By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
With the increase of racist acts in recent weeks, Dr. Sally Chung, a clinical psychologist who owns a private practice in Bellevue said some of her patients are afraid to leave the house.
“They are thinking about ways they might have to protect themselves. There is also this awfulness of not being able to trust your neighbors or the people around you.”
Chung, who specializes in working with Black, indigenous, and people of color within a multicultural feminist framework, observes that “most of my patients who identify as Black or as a person of color are experiencing increased anxiety, frustration, and anger.”
Washington state ranks tenth in the nation for average rate of depression, says data from QuoteWizard. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and related government measures, 88% of workers have reported experiencing moderate to extreme stress.
Dr. Albert Tsai, attending psychiatrist at Overlake Medical Center’s Adult Day Hospital program, said while many of his patients are focused on relationship or job problems that were already concerns before the pandemic, the coronavirus, the riots, and the protests could be “the straw that breaks the camel’s back.” What he has observed in relation to COVID-19 and recent social unrest are trends of all or nothing thinking, learned helplessness, and watching too much news.
Learned helplessness is a common symptom of people who suffer from depression. It leads to a conviction that one has no control over a situation, and therefore is trapped. Tsai recommends the adage: think globally, but act locally.
“You don’t have global scale influence. Do your part. Not meeting with immunocompromised people or those with severe health conditions, or old people. Act personally. Taking care of your hygiene. If you have a fever, stay home. Choose to stay home and social distance.”
It comes down to your “circle of control.” Maybe, suggests Tsai, you are worried about President Trump.
“That is outside of the circle of control. Instead, look at something more like what are your goals for the day? What kind of mask do you wear? How do you wash your hands?”
Rather than, “‘Is my job going to be gone? What do I do next year with my college?’”
Tsai advises, “Make plans for the week or the day. Zoom it down to where you have a sphere of influence.”
This segues into “all or nothing thinking.” Your gym is closed so you can’t exercise at all. Because of social distancing requirements, you can’t see your friends or family at all. Yet thanks to digital technology, there are ways to reach out if we are creative. And there are ways to talk to a professional about what you are feeling, such as via telehealth. Kaiser Permanente announced over 90% of mental health visits are now happening virtually, according to QuoteWizard.
Chung corroborates national data in that she has seen “more people looking for therapists…they are reporting increased anxiety and depression, social isolation, and loneliness,” as well as “people itching to go out—they’ve been at home for so long.”
Chung talks about the particular nature of the pandemic.
“COVID is like Schrodinger’s cat—you don’t know if you have it, but you have to act like you have it.” This resulting uncertainty increases tension and anxiety. Additionally, “misinformation about transmission rates and which populations are most at risk…and the response our country has had makes it hard to track and test people, which contributes to the whole ‘do we have it, do we not have it?’ anxiety.”
Quarantine, or lockdown, also creates stressors. It can be difficult to be home with people with whom you have conflict. Maybe there is risk of domestic violence, reports of which have increased in recent months. Other issues include “not having privacy and having one’s routine disrupted, such as not going to work, not hanging out with friends, or not even being able to go to their therapist’s office,” adds Chung. Parents have the added responsibility of educating and entertaining their children, who can’t understand why they aren’t allowed to go out and play. All of this, says Chung, “ramps up the isolation and frustration experienced in quarantine.”
“I typically redirect patients to work with their therapists through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which helps patients work through their initial distortions,” says Tsai. “Look for ways to untwist your thinking and unhelpful thinking styles. Read a book or exercise or practice your breathing. A lot of people have turned to meditation. There are a lot of apps that do guided imagery meditation, such as CALM and Headspace.”
Both Tsai and Chung recommend staying away from excessive news watching.
“It can be draining,” Tsai said. “Pick one or two news sources, preferably ones that aren’t dramatic or sensational—and are evidence based. Put down your phone and engage in an activity that is sensory in nature, such as exercising, gardening, or baking.”
Chung similarly suggests “limiting social media and interactions with people who are stressful or toxic for you.” She emphasizes utilizing a good support network.
“Having someone with whom you can share your experiences helps you feel less alone, particularly if you are experiencing traumatic or stressful situations.”
While it has been a scary time for all, there has been hope, too, amidst COVID-19 and the protests in support of Black Lives Matter (BLM), that we might finally move forward as a nation.
“People are angry, people are hurting…people are straining to understand where these protests are coming from,” Chung said. “It’s been cool to see AAPIs come together to support the Black community…It’s wonderful to see people learning about events not taught in school, understanding their role in systemic racism, and processing their biases.”
She stresses the importance of talking to friends and family about racism, which might be hard.
“Your immigrant parents or immigrant grandparents don’t know anything about it. They’re not going to understand why you’re putting yourself at risk.” Chung advises showing them short articles or videos and using that opportunity to tell them why combating racism is important to you.
Chung has seen “helplessness from those that feel they’re not doing enough.” Even if a person has a good reason for not attending a protest and supports BLM or COVID-19 relief efforts through other means, “they feel guilty that they’re not doing more.” Standing up, standing together, and directing our energy towards a worthy cause can help fend off the anxiety that afflicts so many during this time, and regain a needed sense of control. Chung encourages her patients to acknowledge their contributions and recognize that there are multiple ways to contribute. No one way is better than another. She helps her patients do what they can, and explores ways their advocacy, or growth, can be sustainable in the long-term.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.