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Tips for Election Anxiety

Hi y’all. It’s Dana here, your friendly local therapist with some unsolicited thoughts about getting through this upcoming election in one piece. 

Probably by now you’ve received a hundred texts, phone calls, emails,and  social media notifications letting you know about the election on November 3 and asking you in increasingly desperate pleas to PLEASE PLEASE VOTE. Lots is being written about making a plan for voting: requesting absentee ballots and returning them and confirming they’ve been received by your local election office OR voting in person and preparing for long lines, tech snafus and possible voter suppression. 

But there’s another sort of election planning that needs to happen that we also can’t neglect. This planning is more personal, and in some ways more challenging. After all, how do you brace yourself for the uncertainty of a hugely important election, especially given that results will likely not be known for days if not weeks? 

Y’all, it’s time to prepare yourself internally and internally for what’s to come. I’m hearing from friends, family members and clients about spikes in anxiety, a heightened awareness of uncertainty, and a general sense of being out of control. 

So, in hopes that this can be useful, here are some tips and strategies for the coming weeks: 

  1. Do what you can to remember the big picture – the scope of history and space. Even though this moment feels big and impossible it is, in the grand scheme of things, this is just a moment. This may be a good time to watch a documentary about space or nature. It may be useful to print out a photo of the world’s oldest living tree or Stonehenge as a reminder that now is not forever.
  2. It’s time to create a bit more structure and ritual in your day. A friend of mine is now spending 20 minutes first thing in the morning outside walking, followed by 5 minutes of stretching and 5 minutes of guided meditation. I’ve been trying to end each day with a hot bath and an unrealistic mystery novel. For other people, useful ritual might mean a daily habit of morning pages, a daily text check-in with a good friend, or having a mini mid-day dance party. 
  3. Get on a regular sleep schedule if possible. “Sleep hygiene” is the ultimate unsexy phrase. But there’s something to it. The more regular structure we create in the hour or two before sleep – and the more consistent we are about what time we get in bed – the better chance we’ll have of a good night’s sleep. (Pre-bed ideas: reading, letter writing, stretching, listening to music, connecting with a friend, hot bath or shower, or a small snack. Not so helpful for sleep: social media or news.)
  4. Replace doom scrolling with something less crazy-making (such as stretching, audiobooks, online games, etc.) The negative consequences of compulsively scrolling the news or social media have been well documented. In Jenny Odell’s book, How to Do Nothing, she names that this can be quite challenging – especially at first, and especially when so much is happening around us. She writes, “To pay attention to one thing is to resist paying attention to other things; it means constantly denying and thwarting provocations outside the sphere of one’s attention.” It’s time to consider unplugging, at least a little bit.
  5. Figure out what’s within your control and what’s not. Focus on what’s in your control.  What can give you a sense of purpose? If you’re anxious, how do you want to use that nervous energy? It’s unlikely that more information won’t make you feel any more settled. Instead, focus on what’s before you. If the election is important to you, can you write letters, make donations, call friends, post information in your community, or volunteer in another way? Other things that are in your control: how much attention you give the daily media rollercoaster, what you do to relax and unwind (and unplug!), and how you match your actions to your values. Research shows people feel better when helping others, so it may be time to do something for others. Bake brownies for a neighbor. Write and send love notes to your friends. You get the idea.
  6. Allow yourself some comfort. With heightened anxiety comes an understandable need for heightened comfort and soothing. Now is the time to start thinking about what provides you comfort and what might be soothing in the days leading up to the election. Some ideas: comfort foods, cans of soup or frozen pot pies, aromatherapy, nightly hot showers or baths, journaling, movies or TV or books that are soothing and easy. Time outside weeding or walking. Time with pets. Time with hobbies. 
  7. Connect with your people. Social isolation makes everything harder, and being connected to one another usually makes everything easier. If you’ve been out of touch with important friends or family members, it’s time reach out or set up a phone date.
  8. Work to have realistic expectations of ourselves and others during this wild time. Anxiety does not make us do our best work (or best parenting) and we are going to be distracted in relationships and work. Please, give yourself a break. If you give yourself a break it will be easier to give others around you a break as well.
  9. Finally, make a plan for how you want to spend election day and plan something to look forward to after November 3rd. If there’s a chance that anxiety will spike on election day itself, how can you prepare to meet that anxiety? Would it be helpful to keep busy, or to plan to have a quiet day? Is there a meal or a phone call that you could look forward to? Is it possible to plan for a hike or special outing the weekend after? If so, do it!

