Pandemic, politics, and anxiety: You asked questions, Atlanta mental health professionals answered

No matter what you’re feeling right now, you’re not alone

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What questions do you want to ask a therapist?

Photograph by KatarzynaBialasiewicz/Getty Images

A few months ago, we rounded up questions from readers and posed them to therapists, counselors, and psychologists for their advice. We bet you can relate to at least one of them. This article is not a substitute for one-on-one therapy, but we hope it’s a start.

Q:
I am not depressed, but I do truly feel uneasy about the future.
At night, thoughts of climate change and the state of politics and racial injustice and democracy keep me up. I don’t have children yet—and truthfully, I’m scared to bring them into all this. Then, I tell myself that’s crazy and extreme. Is it?
—Age 33, Westside

A:
Not at all. It’s quite normal and natural to think about and to feel the anger, the anxiety of the times, because it just is not anything that we’ve ever experienced before. With everything that’s going on right now, those things that are keeping you up at night—climate change, the social justice situation in the country, coronavirus—the thing that you’re experiencing is normal.

Try to focus on things that will help you maintain your wellness through this time. Get up at a certain time, have a routine, do things like meditating, deep breathing, focusing on what’s good in your life. We’ve been through a big change. For me, I’ve been able to maintain work. I have a nice house to live in. I haven’t had to worry about food or things like that. I’ve limited my news intake because the more I watch, the more riled up I get. Limiting that or not looking at it before you go to sleep is something that might be helpful. Having some gratitude during this time has been helpful.

In a moment where anxiety rushes in, practice mindfulness. Recognize that, Right here, in this exact moment, I really don’t need anything, and I have everything that I need right now. Center yourself, and recognize that you are in this moment and, eventually, all of this will pass. What it’ll look like on the other side, we’re not sure. But this will pass. Stay connected, have a lifeline, like a friend, someone that you can talk to. Most folks are experiencing some version of the same anxiety and fear and uncertainty. There are many hotlines you can call, 24 hours a day [one is the Georgia Crisis and Access Line, available 24/7 at 1-800-715-4225 or via text and chat on the My GCAL app].

People have said they have rethought whether they will have children. They don’t know what kind of world their children will inherit in 20 years. I think it’s a really compassionate perspective. People are thinking about the love that they have for their children before their children ever even get here. And they want them to have a world that’s definitely different and better than what we’re experiencing right now. That’s understandable.

—Roslind “Roz” Hayes, statewide coordinator for the Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network’s peer support, wellness, and respite centers

Q:
My daughter, who is almost nine years old, has issues with stomachaches.
We figured out they are related to anxiety—the first several rounds were due to a child picking on her at school. Once her schedule was changed and she didn’t see this child, the pains stopped. Now, with virtual school from home, several times, this stomachache has popped up again—the first time right before the online open house/meet-the-teacher night. How can we help her with anxiety?
—Age 42, Decatur

A:
The first thing that I would want to know is: Is this a perceived concern or an actual concern? Does the student have preconceived notions about her new teacher? Did she hear, Oh no, you’ve got Ms. So-and-so, and she’s the hardest teacher in the school? I would also consider how your daughter typically handles pressure. Is she competitive with others? Is she competitive with herself? Could she be anxious to please you? Anxiety is a reaction—a way of avoiding a perceived harmful situation. Sometimes, children are more worried about what might happen than an actual harmful situation.

Try to get her to talk about it. Children need to learn to discuss their feelings. Ask if anything is worrying her—at school or at home. I would ask a lot of questions. Use the word worry. Don’t say, “What’s making you anxious?” Anxious is a big word.

Also, help her focus on the positive rather than the negative. Instead of expressing regret that a B on a math test isn’t an A, celebrate that it’s not a C. Ask your daughter to tell you something good and something not-so-good that happens each day. Tell me the “thumbs up” and the “thumbs down” of school today. If she has trouble articulating her feelings, ask her to draw pictures.

Everyone, including teachers, is anxious about virtual school; but don’t express your own fears in front of your children. They’ll pick up on your misgivings. If they overhear parents saying, Oh, this is going to be horrible. They’re not going to learn. Kids get it. Just know that everybody’s in the same situation, and the kids will catch up. It’s temporary, and it’s not forever. The teachers and the schools will make it happen.

