How Therapists Have Been Coping With The COVID-19 Pandemic
Bent Not Broken is a look back on the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has disrupted our mental health, plus advice on how to manage our well-being moving forward.
It’s somehow March again, which means it’s been a full year since the COVID-19 pandemic altered our lives in ways we never imagined.
For most of us, it’s been a year of ups and downs with our mental health as we grappled with isolation, fear, anxiety and more. The same goes for mental health professionals.
“This past year has been a roller coaster,” said Rachel Thomasian, a licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of Playa Vista Counseling in Los Angeles. “There have been times where I felt like I was handling it fine and other times that I was feeling burnout, hopelessness and anxiety at rates I’ve never experienced before. One of the hardest parts of being a therapist during this time has been trying to help all my clients cope with the same crisis I am living through myself.”
Below, she and other therapists share how they’ve been coping with the trauma of the pandemic over the past year.
Take daily walks
“I am taking 20-minute walks each day ― even when it’s raining,” said Leonard Felder, licensed psychologist based in Los Angeles and author of “We See It So Differently.” “The trees and the sky don’t know about COVID-19, and it recharges my batteries to see the changing of the seasons which imply ‘this too shall pass.’”
In general, getting a change of scenery and spending time in nature can be very calming and therapeutic. It’s also a good way to break up the monotony of staying home.
“Environment plays a huge part in our mood,” said Saniyyah Mayo, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles. “Ensuring that I didn’t stay in the house every day all day has helped me keep my sanity. Even going from the bedroom to the living room can also help with maintaining a positive mood.”
Limit media consumption
Disconnecting from social media and news media, even if just for small periods of the day, can have big mental health benefits.
“Since media can be overwhelming at times, I have taken social media breaks and limited the amount of time I spend reading or watching news,” said Maryland-based licensed clinical psychologist Cindy Graham. “I spend my days helping others cope with what they hear through news outlets. Restricting how much time I spend outside of work consuming news has become instrumental in staying in a positive mental space.”
“I’ve participated in a mindfulness course which granted me protected time each week to work on being present in the moment by reinforcing skills of deep breathing, body scanning, and perspective-taking,” Graham said. “When I feel myself particularly overwhelmed, I pause to take a few minutes to perform a mindfulness technique.”
Even if you don’t have the time to take a full mindfulness course, you can practice deep, conscious breathing throughout your day when you start to feel consumed by the upsetting news or sense of uncertainty. It’s also good to try being in the immediate moment.
“I have been practicing focusing on what is within my locus of control,” said Nicole M. Ward, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles. “When clients ask me how I am doing, I typically respond, ‘Well, in the moment.’ This is a reminder of practicing being in one moment at a time; that way even when things may not be going well you can pull out the moments that are different.”
“I have been practicing focusing on what is within my locus of control.”
– Nicole M. Ward
Keep in contact with loved ones
Zoom fatigue is real, but finding ways to spend time with friends and family through the technology we have at our disposal is still a helpful way to combat the isolation of the pandemic ― whether it’s a virtual movie night, game night or simply talking and laughing together on the phone.
“Contact with loving friends has been absolutely central to me,” said London-based psychotherapist Noel McDermott. “This has been my bigger purpose during this time, the thing that has made sense of the challenges. I have been taught about what is important.”
He said he’s also committed himself to spending time with his son and effectively co-parenting with his son’s mother.
“Our relationships have blossomed during this time, for which I am profoundly grateful,” McDermott said.
Graham said she’s turned off almost all of the notifications and alarms on her devices. Instead, she checks her email, voicemail and other messages at specific times of the day and only checks her work email on her work computer.
“While I am able to be reached for urgent matters, I carve out specific times in my day for all other notifications,” she noted.
Turn to comedy
As the saying goes, “laughter is the best medicine.” Reena B. Patel, a licensed educational psychologist in San Diego and author of “Winnie & Her Worries,” said she has certainly found that to be true.
“I’ve been laughing more,” she said. “Finding activities and connecting with family and friends that draws upon humor.”
Patel said her laughter therapy includes watching comedy shows and reminiscing about funny memories with loved ones during virtual hangouts.
“When things got bad last summer, I bought a Peloton and committed to moving my body every day,” Thomasian said. Patel said she bought the popular exercise bike as well.
