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A custom Zoom virtual background designed for The Word Factory by Marc Brozelleca
We're all swimming in virtual meetings right now.

We're all spending more time on Zoom calls, classes and webinars these days -- and that's something we don't expect to change much for the foreseeable future. So our creative director, Marc Borzelleca, created some branded Zoom backgrounds for us to use. I'm especially psyched since I'll be leading an online advocacy workshop next month and these backdrops are a lot better than my home office!

We only had one hitch: Our brand color is green, which is not your friend when it comes to virtual images. Hence the term, green screen. So Marc created a complementary palette. He was also careful to produce a background that wasn't too jarring or distracting. (I've already used the ones on the top row and the middle right with positive responses from those on the viewing side.)

An array of custom Zoom virtual backgrounds for Margot Lester designed by Marc Borzelleca
Branded Zoom virtual backgrounds designed by Marc Borzelleca

Here are some Marc created for a physician with the local health system:

Want your own set of custom backgrounds? Marc will create a set of 6 using the logo, images and colors of your choice -- or you can give him creative license to create a more abstract background (he's an accomplished fine artist!). Get in touch with Marc to discuss your project and pricing.

Be well.

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Pause and breathe

As self-isolation drags on, the emotional and mental toll of living through a pandemic mounts. Many of us muscled through the first few weeks but are losing steam the longer our lives are in flux. It can be hard to find time or to avoid judging ourselves for taking time to tend to our own needs.

For the latest installment in our series on staying well during COVID-19, I talked to my friend Tesia Love, an ayurvedic practitioner, health coach and massage therapist in Charlotte, N.C., about making self-care a priority and for some quick tips for reducing stress. (She also has a great Instagram account.)

Why we don't tend to ourselves

Charlotte, NC, Ayurvedic practioner and healthcoach Tesia love
Tesia love

Part of the problem is feeling guilty about taking care of ourselves when the world is on fire. It feels selfish.

But Tesia says that by making time for ourselves, we're actually doing an act of service for ourselves and the others in our lives. Feeling rested and nourished allows us to show up more effectively, whether that's caring for a sick family member or being a contributor at work.

The other part of the problem is scope. It's easy to feel like the only way to curb the big feelings of stress is with a similarly big dose of self-care. Au contraire.

"However you decide to care for yourself, even a little bit of self-care is helpful," Tesia says. "Do what you can and have compassion for yourself if you don't do everything you would like. The important thing is to start and be consistent with at least one thing and then build from there."

Two ways to reduce stress

Sunny redbud tree on Margot Lester's Word Factory blog
Redbud in sunshine (c) 2020 Margot Lester

1. Spend a little time in nature each day. Unless you are expressly under quarantine, you can safely go outside, provided you maintain at least six feet of separation and wear a mask. "Take a short walk outside -- even if it's to the end of the street -- visit a nearby park or simply sit on the porch," Tesia counsels. "Whether we realize it or not, we are one with nature, which is why being outside can be so rejuvenating." Bonus Tip: While you're outside, take a few photos or do some sketching. Creating is also a great way to ease anxiety and stress.

2. Start a meditation practice. "Meditation calms a busy, anxious mind and promotes a sense of well being," Tesia notes. But don't think you have to invest hours -- which honestly feels impossible for some of us even under the best of times. Research from Harvard shows that even short sessions of meditation triggers our relaxation response. Bonus Tip: Tesia recommends short guided meditations online or using a free app like Insight Timer.

Get more tips from Tesia on staying well and caring for yourself.

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Our in-house MD, Ben Hippen, has been creating visual content related to the novel coronavirus. We're sharing it here with the hope that it helps you feel more informed and safer. If you find the content useful, feel free to post any of the assets (or the links to them) on your social channels.

COVID-19 explainer videos

Ben shot these in his home studio covering questions he's been getting from friends and colleagues. He posts new ones periodically, so it's worth subscribing to the playlist to avoid missing any.

Sharable link: http://bit.ly/COVID-19_Questions_and_Answers

Click here to get Dr. Ben's answer to coronavirus questions.

Heroes Wear Masks memes

Ben collaborated (remotely, of course) with our creative director, Marc Borzelleca, on memes to encourage the wearing of masks. We've been sharing them socially for the last week. Help us spread the word?

Shareable link: https://bit.ly/HeroesWearMasks

Click image to download one or both of these socially optimized memes.
#wearamask #heroeswearmasks #masks4all

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The way we communicate with our customers, employees, prospects and other stakeholders will never be the same. Organizations who understand tone and trust, caring and empathy -- and are baking that into their brand communications right now -- are faring better during the coronavirus, and will enjoy a competitive advantage as we come out it.

Brand Innovators convened a group of global brand, reputation and crisis communications experts to share their thoughts on navigating the disruption from a marketing and PR point of view. The entire four-hour session was valuable. I captured 6 takeaways that really resonated with me. Flip through to see what Jennifer Sey, Scott Monty, Chad Mitchell, Matt Repicky, Brigette Wolf and Paul Polman had to say.

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Stay-at-home orders can make you feel a little nutty.
(Me in 1980. Not sure why I had my pants on my head, or why my Dad had the camera ready)

Advice for managing emotions during the pandemic

Dealing with the physical health challenges of a pandemic, especially during allergy season, is paramount for all of us. But what about our emotional health? We’re all feeling the stress of working from home (if we’re lucky), working in public or not working at all. Even folks quarantining with others are experiencing isolation and frustration. Loneliness is nipping at our heels. And we’re all worrying if that cough is because we swallowed a bug or have COVID-19. There’s a lot for our brains to handle.

