A Listening Ear and the Power of Resilience – Coping with Anxiety and Stress in the Age of COVID-19

A Listening Ear and the Power of Resilience – Coping with Anxiety and Stress in the Age of COVID-19

Above: Dr. Adwoa Osei, MD, FAAP and Assistant Professor in UC Riverside’s School of Medicine

S.E. Williams | Contributor

“It is really wonderful how much resilience there is in human nature. Let any obstructing cause, no matter what, be removed in any way, even by death, and we fly back to first principles of hope and enjoyment.”

Gram Stoker

Everyday there are more and more stories about the impact COVID-19 is having on people’s ability to cope with the crisis, the result of increased levels of stress and anxiety.

The “stay at home” order has left some individuals feeling isolated and others feeling overwhelmed as they work to juggle helping their children with schoolwork; their own work-at-home responsibilities; and in many instances while also being mindful and supportive of a partner who may also be working from home as well.

With COVID-19 touching nearly every aspect of one’s daily life, it is no wonder many are coping with feelings of increased anxiety and stress. KESQ recently reported on a collaborative effort between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the non-profit Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services (DHMHS), based in Los Angeles.

The collaborative initiative, staffed in-part by DHMHS counselors, is titled the “Disaster Distress Helpline.” Those handling the calls are responding to an increased volume from individuals coping with feelings of anxiety and stress.

The agency’s Vice President of Clinical Operations Lyn Morris shared, “There is a feeling of helplessness right now and hopelessness because of the pandemic, noting how part of the anxiety is rooted in people not knowing when the pandemic is going to end.”

Morris’ team of trained counselors also take calls for a suicide prevention hotline that serves a five-county area which includes Riverside and San Bernardino. She explained although calls to their suicide prevention hotline have yet to increase, calls to the “Disaster Distress Helpline” have increased exponentially.

In addition to universal concerns regarding how the virus has temporarily changed the lives of everyday Americans, there are growing concerns about the grossly disproportionate impact COVID-19 is having on Black communities. Here in California, for example, the COVID-19 related death rate for Blacks at nearly 12 percent and is almost double their six percent share of the state’s population.

“It was no surprise to anyone the African-American Community is being impacted like it is,” explained Dr. Adwoa Osei during an interview with The IE Voice/Black Voice News. “The whole system has been designed so that people of color are at a disadvantage initially.”

Osei, an MD, FAAP and Assistant Professor in UC Riverside’s School of Medicine, also serves as the school’s Pediatric Medical Student Education Director and is a practicing pediatrician with UCR Health.

Elaborating on her comments, Osei added how people of color in this country are historically disadvantaged in terms of their access to healthcare including how to manage their chronic health conditions, access to quality education and gainful employment with reliable benefits. “These are all things we tend to be at a disadvantage with,” she stressed.

“So, if you start from there and compound it with the fact humanity, as a whole, is under a lot of stress right now—we are all in fight or survival mode. When the brain is in that condition,” she stressed, “You do not have time to analyze your decisions—It’s just, how can I get through to the next day? What is my survival mode?”

According to Osei, “When one is in the survival mode, they are very quick to lash out. “You are very quick to make risky decisions. You are very quick to do things you might regret later. It’s Human Nature,” she informed.

“I describe it as facing an angry bear all the time,” Osei continued. “You face it once or twice. But, if that bear is facing you every single time, after a while, you snap. Or, you become very numb. Or, you have an exaggerated response. You’re like, ‘Oh, no! I’m going to die any minute.’”

Osei advised, if one throws all that into the mix, plus the reality of so many people losing jobs and losing family members to death, “It’s just a ticking time bomb,” she offered.

The doctor expressed her biggest concern right now, is in relation to African-American children. “Specifically,” she pointed out, “how they might be experiencing this crisis.”

Osei is an expert in Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs which can take many forms and includes everything from physical and/or mental abuse to neglect and household dysfunction.

We in the ACEs community are really, really, worried. In fact, when the stay-at-home order went into place, we were like, ‘Oh, my goodness. What about all those children who have no safe places? Who have schools as their safe place? Who have the Boys & Girls Clubs as their safe place?” Osei and her peers asked rhetorically.  “Now, they’re stuck with people they probably shouldn’t be stuck with, all day.”

Listing examples, she highlighted children who might be at home with parents who have no coping skills; or with parents who do not know how to manage their own stress levels, let alone help their children manage their stress levels.