Yes, you can be “successful” and feel like shit

Yes, you can be “successful” and feel like shit

Restauranteur Chef David Chang has it all. At least on the surface. He’s the founder of a gazillion restaurants, is star of the TV show Ugly Delicious, and has won too many awards to count (really). He. Has. It. Made.

Except he doesn’t. In recent interviews publicizing his new memoir, he’s naming what’s been beneath the surface even as he’s been accumulating accolades: depression and bipolar disorder. I was really moved to hear this interview with him, and in particular his naming that professional success is not a protective factor when it comes to mental health. In other words – it’s great if you’re rolling in money, and have an awesome job, and people adore you. But checking off those boxes and looking good on paper, on the surface, doesn’t guarantee ANYTHING about your mental health.

I’m so glad David Chang is speaking up. So many of my clients believe they “shouldn’t” be feeling like shit because their life looks good on paper. (And there are some specific barriers that get in the way of Asian Americans speaking up about mental health challenges.)

I’m grateful for all those famous folks like David Chang who are speaking up about their experiences with depression (including Trevor Noah, Michelle Obama and Lady Gaga, to name a few). Each person who speaks up helps reduce the stigma of mental health challenges. And when we reduce stigma, we bring light to darkness – and it’s THEN that we can get and receive help.

David Chang at one of his massively successful restaurants.

Managing the Chronic Stress of Parenting during COVID

Managing the Chronic Stress of Parenting during COVID

Photo by Raychan on Unsplash. Parenting can be so isolating, especially right now. Hang in there, folks.

My friend Suzanne, juggling two kids at home and a full-time job, found relief recently when she heard pandemic parenting advice from psychiatrist Dr. Matthew Biel on a podcast (last six minutes or so). “We’re not trying to get it right, get it perfect,” he said. “We’re just trying to do something that feels reasonably responsible.

I’ve been thinking about that advice – to aim for reasonably responsible parenting – ever since Suzanne shared that quote with me. The advice stood out because it goes counter to the belief that many of my counseling clients have that they should be rocking parenting out of the park – even during this COVID catastrophe and the depression, anxiety, stress, and isolation that has come with it. So many parents right now are struggling with a gap between their expectations of themselves as parents and the reality. For instance: Many parents have the expectation that they should always be able to be calm and patient with their kiddos. Next to perfect, really. But the reality is that most parents are struggling to do an impossible juggling act right now, and even under ideal situations it’s impossible to always be our best selves with our children.

I want to say that last bit again: It’s impossible to always be our best selves with our children. It’s not realistic. It sets us up for failure and the belief that we’re “bad parents” the minute we scream or stomp our feet or create an irrational or extreme consequence.

And the truth is that good parents scream and stomp our feet and do things we regret. Especially right now. And for good reasons. For the most part, we have more responsibilities right now and fewer resources (such as childcare, money, community, etc.). More responsibilities+fewer resources=stress. Big stress.

Parents, we need to lower our expectations of ourselves right now. This is not the time to aim for excelling. This is the time to aim simply for being reasonably responsible – making sure our kiddos are alive, safe, eating, drinking and sleeping, and aware most of the time that we love them even when we’re not acting like it. Is it ideal for kids to exist mostly on cheese and bread and cereal? Nope. But these are not ideal times, and they’ll still grow. Good enough. Is it ideal that most kids are spending tons of time on screens right now? Nope. But these are not ideal times, and this screen-gorging will not last forever. Is it ideal that parents are stretched beyond belief? Nope. But these are not ideal times, and our kids will survive our divided attention. If we give ourselves a break and aim simply for “reasonably responsible” so will we.