While it’s easy to feel a little helpless right now, it’s really important to remember that there are things we can do to boost our emotional wellbeing. 

I first tackled this topic with my friend, psychologist Fox Vernon, a couple of weeks ago. Judging by the response to that post, staying mentally healthy is a highly relevant subject, so I decided to revisit it with two other professionals:

Katherine Prakken, Chapel Hill, NC-based psychologist
Jim Weinstein, DC-area psychotherapist, life and career counselor

Q. If you could only give one piece of advice for staying emotionally healthy during quarantine, what would it be and why?

Prakken: Keep to your usual routine as much as possible. Don't stay in pajamas all day. Be productive. Every single day. Even if it’s just for just half an hour. Returning a call, folding laundry, cleaning out a drawer - any of those things will create an immediate mood benefit. Too much unproductive, unstructured free time makes most of us feel anxious and at loose ends. 

Weinstein: Practice gratitude. As bad as things may get for many of us, unless you are literally dying you can be grateful for gifts like loved ones, relative health, the wonders of nature – particularly as Spring arrives. Dwell on those things consciously every day.

Q. What’s a common mistake we make when it comes to managing stress?

Prakken: Trying to manage things that are outside of our control. For example, trying to manage the pandemic by obsessively reading everything available will escalate fear and anxiety. Instead, focus on a small, manageable goal. For example, give money to a charity, sew a mask, or focus on finding a creative activity for your kids which decreases their boredom and fighting and hence decreases your stress. 

Weinstein: Also, for those spiritually inclined, prayer. The Serenity Prayer is always worth turning to: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change – like the state of the economy – the strength to change the things I can – like getting off your bum and walking a mile or two – and the wisdom to know the difference. So many of us – myself included – reach for soothers like comfort food, alcohol, weed, nicotine, etc. In moderation these are OK, but it’s hard to keep them in moderation when you’re stressed. Shift your focus from anxiety and unproductive worrying to staying mentally engaged in a task. For example, studying up on something like a new skill or a foreign language. Audio learning could also be great for many people.

Q: How important is exercise? 

Weinstein: Mental and emotional factors are inextricably entwined with physical ones. Prolonged uncertainty creates anxiety that has measurable physical impact, like higher levels of hormones that create inflammation, for example, which is damaging to all sorts of bodily systems. Exercise releases stress-relieving endorphins and will just make you feel better about yourself. 

Q: Is there anything friends and family can do to help someone who is feeling isolated, sad or hopeless besides encouraging them to talk to a doctor? 

Prakken: For those feeling lonely: Regular brief contact. No lengthy conversations needed. A daily text or email or shared funny video has huge impact for someone who is disengaged from others. With those who are struggling the most, schedule a daily talking time so they have something to look forward to.

For people experiencing sadness or hopelessness: Validate the reality of their feelings, then move to distraction. There are examples all around us of things that are not sad and hopeless. Share uplifting stories or images with those stuck in despair. Remind them that this situation is temporary. Talk about plans for after this period passes. Do not try to deny the reality of their sadness but balance it. Help them prioritize facts over feelings. Suicide prevention hotlines are still active. Provide these resources to anyone who needs them. Encourage them to attend online support groups even if the issue is not an exact fit. For example, Al-Anon and AA have online meetings that can be very useful. 

Q: For folks quarantining with others, what are some ways to decrease conflicts? 

Prakken: In our typical world, interpersonal dynamics are played out in many realms - with coworkers, friends, teachers, etc. In quarantine, it all gets distilled down to interactions and trying to get needs met with the one person or few persons with whom you live. You may end up holding them unfairly responsible for too many of your emotional needs and upsets. You may expect them to do things the way you do, know what you want, make your life easier, juggle work and parenting, manage their moods, be emotionally available and present, pay you attention but also give space. They will inevitably fail at some or all of these things. My favorite coping skill is always "Be kind, not right". Now more than ever, embracing kindness is so much more important than proving your loved one wrong, or fighting over dumb stuff. This leads to my second favorite coping skill: “Don’t sweat the small stuff” (And it’s all small stuff). This is the time to love each other anyway. Practice tolerance and compassion. Know that people have to put up with your warts, too. 

Weinstein: And fess up. Acknowledge the stress you’re under. If you snap at someone, apologize rather than holding on to resentment. And if they snap at you, put yourself in their shoes and remember the stress is hard on them, too.

Q: Any final thoughts?

Prakken: Try to build resilience, which can help us contextualize, have a sense of humor, keep trying even when it's hard to. Resilience allows us to be less reactive and respond less emotionally. Practical ways to build resilience include getting adequate sleep and daily exercise, avoid under or overeating, be in nature as much as possible, and immerse yourself in art, literature, humor or music.

Weinstein: It’s important to remember that the sun will come out again. Even with trillions of dollars being authorized to assist the faltering economy, we’re going to have a long, and I think slow, road back. But even if it’s a long time coming, today is the time to start planning for a brighter future. Learn something new, think entrepreneurially, strengthen existing relationships and build new ones. 

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Photo by Margot Lester. All rights reserved
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