To say Americans are more stressed and anxious than usual right now would be the biggest understatement of the year. Data shows that we’re suffering from increased levels of mental distress as a result of the pandemic. Not only is there a paralyzing fear surrounding the virus itself, but many of us—myself included—have lost our jobs. Some of us have had to move out of our homes or back in with family, and some have even lost loved ones to this terrifying disease. The self-isolation and lack of personal interaction alone are enough to get the perkiest and most hopeful people down. According to a new poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than half of Americans report that the coronavirus pandemic is taking a toll on their mental health. Pretty much everybody I know is struggling with some degree of anxiety or depression right now—even if they haven’t gotten the virus, lost loved ones, or lost their jobs or homes.
I barely slept the first few months after the stay-at-home order was enacted in New York in late March. I’ve never struggled with sleep before. My mother often says I sleep like a rock. But for months I couldn’t sleep at all, not even with the help of light-blocking curtains and melatonin gummies. (I wasn’t alone; insomnia has become quite common during the pandemic.) It didn’t help that I was no longer working with my therapist.
When I lost my job in late March, I also lost my health insurance and, with it, the therapist I had been seeing for more than a year. Fortunately, I qualified for Medicaid, but the process of trying to find a therapist who accepted my new health coverage and was a woman of color—preferably Latina like myself—was so taxing that it triggered even more anxiety. So, I paused my search and tried to distract myself with other activities. My roommates and I threw fancy dinner parties for one another. I began to pick up freelance writing jobs while I looked for a full-time position. I read a ton of books—novels mostly. And I continued to work out every morning, not just to remain in good shape but to help with my mental health.
But then evening would come, I’d hit the bed, and my worries would take over. Things got worse when I learned that our landlord wouldn’t let me and my two roommates renew our lease (all three of us were unemployed) and I was going to have to move in with my folks. Sometimes I was able to cry myself to sleep. Other times, I’d experienced what felt like mini panic attacks.
Then, in May, I got a call from my friend Yaquí Rodriguez, a spiritual practitioner who specializes in reiki therapy and is the founder of Wave of Healing. She told me that she was offering free reiki sessions to people who had lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic and were in need of psychological and spiritual support. Because I have always trusted her intentions and her energy, I said yes. But I had no idea what to expect.
Reiki is a form of energy healing that is believed to have originated in Japan. (The form that's the basis of many U.S.-based Reiki practitioners dates back to the 1920s, though some say different types of Reiki healing date back earlier.) Like other alternative therapies, including acupuncture, it’s thought to work by improving the body’s energy flow and removing blocks that can lead to pain or distress. Some practitioners place their hands on their patients, while others just lay their palms close to their patients’ bodies. Even though the treatments are normally done in person, certain practitioners, like Rodriguez, have the ability to do what’s referred to as distance reiki, where they send the energy remotely.
Soon after we first spoke, we had our first session via FaceTime. Rodriguez asked me how I was doing, and I let her know that I was overwhelmed with anxiety and worry. We fell into a discussion that felt a lot like the talk therapy I used to do with my therapist. Rodriguez isn’t a psychologist or licensed therapist, so she refers to this as “coaching.” The call eventually progressed into a type of guided meditation. I shared a lot and cried a lot. But by the end, I felt like she helped me let go of fears that may have taken years to address in talk therapy.
The flow of our sessions is never the same. During some calls, Rodriguez asks me to sit with her in silence while she works on my energy. When that happens, I close my eyes and often feel a sense of peace. But I’ve also had colors appear in my mind’s eye. In one of our first sessions I experienced the color green as Rodriguez worked, and she said it meant that growth, safety, and harmony were on the way. Sometimes she can even tell if I’m experiencing pain or discomfort in certain areas of my body, like my stomach.
Rodriguez says she feels these imbalances in my energy, even over the phone, and then she works with me to resolve them. “Energy work is where we move the misplaced or absorbed energy,” she explains. “Misplaced energy can have its origin from many different sources, ancestral lineage, childhood trauma, negative thought forms or life experiences—like trauma.”
“Misplaced energy can have its origin from many different sources, ancestral lineage, childhood trauma, negative thought forms or life experiences—like trauma" — Yaquí Rodriguez
Some sessions, Rodriguez adds in activities like dance therapy, where she’ll put on some ambient music and we’ll put our phones down and just dance in our rooms, using movement to process whatever feelings arise. Other times it’s like she’s guiding me on a journey of self-discovery. As we talk, she coaches me to be more introspective, and often leads me to useful conclusions. One thing that came up during our sessions was how I’ve often associated my value with my work, and I realized I was struggling to feel worthy while being unemployed. But Rodriguez helped me discover that I have so much to offer the world beyond the scope of my career.
Since our first session, we’ve been working together every other week and I’ve noticed a drastic difference in my mood. I’ve been living with my folks for a little over a month and I haven’t experienced any anxiety or insomnia so far. I find it hard to believe, but Rodriguez is not surprised by my improvements. She says she often does reiki healing for people who struggle with anxiety, and many of them experience a decrease or complete shift in symptoms. Still, she encourages everyone she works with to seek professional help or medical assistance if they need it.
Although Reiki is an alternative therapy, many hospitals are embracing energy healing as a complement to traditional allopathic medicine. And these types of practices are becoming more mainstream, too. According to a 2017 study by Pew Research Center, half of Americans report having tried some form of alternative medicine, like herbal remedies, acupuncture, chiropractic treatment, or energy therapies, at some point in their lives. And these therapies that address whole-body health are not new: “Many cultures have healers that work simultaneously on physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual wellness to help individuals and restore wholeness,” Rodriguez explains.
Reiki may be replacing my therapist for now, but that doesn’t mean I’m done with traditional talk therapy for good. If anything, my sessions with Rodriguez have inspired me to look into how I can combine traditional Western medicine with alternative forms of healing moving forward. Even when I do go back to seeing a therapist—whenever that may be—I plan to make reiki and guided meditation a part of my life and my regular self-care practice. They don’t necessarily have to be competing things. Instead they can work in conjunction to ensure my mind, body, and spirit are all healthy and aligned.