clinician. “It’s really about a way of looking at and addressing our thoughts, and our behaviors. It’s something that anybody can develop, which is the good news.”

Building resiliency means focusing on what we can be grateful for. It’s an annual tradition on this day of feasting, but one that takes on special meaning in a pandemic, when many of us have fallen into what Mason called “thought traps” that can cause us to focus on challenges, rather than accomplishments.

“Our natural yearning is to try and control uncontrollable situations, that definitely plays a role in all of this,” Mason said. “It’s very hard for us as human beings to accept that we’re not totally in control of all that’s going on with the pandemic.”

Learning to appreciate what’s in front of us can help develop what Mason called “an underlying level of hopefulness,” a kind of optimism that can spring from even what appears to be desperate times. There is plenty out there in 2020 to stoke that optimism, if we know where to look.Perhaps the brightest spot is the very thing that could end our isolation.

The development of a vaccine

The novel coronavirus’ quick spread has caused devastating outbreaks across the country, filling hospitals with patients in need of intensive care.

It’s also allowed three drug makers, working in close concert with health and government officials, to develop vaccines on a drastically sped-up timetable that have shown tremendous promise for inoculating much of the population.

“They were able to get the data so quickly, and test this vaccine on so many cases, because unfortunately it’s so widespread in the community right now,” said Terri Levien, a professor of pharmacotherapy at Washington State University Health Sciences in Spokane. “These studies could have taken – and were anticipated to have taken – a lot longer.”

Levien and her colleague, Professor Anne Kim based in Yakima, recently published a piece for the Associated Press urging the public to trust the efficacy of vaccines. That’s especially true of the two drugs in development by Moderna and Pfizer, they said, which despite the fast timetable are undergoing strict testing through a process that has been in place for years.

“I think the one good thing we’ve learned over the years, is that transparency is critically important,” Levien said, noting that there will be lots of opportunities for health care professionals and the public to see data before they make the choice to vaccinate themselves.

After the researchers spoke in an interview Friday, the drugmaker AstraZeneca and Oxford University announced they, too, had developed a promising vaccine.

The drugs also work on principles that have long driven development of vaccines to other diseases. The two vaccines under development essentially introduce instructions to your body on how to develop antigens to fight the virus if it’s contracted. That differs from, say, the annual flu vaccine, which include an inactivated version of the virus to help kick-start an immune response.

The pharmacists reiterated the message of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, who last week encouraged Americans to double down on efforts to reduce the spread of the virus even as distribution of the vaccines nears. Fauci likened the vaccines to the arrival of the cavalry in the war against COVID-19.

“Definitely get a flu vaccine this year,” Levien said. “If you want to help out the hospitals, and the providers, right now.”

The seriousness of the threat of COVID-19 accelerated our scientific efforts to understand infectious disease. It also may have inspired a strong political response, as the national election demonstrated earlier this month.

Increased civic participation

Ballots were still being counted as the nation headed into the Thanksgiving holiday, but those returns that are available indicated nearly 24 million more Americans voted in 2020 compared to four years ago.

While about half of those nearly 154 million Americans may be disappointed in the outcome, more voters engaging in the democratic process can only be a good thing, and may be evidence the country has paused to consider its values, said Kevin Pirch, a professor of political science at Eastern Washington University specializing in voter behavior.

“Getting all of those voices heard just adds legitimacy to the entire process,” Pirch said. “Voter turnout at these numbers is incredibly wonderful for the system.”

In Spokane County, nearly 82% of registered voters returned their ballots. That number is lower than statewide turnout, which as of certification on Tuesday stood at 84%.

Such high turnout reflects concern about the political path forward for the country, Pirch said. Such concerns were unavoidable in a year when the pandemic upended the economy, the education system, social norms and more.

“There is a counterargument to voter turnout being normatively good, it’s attributed to George H.W. Bush, the thing about low voter turnout is it means people are satisfied and content,” Pirch said. “This massive amount of voter turnout was due to a lack of contentment, a desire for some level of change.”

That’s true for people on both sides of the political spectrum, and has been for years prior to the 2020 election, Pirch noted. A long-running NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, asking both Republican and Democrats whether they believe the country is on the right or the wrong track, has shown that a majority of Americans for a decade have believed the country is headed on the wrong track, and typically greater than 60%.

More time at home

With so many at home sharing the dining room table for work, school and play, there’s bound to be more family communication than there was prior to 2020.

The research on how that’s changed the family unit is still – or yet to be – written, said Mason, whose clinical work centers on depression and teenagers.

“I would look forward to some research around this, with families maybe developing some new ways to communicate and ‘see’ one another, in the sense of understanding each other, very differently than pre-pandemic times,” she said.

Attending school and working from home eliminated the physical space that can sometimes get in the way of forming familial bonds.

“The families that might have been particularly busy and definitely having sort of a fractured presence, if you will, probably aren’t having nearly as much of that now,” Mason said.