Other therapists turned to no-cost ways to make physical fitness part of everyday life by going for runs or following workout videos on YouTube. They also opted for slightly less expensive exercise equipment, like a yoga mat or, in the case of London-based clinical psychologist Genevieve von Lob, a hula hoop.
“I used to hula hoop as a child but had forgotten what a relaxing and fun physical activity it was,” she said. “I also introduced my husband to hula hooping, so we would go outside together during the working day and had some hilarious, shared moments together.”
Stick to a schedule
“One major coping mechanism that has helped me to manage the pandemic is maintaining a regular schedule,” Graham said. “While this pandemic has certainly changed aspects of my routine to incorporate virtual schooling, a lot of my schedule has remained constant.”
Establishing a schedule offers a sense of routine and normalcy. You can also shake it up and move things around if your pandemic schedule starts to feel monotonous.
“Routines and rituals are comforting because they are predictable,” said Zainab Delawalla, a licensed clinical psychologist in Atlanta. “During this highly uncertain time when many routines were disrupted, creating a new routine helps alleviate the anxiety that comes with unpredictability.”
“During this highly uncertain time when many routines were disrupted, creating a new routine helps alleviate the anxiety that comes with unpredictability.”
– Zainab Delawalla
Cook meals at home
Graham said she’s also changed her eating habits by making meals almost entirely from scratch, rather than grabbing fast food like she used to.
“This serves to feed my mind in positive ways, as cooking and baking typically allows me to push out thoughts about stressors to instead focus on chopping, measuring, tasting, seasoning, etc.,” she said. “It engages all of my senses and is a good way to focus on the present moment as opposed to all the changes the pandemic has brought about, even if only for a little while.”
Help others cope
“Increased rates of anxiety and depression have meant I have stayed busy in providing services to my clients and in running my practice,” Graham said. She said that actively working to support others has helped her cope, as well.
“Knowing that I have given back to my community helps me to keep perspective on everything happening around us,” she said.
John Mayer, a clinical psychologist in Chicago, said he also threw himself into his work as his patient load expanded amid the pandemic.
“I had a great role model in my father,” he said. “I saw him take on any overtime opportunity as a part of his commitment to his job. He even worked through vacations. COVID to me was just an opportunity to serve more and take overtime like him. I’m seeing patients until midnight and it is because of that work ethic I was modeled.”
For Patel, prioritizing sleep has made a world of difference. She makes sure to meditate before going to bed each night, which can help you fall asleep, stay asleep and improve sleep quality.
“Making sure I sleep enough and rest has allowed me to help balance my children’s homeschooling, working from home, and everything else,” she said.
Listen to music
“I find music has the capacity to change my mood in an instant, so if I was feeling a bit down, I would put on uplifting Spotify playlists and dance around the living room with my daughter,” von Lob said.
For Bethany Cook, a music therapist and clinical psychologist in Chicago, music was an obvious outlet from the very beginning of the pandemic. She used it as a way to connect with others and spread joy as well.
“At the start of the lockdown last March I started blasting three songs a night on my block for 100 days straight. I would pick uplifting songs and send the lyrics of those songs to a neighborhood email list to encourage everyone to sing along,” she recalled.
“Music brings me joy and seeing others enjoying it fills my bucket as well as theirs,” Cook added. “One of my favorite moments was when I played ‘Do You Hear The People Sing,’ and the neighbors on either side of me ran inside, grabbed their French flags and started walking up and down the sidewalk singing. Even the postman driving by honked and we all felt a deep connection to each other.”
Check in with yourself
“The pandemic has forced me to be really diligent about checking in with myself and making tweaks in every aspect of my life,” said Meg Gitlin, a psychotherapist in New York and the voice behind therapy insight Instagram City Therapist. “I’ve had to remain flexible, be compassionate to myself when things don’t go as planned and accept change, rapidly at times.”
Taking a pause every now and then to examine your emotional state and everyday routine can help you understand and meet your needs.
“Even though I used many different coping mechanisms, I want to stress the importance of just checking in with oneself to see what you are feeling,” Ward said. “We are human and it is OK to have moments when you are not OK.”
“The pandemic has forced me to be really diligent about checking in with myself and making tweaks in every aspect of my life.”
– Meg Gitlin
Graham has also taken up painting as a creative outlet during the pandemic.