White clients, it’s time to talk about whiteness

I have been thinking lots about what psychologist and writer Natasha Stovall wrote almost a year ago, before the police killing of George Floyd, before the COVID pandemic exposed (yet again) racial disparities in our country. Stovall wrote this:

The couch in my therapy office is occupied mostly by white people. Anxious white people and depressed white people. Obsessive white people and compulsive white people. White people who hurt people and white people who hurt themselves. White people who eat too much, drink too much, work too much, shop too much. White people who are bored, envious, guilty, numb. Racist white people and antiracist white people. White people who look across the room and see a white therapist listening. We talk about everything. Except being white.

Stovall goes on to make the point (and this is a gross simplification; the article is worth reading in full) that white therapists need to support white clients to explore racial identity, including the negative ways white culture impacts all of us—even those of us who also benefit from it due to our whiteness.

I’ve been exploring my own white identity for the last few years, primarily through the workbook Me and White Supremacy, through regular meetings with other white therapists wanting to dismantle our own roles in systemic racism, and through expanding my reading list so it does less to center whiteness. I keep coming back to this checklist about white supremacy culture only to cringe as a recognize myself and many of my attitudes and behaviors on this list.

I am committed to doing my best to support all clients. That means continuing to work to become as anti-racist as possible, and, when clients are ready, helping them unpack the ways their challenges may reflect and result from our problematic culture. This is our work right now. This is my work right now.

Staying Safe Means Staying Sane – Virtual Therapy in COVID Insanity

How do we stay sane during a pandemic? It’s not just a rhetorical question. The CDC’s thinking about it and offering advice. And for good reason. In virtual sessions, my colleague Maggie Akstin and I are helping clients respond to unexpected financial instability, changes in routine, job losses, grief, and uncertainty about the future. These are all things that can understandably make calm people anxious and depressed – and can make people already vulnerable to depression and anxiety pretty fearful about their own sanity. Oh, and that brain fog you feel making it hard to get anything done? It’s real. So is moral fatigue, especially in places like Atlanta where politicians and public health officials are offering contradictory advice for us to sort through.

Here are a few suggestions I’m offering clients:

Seek out things that make you smile and laugh. Puppy cams and silly memes are two possibilities. It may be that you have a dog at home ready to help with this. Good boy, Harold!

Be realistic (and kind to yourself) about all the COVID projects you may be tempted to take on. Sure you *may* have more time on your hands – but what about your energy level? Do you really need to learn a new language right now? If you start something and then realize it’s adding to your sense of overwhelm, instead of helping you feel sane, then please stop or scale back. SMART goals are realistic, and what’s realistic for each of us today may be different than it would have been two months ago.

Pay attention to what level of news consumption is useful – and what level is making your anxiety creep or jump up. Experiment with which ways of getting the news work best for you and your sanity (podcasts vs. TV vs. internet vs. scrolling vs. newspaper). If you get notifications on your phone, consider turning them off.

Go outside. If it’s safe to do so, take a walk and spend some time intentionally looking around – find all the flowers you can find, notice the shapes of leaves on trees, and see if you can sense the movement of air on your hands.

During abnormal times, it’s normal to feel abnormal. Stop beating yourself up about it if you can (and it is easier said than done).

Finally, remember there is support available for you (including therapy). You may have always thought “I’ll never go to therapy” or “I’ll never need therapy” but you also may never have thought “will there be toilet paper at the grocery store?” These are humbling times. Don’t let pride or ego get in the way of what’s best for your sanity. (And by the way – most therapists – including us – offer a sliding scale. Reach out for details.)

Trevor Noah, Depression, and The Ongoing Gaps in Mental Health Care

I just love Trevor Noah. And he’s just given me one more reason. He’s using The Daily Show to raise the issue of why black people and other people of color have a hard time seeking out therapy and finding useful therapists.