—Robin Brodsky, a psychologist with Atlanta Public Schools. She works with elementary-age children in the Buckhead/Sandy Springs area.

Q:
I did not realize until we were both working from home that my husband drives me insane.
He used to spend long days at the office and travel every other week. Now, we try to work in separate parts of the house, but we don’t really have space for a home office, let alone two. He nitpicks everything—the way the dishwasher is loaded, that I left a light on, that I type too loudly—and interrupts me and my own work to do so. Help!
—Age 39, Atlanta

A:
It sounds like you’re both feeling a loss of control over your autonomy and your work environments. So, you’ve begun focusing on things you can control—like how to load a dishwasher—which are really pretty innocuous and not very constructive.

If a person’s central belief is “this sucks,” it creates a cascade of negative thoughts. It will make you focus on: My partner is making all this noise. I can’t do my job. There’s no way I can work under these conditions. You will feel angry, put upon, resentful. And then, you’re going to behave as though things do suck. In psychology, we call this cognitive distortion. You’re magnifying everything that’s disruptive and minimizing things that are going well.
Admit the situation is not ideal, and ask yourselves: What can we reasonably change and what can we let go of? Come up with a strategy. If your partner tends to have a lot of meetings in the morning, then maybe that’s when you move into a space with a door—even if it’s the laundry room.

Also, because work and home are now blending, you may not be spending enough time connecting. How much time are you devoting to “connection communication” as opposed to “transactional communication?” Transactions are, Where are you going to be this morning? What time are your meetings? I’m going to the grocery store. Connections are sharing your interests, your hopes and dreams for the future, what’s going well—all the stuff that we talked about when we were dating. Cooking together, going for a walk, watching the sun set, and even having frequent sex build those bonds and create intimacy.

Foster gratitude. Talk about what you’re grateful for. Then, your central belief will become: We’re in it together. Thank you for being in my foxhole.

—Chantel Cohen, a therapist/life coach, couples counselor, and executive communications coach. Her corporate clients include the Coca-Cola Company, Clark Atlanta University, and Google.

Q:
I have completely disconnected from friends (and everyone, really) during the pandemic.
It’s not from being overly worried about catching the virus. I take the basic precautions. (I wear a mask, wash my hands, don’t go to crowded places.) I just don’t have any desire to reach out to anyone. How can I reignite the desire to reach out and have fun again? I’m worried that I will emerge one day wanting to be my old self, and I won’t be able to go back.
—Age 52, Dunwoody

A:
The pandemic has truly impacted the way we all interact socially. My first concern would be checking in on your mental health. Is it just that you feel socially disconnected, or is there depression there? Is there something else going on under the surface?

The other thing to think about is looking at all of this social change as not necessarily being a negative thing. So often, when we think of the pandemic, we think of all the things that are going wrong in our lives or the challenges that we’ve had. But people and families are connecting in new ways and finding ways to interact that are more meaningful.

If you don’t reach out to others, they might not know that you’re feeling isolated. Start small. Call your family, your best friends. Your coworkers who maybe you haven’t been able to see in a while. It could be by phone, but if you could do a virtual platform where you can see each other and see facial expressions and that nonverbal communication, then that’s better. In person is the best if we can.

Are you following your regular routines? Are you taking care of your health? Are you taking care of your personal hygiene? Are you sleeping more than you normally would? Are you maintaining a consistent work routine? Are you exercising? Find something to do. Is there a hobby that you maybe haven’t participated in for a while or is there something that you’ve always been curious about learning? This is a great opportunity to try something new, and in the process of exploring this new activity, you might make these new connections in something that’s meaningful for you. The worst thing people can do is stay in that hole and not reach out and not push themselves to do something.

I hear over and over and over, Well, when things go back to normal. I’ll get back to these things when it’s all over. I hate to burst that bubble, but there will be changes to our worlds as a result of this pandemic. And if we sit on the sidelines waiting for things to get better, we miss out on so much life. You have to find ways of assimilating and adapting and really participating in your life. That’s going to have a huge impact on mood, your self confidence, and your motivation to do more.

