Resilience, Joy, and Bridge-Building: Navigating Difficult Times with Theresa Piasta
Staying resilient can be difficult in the face of day-to-day life challenges, let alone the shared trauma of a global pandemic situation.
But Theresa Piasta is no stranger to thriving in difficult situations. After spending four years in active duty in the U.S. Army, 14 months of which she served in Iraq, Piasta went on to become a Wall Street sales and trading professional in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Today, she’s a product manager, marketer and author, not to mention the founder of the Puppy Mama community.
In short, she’s an expert on staying positive and connected in even the most trying times. So career coach and SoFi spokesperson Ashley Stahl sat down with her to chat about ways to bounce back—and better yet, move forward—during the coronavirus crisis.
Step One: Self Care
Although shelter-in-place orders came as a shock to almost all of us, for some of us, it’s also kind of a relief. In our fast-paced lives, burnout can be the norm, so falling into a slower pace at home might offer some respite.
That said, it’s still all too easy to forego what Stahl calls the “underrated basics” of self-care, especially without the structure of the workday in place.
Both she and Piasta took time to point out the importance of eating regular, healthy meals, drinking enough water and maintaining a routine—including the small, comforting rituals, like your morning cup of coffee.
That said, everyone’s schedule is bound to be a little off during this unprecedented time—so if you’re not perfectly regimented, don’t sweat it. “Be easy on yourself,” Piasta says. “This could be a long road.”
Using Extra Quarantine Time to Your Advantage
For readers who are juggling full-time childcare and ongoing career demands during quarantine, this period may feel anything but boring. If anything, you may wish you had more hours in the day.
But for others, sheltering in place might look more like long stretches of empty time. And if that sounds like your situation, Piasta recommends using that extra time to your advantage.
Although the mass lay-offs have come as a burden to many, losing a job might also offer an opportunity for fresh perspective—and the chance to figure out what you actually want to do. Coupled with a large amount of free time, the quarantine period might be the perfect chance to focus on your passions and learn more about how you might find a new way forward that may fit your life and your values even better.
Dealing with Loneliness: It’s All About Connection
If there’s one part of this experience that’s absolutely universal, it’s loneliness. Although isolating is imperative for flattening the curve and maintaining our physical health, it can wreak havoc on our mental well-being.
Piasta is familiar with that experience, too; active duty can be a lonely endeavor, and her east-coast college journey took her far from her California friends and family.
Her suggestion is as challenging as it is simple: “Find a way to connect with someone new every day.” You can start with close family and friends, but don’t forget old contacts and people you haven’t spoken to in a while: the long-gone high school friend, distant aunts and uncles. After all, we’re in this loneliness together, and they need connection, too.
Q & A with Theresa Piasta
As part of our live-stream, Piasta answered some community questions and gave specific tips for staying strong. Here’s what she had to say.
How should we pick friends?
Given the constraints of quarantine, maintaining and even making friendships is more important than ever. But it can be difficult to know how to find the most fulfilling connections; as researcher and social worker Brene Brown says, “Our stories are not meant for everyone.”
Both Piasta and Stahl suggest starting with your own core values and using them to decide which relationships to invest in. What matters most to you, personally? It might be your spirituality, your geographical origin, or your career.
Looking for common ground is a good way to ensure both people will get the most they can out of the relationship — and another benchmark that almost never goes awry is positivity.
“Find the positive people,” Piasta reminds us, passing on advice she got herself from her older brother in 2008 right before she deployed to Iraq.
How do we stay intentional in the face of drastic change?
Stahl, who also spent time as a counterterrorism professional, mentions human malleability: we have the ability to adapt to almost anything, which is often a boon.
But in a quarantine scenario, it can mean retreating from life and falling into a deeper kind of isolation—which is anything but healthy and adaptive.
Piasta reiterates the importance of creating connections even while staying physically isolated. “Community is essential for our health and well-being,” she says.
