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The Expert Q&A on Mental Wellness

Joni YoungwirthWith Commonwealth Financial Network’s Joni Youngwirth

Q: This is clearly an important time to be thinking about wellness, given the extreme stress people are under as we adjust to the reality of a global pandemic. How do you think about mental wellness—and what are you doing now to keep your own mental wellness strong?

I am one who contracted COVID-19 early. Or at least my doctor and I think I did. I have not been tested because there are no tests. But since I returned from Amsterdam on March 9 because the event I was attending was closed when a participant tested positive for COVID-19, it stands to reason that’s what I had. I’ve now been symptom free for a week (in early April). During the height of my illness, I was taken by ambulance to the local ER and diagnosed with pneumonia. This all happened during the week I moved to a new residence in a new city. There I was, battling serious physical illness, having to deal with 911 knocking at my door and later trying to get prescribed meds while I was in isolation. Imagine having to text your kids from the ambulance, “I’m on my way to the ER. DON’T COME.” That is the type of stressful world we live in now.

But what is remarkable is that once you start feeling better, the human spirit often rebounds. You start focusing on others rather than yourself. Don’t misunderstand. When you’re sick, you’re sick. But you can tell when you are feeling better because you want to help someone else. In this case, perhaps it’s best to help someone who hasn’t gone through the COVID-19 experience yet.

Adopting a one-day-at-a-time attitude and having faith and hope have been key for me. I tend to be a planner and very organized. But this is not the time to plan for the future as much as it is to focus on the current day.  

So, what have I done to be mentally strong now that I am getting physically better?

  • I meditate for 10 minutes every morning before getting out of bed.
  • I do a 30-minute exercise class three times per week.
  • I do yoga three times per week.
  • I reach out to friends and loved ones daily via phone, text, or email to see how they’re doing.
  • I engage my brain.

Q: What we learn from past experiences can often help us cope with current challenges. Would you talk about a challenging experience in your past that might offer some insights into how to deal with the stress and uncertainty of this moment?

I lost my husband three years ago. He was an MD. I could really use him here and now as we go through a pandemic. When I lost him over a 46-day period, I thought I would die. I became someone I did not know and lost myself. The person with passion and joy for life disappeared. But I got better—a little at a time. I never got back to where I started because I’m altered forever. But I’m back to having passion and energy for life.

What did it teach me? It is all about this day. We are being told that things will get worse before they get better. But for now, we need to focus on getting through this one day at a time with faith and hope.

I recently heard a therapist talk about how people can do that. One thing she said is that stress management will look different for each of us. I happen to be someone who likes structure. After my husband passed away, one thing that helped me cope was to schedule more time to be with people. From therapy to grief groups, from daily exercise to journaling to meditation, I tried everything that anyone suggested might help. And with time, it all helped a little bit.

I find myself doing the same thing now. Last week, I couldn’t get out of bed. Now, I’m signing up for online classes, discussions, extracurricular activities, and even arranging “virtual cocktail parties” with friends. I noticed 15 “events” on my calendar this week. Tools like Zoom have become critical.

We are all isolating and distancing together.

Q: Before joining the Commonwealth Financial Network, you were in the Air Force. What did you learn from that experience that has helped you—not only in this moment but as you rose up the ranks as a female leader in the financial services industry?

One thing that resonates is a bias for action. I know this is true about me. I also know that’s not always a good thing. What I have learned over time is that I can chart a course, but I have to be receptive and invite the feedback and input of others who do not share my bias for action. They help me slow down and create an even better game plan. No matter the life experiences you’ve had, I think it’s useful to surround yourself with great people who are not “yes” people—people who will push back, but who also will be willing to share a vision and find the best way of going about accomplishing it.

Q: We heard that you recently participated in Commonwealth’s Women’s Network. After 25 years in the industry, what differences—both good and bad—do you see in the challenges women face now compared to when you started out?

Early in my career, I was the only female professional. It took a while for that to change. Today, while parity is still not there yet at the top of many organizations, women have become as dominant a force as men in the middle-management ranks and are increasingly involved in senior positions. This also will grow.

Back in my early days, there were no other women to form connections with. With so many more women in the workforce today, it’s much easier to find that camaraderie.

Q: If you were just starting out today, what advice would you want someone to give you?

Don’t underestimate the importance of other women in your life. They play a unique role that men either can’t or don’t. It is worth the time and energy to nourish those relationships over time. I have a 35-year-old daughter. I’m inspired by watching the way she cherishes her friendships as well as her professional colleagues. She invests time and energy in them. Many women, myself included, felt we had to give up something in order to balance motherhood and our professional careers. For me, it was meaningful friendships with other women. That was a big mistake. As hard as it would have been, I wish I had tried to invest time in forming those relationships. That is one mistake you should not make.

Joni Youngwirth is partner emeritus at Commonwealth Financial Network®, the nation’s largest privately held Registered Investment Adviser–independent broker/dealer and now serves as the executive director of Commonwealth Cares, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization through which Commonwealth’s network of employees, advisors, and advisors’ staff come together to give back to the community.

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