—Rebecca Gomez, Wellstar Psychological Services

Q:
Over the past four years, my relationship with my mother has been severely eroded by the pandemic and politics.
We disagree about everything, and it has permeated our relationship. At this point, if she wasn’t my mother, she’s not a person I would choose to have in my life. How do you suggest I navigate this relationship moving forward, if there has been so much damage done that I can’t imagine her being positive role in my life?
—Age 34, Old Fourth Ward

A:
I would start by saying, unfortunately, this situation is happening a whole lot as politics has been more polarized. And with Covid, there are the stressors that come with confinement, which is giving all of us a little less patience. Which just adds to it all. As I think about what happens as children grow into adults, parents who are supposed to be the leaders have to give some space to their adult children to grow into their own identities as adults. There are some people in the older generation who get a little stuck in that leadership role.
It’s important for you to be clear about setting some boundaries with your parents. It’s fine for you to say, Mom, we need to not talk about politics. And if you do, I’m going to have to hang up. It’s not about goodbye on the relationship; it’s about saying, This behavior is not acceptable to me, so we’re not going to continue the call, and we’ll try again next time. And then, another opportunity to talk will occur. When that happens, the conversation may be different. If it’s not different immediately, if you get in the rhythm of saying That’s enough, what will happen is that your mother, sooner or later, will get the message. And the relationship will evolve.

Every time you set a boundary, you’re actually working on helping the family change and expand, so that at some point, there will be room for conversation that won’t include your difficulties with politics. It’s fine to have other subjects available. Talk about a funny thing that happened that day, the weather, what you’re having for dinner—these little things turn out to be more important than we think they are. They may not be the things that feel most important to you, they may not be the things weighing on your mind, but they are the things that keep you connected to the people who raised you and will keep them connected to the people you raise. You need to want to have that happen, but I don’t think you would be writing if you didn’t have some interest in maintaining that connection.
It’s important to take care of yourself. It’s important to remember to breathe. To remind yourself that this is hard, but you’re in the process of changing the family. It’s a big, hard job—and it’s doable.

—Linda Weiskoff, a licensed clinical social worker and the director of Heartwork Counseling Center in Inman Park

Q:
There’s just too much right now.
Trying to juggle work, homeschooling, bills, cleaning the house, getting enough sleep, exercising, staying sane—it’s impossible. Things feel out of control. How do we cope when there’s too much on our plates?
—Age 45, Atlanta

A:
Feeling overwhelmed is a universal experience right now, and it is normal given our current context. It makes sense that all of your competing roles are crashing into each other right now—we’re used to having a lot more separation and structures. Our usual approaches aren’t available, so we need to adapt and find ones that are more flexible.

Figure out what the top priority is on this day or at this time, and let other things slide around it. Try to get a sense of what hours of work are the most important, and what are the parenting moments you really need to be present for, and noticing when is not, say, a cleaning-the-house moment.

One way we try to avoid anxiety is to control things and to prepare, and when that’s not possible, we feel like something’s wrong. When we’re uncomfortable, that’s just part of being a person. People can start to judge themselves harshly.

One of the most relevant skill sets right now is self-compassion, which focuses on how we treat ourselves when we are struggling. One of my favorite three-minute exercises is a self-compassion break, which includes three parts. The first step is mindfulness, being aware that, yes, all of these things are impossible at the same time. The next step—instead of judging ourselves and looking at social media posts from somebody who’s container gardening and crafting and they’re on their second novel—is noticing common humanity. You’re not the only person going through this. It makes sense that it’s hard. Because this situation is new, it’s not something we’ve figured out before. Talk to other parents. Ask: How can we support each other? How can we help each other?

The third step in self-compassion is self-kindness—offering ourselves understanding. When a friend is going through a hard time, we don’t say, Get it together. You’re doing a terrible job. You’re going to be kind. Self-compassion, instead of making hard things harder, which is what self-criticism often does, helps us move forward.

—Jordan Cattie, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Emory University’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Services

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Back to “How to Find Calm in a Year of Chaos”

This article appears in our November 2020 issue.

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