You may rely on Zoom meetings with friends and family, virtual trivia nights, and other outlets—but no matter what it is that’s keeping you connected, put it on your calendar and stick to it. And if you feel yourself starting to drift into anxiety and depression, talk to your doctor sooner than later.
How do we avoid burnout while stuck at home?
Whether or not you’ve worked remotely before, the experience of being in one place 24 hours a day can be a challenging one—especially if you’re not part of a larger team.
Many of us promised ourselves all sorts of quarantine productivity that isn’t actually coming to fruition due to the overall stress and chaos: the stack of books on your bedside table or unbalanced ledgers that Stahl calls “incomplete cycles of action.”
While you’re under shelter-in-place, Piasta recommends creating a “work-in-place” area: a specific part of your home that’s devoted only to work, and which is the only place you do work in. Otherwise, it can get to the point where you’re never really working… and never really resting, either.
What tips do you have for a career pivot?
As mentioned above, the quarantine period offers many of us extra time to reflect on who we are, what we really want, and what we’re meant to be doing in the world.
But it’s also a time of economic upheaval. So what tips does Piasta have for making a career pivot?
Having made many herself, she recommends starting with—what else?—your network. Check out the profiles of some of your LinkedIn connections, and arrange virtual coffee chats with people in positions that interest you.
Stahl also suggests going back to your own core nature and values, much as you did to assess which connections are worth the investment.
Piasta agrees, mentioning that even a resume that looks like it has a lot of pivots is often working off the same basic skill set—or skills developed in the past.
“I’m an activator,” Piasta says, naming a trait that’s powered every seemingly disparate move in her career. Don’t be afraid to tie in existing work experience to future career opportunities, and ask yourself, “What makes me tick?”
What about actually getting hired?
Once you have a better idea of what kind of career you’re after, there’s still the challenge of actually finding—and landing—a position.
But even in an economic downturn, some companies are hiring. Piasta mentions ecommerce and digital communications as two fruitful avenues to explore if you’re looking for a job, and also suggests using job search platforms like Indeed and LinkedIn. (LinkedIn is a particularly helpful resource, since you might be able to find contacts at a given company that you already know.)
Last but not least, consider professional support. SoFi offers its members access to professional career coaches, who can help you turn your passion projects and core values into a gainful and rewarding career.
How do we deal with the emotional fallout of loneliness?
Isolation doesn’t just feel bad: it has a physical detrimental effect, as well. A McKinsey study from late March 2020 shows that a full 63% of survey respondents are currently experiencing anxiety, depression, or both.
Part of that is because we’re social creatures, built for personal connection; being close to other people is part of what causes the release of oxytocin, a hormone sometimes known as the “cuddle chemical.”
“In order to thrive individually, we need human connection—and we need to build community,” Piasta says again. It’s important to find those resources however you can get them.
It might be a weekly Zoom call with all of your extended family or sharing stories through a shared interest community like Puppy Mama. But no matter what, Piasta lays down two rules in a group support scenario:
1. Stay positive and try to build each other up.
2. Find what bridges you together.
“What people don’t need” right now, she goes on, “is somebody saying, ‘Oh, get over it,’ or ‘You’re fine.’”
Instead, focus on the similarities of experience that are connecting us—and with the shared struggle of a pandemic, those similarities are not hard to find.
“We’re all going through something hard,” she continues.
Still Need to Connect?
No matter how resilient you consider yourself, a global pandemic is an unprecedented challenge. “This is a hard time. If you find yourself scared, that is ok,” Piasta says. “Be easy on yourself and do the best you can to control what you can control, connect with others and find positive experiences and connections to help you through it.”
If you’re in need of connection and someone to talk to, Theresa says she’d love to be that person; you can reach out to her directly through her personal Instagram account, @theresapiasta , or participate in the Puppy Mama community.
Piasta also asks those in positions of relative strength to reach out to at-risk communities, such as those who have been diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and PTSD—particularly veterans. (Soldier’s Angels is a great organization that can help civilians make that connection.)
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