Three local therapists on managing stress and anxiety during the pandemic

By Shanee Edwards

Marriage and family therapists Einat Metzl, Claudia Gersh and Naomi Tucker recommend finding small and mindful ways to take care of yourself and your family during the stay at home order

The coronavirus has created enormous financial uncertainty and completely disrupted life as we know it in most of America. Being in the midst of a worldwide pandemic can feel overwhelming, especially since there is no PPE, or personal protective equipment, for your mental health. Many of the emotional support systems we rely on when times get tough have disappeared quickly, and we are literally isolated from each other.

Given these challenging circumstances, it comes as little surprise that a recent survey conducted by USC’s Center for Economic and Social Research called the Understanding America Study, reports that 48% of residents in LA County say they are experiencing psychological distress. With anxiety and depression up by 12 percentage points in the county, residents also expressed their fears of job loss and running out of money within three months time by estimating the chances of losing their income at 33%. Over half of LA County residents report they are praying.

No one has a crystal ball to tell us when the pandemic will be over, so how do we ease our anxious minds in a time of such profound uncertainty? With so much focus on our physical health, it’s time to check in on our mental health. (May is Mental Health Month after all.) Three local marital and family therapists weigh in.

1. Identify your external and internal resources

Einat Metzl, chair of Loyola Marymount University’s Marital and Family Therapy Department in the College of Communication and Fine Arts, says the first thing to do is determine what external and internal resources are available to you.

She recommends: “Sitting with ourselves and figuring out, ‘Is there something I really need besides myself that would make this time better for me?’ And then making a plan, identifying which of your needs could be addressed, how and when, and then increase intentionality and compassion – both – in how we are spending our time in this special collective moment.”

When it comes to external resources, reach out to friends and family, but remember there are mentors, teachers, trainers, neighbors and mental health providers offering services online who can be helpful, too. The Airport Marina Counseling Service now offers counseling online, Angelenos can call (800) 854-7771 or text 741741 to get help, LAUSD students and families can call (213) 241-3840 to speak with a counselor, and The Helen B. Landgarten Art Therapy Clinic at LMU offers clinical art therapy interventions to underserved children and families. Email jessica.bianchi@lmu.edu to learn more.

Metzl says to keep in mind that we are all going to experience a variety of emotions which could include loss, frustration, much uncertainty and lack of control. But the good news, says Metzl, is that, “We all have internal resources and ways that we have learned to cope through the years. We all have tendencies – some of us have tendencies to de-stress through creative tasks, and I don’t just mean artistic though it can be, but gardening, baking, working on cars, certainly engaging in the arts, participating in physical activity are all ways of coping,” she says. If you’re feeling especially frustrated, pummeling a punching bag is another good way to relieve stress, too.

2. Stick to a schedule

For Claudia Gersh, whose Santa Monica marriage and family therapy practice has moved online for the time being, keeping a schedule is important. She suggests waking up at the same time on weekdays and getting dressed. “Those of us who still have jobs are fortunate because you do have a certain kind of boundary you have to stay within. For those people who’ve lost their work or their work has changed formats, that can be a lot more anxiety provoking so put another schedule in place,” she says.

3. Be proactive about the things you can control

By nature, humans like to feel in control, but right now, things might feel out of control.

“We are powerless over the greater, but we are not powerless over ourselves,” says Gersh. “That is where control lies.

“We don’t have a choice to go to our favorite restaurant or go to the beach, but we have choices about how we act, about how we spend our time. We have choices about what we eat and how much we drink. I think it’s about acknowledging what we have choices about – that’s being in the present,” she continues. “When we’re getting anxious and feeling out of control, we can say, ‘Wait a minute. That I have control over. I can sit and breathe and know I’m safe in the moment.’”

4. Carve out “Special Time” for your kids

Marriage and Family Therapist Naomi Tucker knows how difficult working from home while homeschooling her children can be. Instead of working from her West LA office, she’s seeing clients virtually on her computer in between parenting. One tool for managing her kids during this time is called “Special Time.”

“It’s from an organization called Hand in Hand Parenting,” Tucker says. “Special Time means parents set a certain amount of time aside, maybe you set a timer for five or 10 minutes – however long you’re able to give focused attention to your child – and they get to decide how they want to spend that time with you. It’s not screen time, but it could be building a fort together so that during the day while you’re working, they have this little place to go into and make it their own, or read or draw, or whatever they like to do,” says Tucker.

She says “Special Time” is like building a savings account with your child. “When you give focused attention, and you’re not distracted by, ‘Oh, I have to write this email,’ or ‘I have to look at this text coming through,’ they’re not getting the attention they need so as soon as you’re on a call, they’re going to be clamoring for your attention. But if you can give them focused attention, it helps them feel connected. We all want to be seen,” Tucker says.

5. Find a way to exercise

All three therapists agree that moving your body is incredibly important to your mental health, and if there’s a way to get outside, do it. Tucker says she enjoys taking “mindful walks” and really paying attention to where she is and what she sees, even if it’s just around the block. Some people have turned their garages into gyms by filling buckets with cement to use as homemade Kettlebells. In addition, there are many virtual fitness classes that are being offered online for free. If a Zoom yoga class doesn’t sound appealing, maybe try a “Sweatin’ to the Oldies with Richard Simmons” video on YouTube.

6. Limit news exposure

Another thing all three therapists agree on is to stay informed, but limit news exposure, especially when children are around. Check in with local and state officials once a day but keeping cable news on all day isn’t going to help you protect your family – it’s more likely to just keep you up at night.

7. Stay in the present

Gersh thinks that despite the uncertainty and loss we’re experiencing during the Safer at Home order, this is still an important time in our lives with big opportunities.

“If you think, ‘Well, my life’s on hold for now, this is just temporary and when it’s over I’ll get back to reality,’ I find this to be the opposite,” says Gersh. “This is an opportunity to build so when we do get out of this, whatever that means, that we have actually grown as people, not put our lives on hold. This is our life, this is exactly our life that we are living right now.”

Even though we’re quarantined in our homes, Gersh says we still have relationships that need to be maintained.

“We want to be good people and good friends to others and ourselves,” she says. “So if I’m feeling a little tired today, I’m going to give myself a little TLC. If I’m feeling exhausted or scared, I’m going to acknowledge those feelings and see what I need. Is it a bath? Do I need to call a friend, have I eaten properly? Being kind to ourselves and really questioning what we need and giving it to ourselves without judgment can help with the uncertainty.”

Metzl offers this reassuring message: “The great majority of us are going to survive this and the question that remains is how we are going to survive this and somehow be okay with what we’ve been able to do. My hope for us is that we can all look at the communities we’ve been part of, and with compassion and gratitude, really appreciate what we’ve been able to do together. That we’ve been part of this historical time and that we’ve gotten out of it in okay shape.”

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