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  • Aegor Ray

Managing Anxiety and Difficult Emotions

In our fact-paced lives, the mind-body connection – the complex relationship between a person’s physical body and internal state – is not often a focus for most people. The word “mind” is intentionally used to signal an emotional and mental ecosystem that encompasses a person’s nervous system, outlook, distress tolerance, and sense of purpose. Rather than a one-to-one flowchart system, the mind-body connection may be illustrated as a root system - a web of interlocking channels for which there are many outlets for access and remediation.

Since its founding more than two decades ago, the University of Minnesota’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing has been a leader in demystifying the myriad ways through which people can access healing. The Center has also been a leader in mindfulness research and education.

While research shows that mindfulness is tied to positive health outcomes, there are still barriers to exploring, developing, and optimizing personal mindfulness practices. For many people, the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing crises of racism have only exacerbated the inaccessibility and instability of this fundamental part of wellbeing.

To help address the pressures and uncertainty of the current moment, the Bakken Center partnered with the University of Minnesota Integrative Psychiatry & Wellness Program to co-present a workshop series – Mind-Body Tools to Manage Anxiety And Difficult Emotions – which addressed barriers to healthy living by empowering participants with strategies for mitigating anxiety.

Mind-Body Tools to Manage Anxiety and Difficult Emotions was a three-part series of hour-long online workshops to help people discover a sense of agency when dealing with troubling emotions and circumstances outside of their control. The series took a brass-tacks approach to discussing the often amorphous concepts involved in mental health like awareness and mood stability. Participants learned simple practices to engender calm, restore focus, and manage negative thinking.

Sue Nankivell, the Bakken Center’s Director of Business Development and Community Relations, is excited to offer programming that provides tangible resources that people can immediately use “People came away with tools and strategies to help take charge of their mental health and wellbeing – portable, accessible strategies that don’t require an investment in equipment, special clothes, memberships, or prescriptions,” she notes.

Debbie Cohen, MEd, MAPP, taught the workshop series and is a passionate advocate for making mind-body connection tools available to the widest possible audience. Cohen is a multi-talented facilitator with more than twenty years of experience as a teacher of hatha yoga, mindfulness, and positive psychology. As a licensed Physical Education teacher, Cohen developed multiple Yoga in Schools programs both in Boston and in Minneapolis Public Schools. Her unique teaching experiences, skillset, and enthusiasm for holistic healing make it possible for Cohen to detach yoga and mindfulness techniques from rarefied, cost-prohibitive studios. The Bakken Center’s Mind-Body Tools Workshop Series is in keeping with this ethos and offered a set of living practices to ordinary people from all walks of life.

The Center’s announcement of the workshop series was met with eagerness from community members.

Bobbi Gass, a decade-long resident of South Minneapolis, looked forward to the workshop’s emphasis on hands-on skills and process. “I want practical tools to ease my racing thoughts and get me into my body,” says Gass, who has struggled with anxiety all her life. She’s seen an uptick in physical symptoms of anxiety over the last year, because continuous upheaval and loss have become typical to the point of becoming numbing.

“It’s not enough for me to try to distract myself anymore. I need ways that I can soothe my anxiety because I live with it. Honestly, the workshop also just sounded really fun,” Gass shares.

This engaging series was in direct response to community needs like those espoused by Gass. Cohen shares that, after a recent talk by Integrative psychiatrist Lidia Zylowska, MD, the Center received tremendous interest in tools to support emotional and mental wellbeing. This workshop series launches the Bakken Center’s joint ventures with Integrative Psychiatry & Wellness, but this is surely just the beginning.

“There’s an increasing awareness of mental health with the pandemic,” reflects Cohen. “Through practicing these techniques, we can support ourselves to maintain perspective.”

Mary Jo Kreitzer, PhD, RN, FAAN, Director of the Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing, named two main motivations for the series: to provide programming that is widely accessible and to empower people to be agents of their own health and wellbeing. Notably, the Bakken Center offered a pay-what-you-can registration scale between $10 and $20 to better meet the needs of community members. Offering the series as online workshops is an additional measure towards the Center’s goal of increased accessibility.

“I’m glad I could tune in from my home,” says Gass, who enjoys the ease and convenience of online workshops.

The mission to empower individuals to work towards their own healing is one that shows up in the form and content of the new series. Each class unpacked a concept in emotional health, such as distraction or negative thinking. Students were then led through yoga-based practices that support the mind and work with the nervous system. The combination of approaches involving the intellect, breath, and movement allowed the class to be flexible and holistic. Students were bound to connect with some approaches more than others and are encouraged via take-home handouts, videos, and readings to practice on their own. In this way, the Bakken Center supports community wellbeing in a real, tangible form.

“According to a CDC report dated April of 2021, during August 2020–February 2021, the percentage of adults with recent symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder increased from 36.4% to 41.5%,” shared Nankivell. The Bakken Center commits to understanding this troubling leap as a mandate for more wide-reaching programming that allows people to be forces of change in their own lives.

“What I am most excited about,” explains Cohen, “is the wonderful opportunity this series provides to share with others the practices I find tremendously supportive for cultivating emotional wellbeing.”

Future offerings of this workshop will be announced on

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