“Getting lost in the process of mixing colors and bringing something forth onto canvas has been particularly fun and is something I look forward to as a welcome way to cope with the pandemic,” she said.
Cook has turned painting into a social project to connect with others and spread joy.
“My children and I have given away more than 300 rocks we’ve painted for neighbors and strangers who pass by our home,” she said. “We’ve written messages on some and painted faces and smiles on others to connect with those people around us. When we see someone taking a stone we often all race to the window and excitedly watch them while they happily pick one out.”
Have some alone time
“I recognize my need to disengage periodically, to have time for myself and clear my mind,” said Kristen Carpenter, chief psychologist at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health.
“Over the past year, I have been deliberate about making time for myself to engage in solitary activities ― building puzzles, going for walks, watching or reading something I enjoy ― so that I can come back into work and life more refreshed,” she added.
Sue Varma, a New York-based psychiatrist, said her alone time comes in the form of a nightly warm bath.
“It saved me during childbirth, and it saved me this pandemic,” she said. “It’s probably one of the few downtimes and my time for quiet, and I actually get a lot of creative ideas in there.”
See a therapist
It may seem obvious or surprising that therapists are often in therapy themselves throughout their lives. Thomasian said she started therapy to get extra support when she was having a hard time during the pandemic. Ward simply continued seeing a therapist.
“That’s something I believe in outside of the pandemic,” she explained. “I’m my work, how I show up has an impact on the space I hold, so I make sure I have an outlet to help me stay finely tuned.”
“I’ve been more attuned to how to optimize the flow of clients in my day instead of just scheduling as many as I can fit, back to back,” Gitlin said. “Now I take breaks and am more intuitive about my limits. I carry not only my own feelings and frustrations with our new normal, but also the weight of my client’s own mood fluctuations. Pre-COVID I would’ve said I was proud of my ability to separate the two, but these days, it’s definitely an ongoing struggle that I have to pay attention to.”
Learning to say no without guilt and separate must-dos versus can-dos allows you to reduce the pressure you put on yourself and take on a more realistic workload while balancing it with other aspects of your life.
Find a support group
The COVID-19 pandemic has touched everyone’s lives in different ways, so many people can relate to the different challenges it has presented.
“During lockdown, I created an online sharing circle for mothers and also attended other virtual spaces for myself,” von Lob said. “We all need community, a sense of belonging and somewhere where we can let go of the masks, and be vulnerable and authentic. I found it so helpful to have a supportive, safe space where I could share my struggles, challenges and all the highs and lows of living through a pandemic. Listening to others always helped me to feel less alone and reminded me of how connected we all are.”
“We all need community, a sense of belonging and somewhere where we can let go of the masks, and be vulnerable and authentic.”
– Genevieve von Lob
“When my mind starts to spin out of control, I try to be mindful and shift cognitive lanes and start identifying silver linings to COVID, like the fact that my wife has been able to read and tuck our young children into bed every night for a year,” Cook said. “Had this not happened she would have only seen them for a little bit in the morning before she left for her long days at work.”
She said reminding herself that the pandemic won’t last forever and that she’s not the only one dealing with big changes to her life circumstances makes her feel less alone, as well.
Validate your feelings
“I’ve tried validating and allowing for my own emotions to be,” Patel said. “Leaning into whatever I am feeling and talking about it with my husband.”
Acknowledging your emotions and sharing them with others can also help lead to solutions to various challenges.
“There was a time when I felt I honestly was becoming clinically depressed and had a check-in with both my best friend and wife,” Cook said. “Turns out I just needed eight hours of ‘solo time’ to recharge, completely off any child duties mentally and physically. I have an amazing parenting partner. The important thing is that I let myself feel the emotions and processed them with a trusted loved one.”
Be kind to yourself
“Above all else, the most crucial thing I have practiced is self-kindness,” von Lob said.“Over the years, I have practiced speaking to myself in more kind and affirming ways, which definitely helps lift my mood.”
Other ways she practices self-compassion include giving herself permission to take breaks, resting during the day, taking personal days off work and putting less pressure on herself. Ward has taken a similar approach.
“I utilized various coping skills but most importantly, I reminded myself that there is no one way to be during a pandemic,” she said. “I varied the strategies depending upon what was going on during the moment. I also did not beat myself up on days that I just wanted to do nothing.”