I'm A Therapist, And I'm Struggling With The COVID-19 Pandemic, Too

"All of us are experiencing the same thing, to some degree, for the first time."
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As a therapist, I’ve worked with so many clients over the course of my 20-year career who are terrified to go into public places because they fear they will pass out from the anxiety. I never really understood it, until now.

Since the pandemic started, I’ve found myself anxious and having trouble breathing out in public. I’ve been having a hard time with COVID-19, but I’ve often felt like I have to pretend I’m not struggling. Everyone in my family looks to me as the therapist, the health care worker, the mom and the one who has the answers. I wasn’t prepared for how a pandemic would affect my work as a licensed therapist. Now I’m in a battle with myself to actually see my clients on some days.

In March, when this was beginning, I joined a presentation series on COVID-19 for providers to keep abreast of developments and information. I also had my own practice, which I’d built from the ground up over the past 12 years. This particular meeting was designed to prepare mental health and other health care workers on what to expect. The speaker was forecasting that the crisis would extend to 2021, and I felt my heart sink. The expectation was that we were going to rise to the occasion, find a way and lead the troops.

My experience as a therapist in the past few months has been a mixture of emotions. I lost a large part of my own practice, and I made the decision to give up my lease so that I didn’t lose my entire livelihood. After speaking to many of my clients who are furloughed or laid off, some decided to wait until they were back on their feet before coming back to counseling. It’s understandable but a Catch-22 nevertheless, since these are likely the people who need counseling the most right now.

“Everyone seems to be avoiding their negative emotions and subscribing to the toxic positivity narrative in society right now.”

Many of my clients have been navigating job loss for the first time, including the unemployment system, independent insurance and business loans. Giving up my lease felt like a small sacrifice compared with what others were coping with. My shift to telehealth was easy, and I was relieved to have a nice group of clients who continued to reach out for appointments. I counted my blessings and moved into the new world of COVID-19 with a sense of optimism.

I had the privilege to be optimistic. After all, my private practice is not my full-time job. It’s supplemental income to my full-time job at a high school where I counsel and work with new students ― a job I’ve been able to maintain through this pandemic. If it had been my full-time work, I would have been economically destroyed. I realize how privileged this position is to be in. Many of my colleagues are struggling badly with little economic help and the cut of client co-pays from some insurance plans.

The need for mental health care is extraordinary right now. I’ve been noticing that many of my clients are struggling with the ample time they have alone with their thoughts. Everyone seems to be avoiding their negative emotions and subscribing to the toxic positivity narrative in society right now. This can make people feel like failures if they are not being productive, but I want to remind people that it’s an important time to address our emotions. Learning about our feelings, being able to identify them, name them and gently understand them, can help us gain a deeper sense of ourselves and the sources of our anxiety.

“Our society is always on the go, and for the first time in a long time, we are alone with our thoughts and some pretty difficult memories.”

It’s OK to feel afraid. My work with clients now is grief and trauma-informed cognitive behavioral therapy. I help clients understand how chronic stress can affect their brain and the importance of processing trauma versus encapsulating it. I also help clients learn about their own stress response, which goes hand in hand with social-emotional learning. There’s a lot to grieve, and there continues to be a lot of loss. Many people have been experiencing significant losses their whole life, never really processing it until they feel forced to right now. Our society is always on the go, and for the first time in a long time, we are alone with our thoughts and some pretty difficult memories.

And honestly, these things affect me, too. I’m a therapist, but I’m not immune to the effects of what’s happening in the world right now. I show up for work because I need to, but sometimes I feel like I’m on autopilot. I put my faith in the fact that if I just show up everything else will figure itself out. I rely on my brain’s muscle memory and that later I’ll have time to work on my own feelings about all of this. Now for me as a therapist is to focus on what needs to get done. Meet clients, listen, assess and get through one day at a time.

Mental health workers are an afterthought in our society, even though they are the last responders of this pandemic. Everyone knows a tsunami of mental health needs will happen but no one really thinks about how that will get handled. Mental health workers are already overworked and underpaid, and I know many who have left the field prematurely because of the burnout.

“Mental health workers are an afterthought in our society, even though they are the last responders of this pandemic.”

Because of this, I’m very mindful of my own need for process. I cry, pray and constantly reach out to friends and family. I hug my dogs a lot. I create a routine and stability for my children. Predictability creates comfort, and I try to create this in my home as much as possible.

We need a way to transform this pandemic to bring hope and, most of all, endurance. I didn’t want to feel like Ursula working her magic on poor unfortunate souls. This isn’t a Disney movie with a happy ending. People are dying, many will suffer from issues (or love someone who suffers) related to the coronavirus, and when we finally do come out of quarantine, there will be a slew of struggles in the aftermath of the trauma. We’re all doing the best we can, therapists included.

I’m going to continue to be honest with my clients. No one is a blank slate right now, and all of us are experiencing the same thing to some degree for the first time. When distress and disorder arise, I’m going to acknowledge it, not reframe it or push it away, but rather I will listen and validate what my clients are experiencing in their own lives. What we’re going through right now is a major disruption to our social fabric. I am not an expert in this, but I am willing to build trust and empathize.

I encourage everyone to build up on well-being and resilience for the challenges ahead this year, and to explore the unhealthy ways you may be coping during the quarantine. I know therapy isn’t always a priority for everyone, but Open Path Collective, Better Help, TalkSpace and the Crisis Text Line (not just for those in crisis) are great resources if you’re looking to start.

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