Trevor Noah has been public about his own experience of depression in the past, using his leverage as a celebrity to speak bravely and truthfully about what so often goes unsaid and unspoken. Is it a surprise that this extraordinarily funny and smart man also struggles with depression? It shouldn’t be. Noah reminds us that we can never know from looking at someone what their internal experience is. Never.

I’ve written about mental health access for people of color and crappy differences in therapists’ response before here. But it’s still hard to see these disparities continue. “Disparities continue” makes it sound clinical, impersonal—but what that means is that unless you’re white and middle class, it’s still extremely hard to find a therapist who is likely to get you and understand where you’re coming from. That’s the worst. It’s deeply painful to acknowledge you need help and seek it out just to come up empty or invalidated.

It’s time for therapists, and especially white therapists, to do better. As we prepare to enter 2020, us white therapists need to consider our own limited understanding of the varied experiences of People of Color and do our own work to see how race – including whiteness – affects how we care for our clients.

Are the holidays tough? If so, you’re not the only one.

There’s no way around it: the season of Thanksgiving and the holidays that follow suck for so many of us. As I’ve written here before, grief can be extra lonely and difficult when everyone around you is wishing you a merry Christmas or Happy Hanukah or meaningful Kwanzaa. All of us with complicated families struggle as we perhaps spend more time with family members than usual – or notice their conspicuous absences. Sure, spontaneous gratitude and good cheer may arise. But also there’s the potential for surges of sadness, sorrow, disappointment, anxiety, and pain.

Here’s what I want you to know:

The cultural myth that you “should” be happy at this time of year is not based in reality. If difficult things are happening or have happened to you, especially in November or December, it would be weird if you were suddenly all cheery. Same too if you have seasonal depression. Your low mood likely makes sense given the situation. And, when you beat yourself up for feeling bad instead of good, you’re adding to your pain.

Also, I want you to know that you are not the only one struggling right now. I have the privilege of sitting with lovely, kind, intelligent people every day who are grappling with how to navigate the holiday season without feeling crazy or eating all the cookies you didn’t actually like in the first place. I wish there was a secret handshake or cool badge people could wear to say you’re part of the club of people who’d rather just skip to January, so you could all know and enjoy each other, but alas… I don’t know of anything like that yet.

So, take good care. I MEAN IT. The only way to get to January is to get through November and December. And as stupid as it sounds, drink water! Sleep regular-ish hours! Take walks! Pet animals! And know you’re not alone. Really.

If I got a dollar every time…

Say I got a dollar every time I heard the following words:

  • “But other people have it worse.”
  • “Yeah I’m depressed and anxious, but I have privilege so I shouldn’t feel this way.”
  • “I’m not sure I deserve to be in counseling.”
  • “I’m worried I’m taking your time away from people who need help more than me.”

How much $$$ would I have at the end of a year if I faithfully put a dollar in a jar each time I heard a variation of these words?

Enough to go out to a great dinner. A really great dinner.

We often wish we could decrease stress and depression and anxiety by reminding ourselves of the hard stuff that other people face. But that’s not how it works.

I’ve written on this blog before about what I call “privilege syndrome” — the belief that if we have privilege in some way, it can be easy to feel guilty or judgmental about the ways in which we struggle. And this is common.

I wish that privilege could buffer us from anxiety. I wish that knowing about climate change or homelessness would mean that people with secure housing and middle class incomes could be immune or invisible from stress or depression or trauma.

But the brain and body don’t work like that. While those of us with stable housing or relationships may be less likely to experience trauma or stress, our nervous systems aren’t designed to tease out nuances of privilege. The body just experiences a flood of stress hormones like cortisol or adrenaline. The body just knows we’re depressed or anxious. The body knows we don’t feel okay, even if we try to use our intellect to convince ourselves we should feel differently.

And the research shows that judging ourselves for our responses and reactions don’t actually do much help.

Instead, I try to help clients cultivate neutrality or even self-compassion for our experience. It’s only by accepting what’s here – the pain, the suffering, the fear, the sadness – that we can begin to move through these difficult feelings. It’s only by acknowledging what’s true for us – whether we like the truth or not – that we can begin to move forward.