Such interactions can help build resiliency by giving family members an outlet to communicate, even if it’s expressing fear or concern.

“Our friends, family, sibling, parent, somebody that you can tell your emotions to, somebody that you have an empathy with, those are individuals that we can have in our lives that really help us build that ability to recognize what we have, and build appreciation and gratitude,” Mason said.

Many families in the Inland Northwest, and across the country, have turned to a very old method of dealing with stress: baking. And it’s led to an unlikely boom in requests for one Spokane sourdough enthusiast.

Baking, and breaking, bread

Stacie Kearney’s sourdough starter dates back to the 19th century, cultivated by a man named Carl Griffith who would mail his fermented mixture of flour and water to anyone who sent him a self-addressed envelope.

“It is growing into such joy, at a time when folks are not feeling that joy,” Kearney, owner of the Lucky Lady Bread Co. in Spokane and a member of the 1847 Oregon Trail Sourdough Preservation Society, said. “It really is a silver lining.”

Kearney said she’s given out about 900 free sourdough starters since the pandemic’s first lockdown in March, mailing them out and distributing them at weekly food markets at the Wonder Building in downtown Spokane while also selling her baked goods to customers. Sourdough saw a boom earlier this year nationwide as more people found themselves at home, looking at their pantries and wondering how to feed their families with restaurants shuttered and baking supplies flying off grocery shelves.

“There’s a sense of accomplishment to making bread,” Kearney said. “When we don’t have much control, it feels good to be able to make something .”

That can be in the form of regular loaves, or sourdough brownies and pancakes, based on stories she’s hearing from an ever-increasing circle of people who are passing along starters just as Griffith did.

In a time when many of us are fearful of inadvertently sharing the virus with our neighbors, being able to share something to help make time spent apart more bearable seems like a perfect answer to the times, Kearney said.

“I’m getting messages from people that say I received this from my friend, and how happy they are, they’re like, ‘My grandmother did this,’” Kearney said. “I’ve been in tears.”

For those not inclined to the culinary arts, there have been other sources of joy in the form of animal companionship.

More time for our furry friends

For years, local animal shelters have been inundated with cats. The need for homes has become so great that rescuers have resorted to discounting adoption fees and even transporting felines across the state in an effort to find them owners.

This year, cat adoptions are up 12% at the Spokane Humane Society compared to the same period in 2019, said Ed Boks, the shelter’s executive director.

“Cats are easy keepers, and they’re great companions,” Boks, who took over operations at the Humane Society earlier this year, said. “And, you don’t have to take them outside and walk them. They’re the perfect indoor pet.”

The Humane Society is seeing fewer animals coming in through their doors, and Boks said he’s hearing from local veterinarians that they’ve never been busier. He attributes that to more people working from home, spending time with their animal and noticing potential health problems before they become bigger concerns.

Despite having to shut down for more than three months earlier this year, the Humane Society has seen overall adoptions dipping just 2% compared to the same period in 2019, Boks said. That’s evidence that, even with the closure and reduced capacity inside the building, people are trying to ease their loneliness through a mutually beneficial adoption.

But that may not last as several in the community face a potential loss of housing when rent and mortgage moratoria begin to expire, Boks said. His staff have been asking those who are bringing pets in for adoption elsewhere what is driving their action, and the need to move in with family or find new housing elsewhere in the area is at the top of the list.

The Humane Society is accepting monetary donations for a program that provides assistance to keep animals with their owners. Boks said the shelter, and animal rescue organizations nationwide, are bracing for a large influx of pets to shelters based on the aftermath of the 2008 economic downturn.

While our furry friends have been keeping us occupied indoors, there’s also evidence that 2020 has seen a continued growing interest in what’s available beyond our front doors.

Hitting the trails

The Philips Creek trailhead at Dishman Hills has only been opened officially for a few weeks, but county parks officials say it’s already clear the new nature access area is a hit.

“I’ve never seen such a quick uptake by the community,” said Paul Knowles, special projects manager for Spokane County Parks, of the new installation in the Glenrose area south of Dishman Hills Natural Conservation Area.

The trailhead serves as an access point to 2.25 miles of trails that are now accessible following purchase of 179 acres of land by the county’s Conservation Futures program. Increased foot traffic there, and at other public trail spots including Slavin Conservation Area in the Latah Creek valley, demonstrate a trend in increasing interest in outdoor areas that has only increased during the pandemic, Knowles said.

The state’s Parks and Recreation Commissioner reports sales of Discover Passes, needed for entry onto state lands, have increased this year and that there was an increase in summer visitors in 2020, even after initial shutdown orders closed public access areas at the end of March.

It’s that increased awareness of the outdoors, even before the pandemic hit, that have driven efforts to open up more land in the area to people who need and want an outdoor escape.

“I think people have really taken advantage of what the county offers,” Knowles said.