I see you, perfectionists.

Perfectionists, I have a heart for you. I get it. You don’t think of yourself as a perfectionist, you just think I don’t like to make mistakes. You know intellectually that your spouse/friend/employer would probably not dump you if you made a mistake… but why risk it? After all, making a mistake feels beyond terrible to perfectionists, like our lives and relationships and careers are on the line and the whole world could implode or explode at any moment.

So no wonder you live with a constant tension, a constant pressure, a constant anxiety, checking and double-checking to make sure nobody can find fault with you (except for you of course). And then of course if you’re critical of yourself—if you let Self Doubt or The Inner Critic be in charge—then maybe it won’t hurt as much if someone finds a flaw in you.

It’s not easy to live as a perfectionist. You might look like you have everything together on the outside—you might be organized, you might show up everywhere on time, your clothes are rarely wrinkled—but the inner reality can be so, so different and so, so difficult. It’s hard to live in fear of mistakes, to believe that mistakes will define us and make us less lovable (if lovable at all). It’s hard living with the belief that we’re one mistake away from unworthiness or that our worth in general stems from our ability to be flawless rather than our humanness. It’s hard to constantly compare ourselves to a version of ourselves we can’t live up to. And of course it’s hard as a perfectionist to open up to others, to admit what’s true: life is hard. Things aren’t easy. (Blog post continues after photo.)

Perfection isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Usually when perfectionists come to counseling, they’re coming to therapy for issues that they see as distinctly separate from perfectionism. But feeling out of control, experiencing anxiety about personal and the political, and feeling alienated and isolated, can all link back to difficulty allowing ourselves to be human and make mistakes.

There’s sometimes a mistaken belief that perfectionists have that anxiety and perfectionism is helpful, that without that pressure and tension and Inner Critic they may not be as effective. If I don’t beat myself up, how will I do my best?

But research shows that we learn and perform much better when we’re open and curious and allow our humanness to shine (including the messy parts). Shame and self-judgment, it turns out, bite us in the ass more than we think. It is possible to create a different relationship with ourselves, the Inner Critic, Self Doubt, and our lives.

Here’s a perfectionism test if you’re curious to learn more… and you’re always welcome to talk through concerns in our Kirkwood therapy office.

Family Therapy Works!

There’s a lot that I’m not intimidated by. While I’m naturally a bit introverted, I’ve worked hard to talk in front of groups fairly comfortably. I’m not scared of Atlanta’s parking garages, elevators, or boats (unlike certain family members). I don’t enjoy shopping, but I can hit up an Ikea and come out alive and well. In my therapy practice, I can comfortably help clients tackle sticky issues like challenging relationships, infertility, abortion, depression, grief, and trauma. But what puts fear in my heart?

The idea of being in counseling with my parents.

And I’m not the only one. Quite often when I’m working with a kid or teen, I mention that a few family counseling sessions might help with improving communication or clarifying expectations or figuring out how to respectfully disagree with one another. And then I watch those teens as their faces go from open and interested and curious (because after all, teens are awesome if you’re not their parents) to shut-down, please-Dana-don’t-make-me-you-must-be-crazy-if-you-think-I’ll-do-that.

And I get it. Family therapy can be intimidating. Kids worry they’re going to get teamed up on or lectured. Often they hate their parents seeing them emotional and would really rather not cry in front of their parents. Teens already recognize there’s a lot they don’t control in their lives, and family counseling can appear—at first—to be another place where they won’t have control or a voice.

And yet. And yet. Family counseling can be powerful: healing, reinforcing and strengthening relationships, shifting communication patterns to be more healthy and constructive, and building trust and mutual respect. Kids and teens find they have a voice and relax as they see their parents listening to them; parents find that their kids can hear them differently through family therapy. Together, we make strides to strengthen the family. Because at the end of the day, none of us lives in a vacuum. We’re all connected. So let’s work on being connected in healthy, happy ways… even if it’s intimidating at first.

Let’s have more moments like these, okay?