“And then of course, there are the worst-case scenarios,” she continued. “There may be children who were being sexually abused, physically abused; and now, they’re being locked-in, possibly with their abuser, the perpetrator of these crimes.”

Osei then pointed to concerns related to pregnant women. “We have studies that show when you are under enormous traumatic stress during pregnancy, it can actually cause changes in the genetic composition of your unborn child. Your unborn child reacts differently to sudden stresses.

Dr. Osei then shared the importance of educating parents about ACEs as a good start in helping to shift the paradigm on this issue.  “The second step,” she explained, “is to help people identify with these events or experiences. Thirdly, when ACEs are identified, the doctor acknowledged how important it is for parents to understand it does not mean this is the end.”

“Give them a way forward,” she shared describing her role in the process. “Equip them with tools to build resilience. I think that is the most important part.”

At times when these conversations are had with parents the doctor explained how parents can be left thinking, “Well, you’ve given me all this information. What am I supposed to do now?”

Dr. Osei sees building resilience skills as the way forward. It starts with taking care of the next generation because they are the next generation of parents. According to Osei it is important for parents to build resilience for themselves and for their children.

Having ACEs conversations with parents requires walking a very fine line because the last thing one wants to do is make parents feel guilty. “Nobody ever gets over that parental guilt,” Osei said. “It’s a burden we all carry [as parents]. We are always second-guessing ourselves. Asking ourselves, ‘Did I make the right decision? [How] is this going to affect my kid?”

Often parents themselves, can be victims of ACE’s and so if you come from a place of blame, Osei explained, it is possible to cause something she called ‘secondary trauma.’ In other words, casting blame on parents who themselves are victims of ACEs could traumatize them again. 

“For people who have had Adverse Childhood Experiences and now they are adults, the last thing they need is to be blamed again. The last thing they need is for someone who has never walked in their shoes, to tell them what they could have, should have [or] would have done.”

Feelings of guilt that you may have made a wrong parenting decision is something most every parent has faced at one time or another. Osei noted it is important for parents to understand how they think about things, as well as how they see and understand their child. She further explained how understanding one’s self  is important to becoming a better parent.

At some point in the future, the nation is certain to evolve out of the COVID-19 crisis. Osei expressed her optimism in this regard.

“Because I’m a pediatrician. I’m always looking at things from a child’s perspective,” she began. “And what I see, is a whole generation of super-resilient children coming out of this. I think we underestimate the resilience of our babies. They are amazing beings full of so much hope, quick to forgive, imaginations that can reinvent things, tell wonderful stories. I’m so hopeful for this.”

Osei went on to share how she believes the pandemic is forcing all of us to reassess what is important in our human relationships. “It is probably going to redefine how we serve people; how we lead; how we relate to each other; how we communicate. Those are good things.”

The doctor also noted however, it is because we are human beings, not everybody is going to go through this, unscratched. “We’re not all as resilient as we want [to be] and so we’re going to see a big rise in stress-related disorders because people have lost parents, they’ve lost jobs, they’ve lost siblings. Lives have been changed forever,” she acknowledged.

As a community Osei continued, “We’re going to have to look for helpers and be prepared to become helpers as we move forward. This is the time to practice kindness.”

Increased calls to the “Disaster Distress Helpline,” is an example of the growing need to practice kindness and extend a helping hand. According to Morris, her staff received a total of 21 calls in February. In March, the calls increased to 1,800. In April, the number of calls to the Helpline skyrocketed to 3,000.

Forty-three percent of the calls came from people experiencing anxiety or stress related to jobs or finances; 25 percent had health concerns; 21 percent admitted to having suicidal thoughts; and the remaining 21 percent of the calls resulted from relationship issues.

The counselors say they provide a listening ear, so callers know they are not alone. When required they refer callers to mental health agencies for additional support.

“It takes an incredible amount of courage and strength to be able to reach out for help,” Morris affirmed.

Readers can reach the Disaster Distress Hotline by calling (800) 985-5990 or you can visit their website at https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/disaster-distress-helpline/contact-us. The telephone number to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is (800) 273-8255.  Please fee free to reach out to Dr. Osei at chc@medsch.ucr.edu with any questions related to this article. Be sure to enter “Question(s) for Dr. Osei” in the subject line.

About The Author

S.E. Williams

Stephanie E. Williams is an award winning investigative reporter, editor and activist who has contributed to several Inland Empire publications. Williams spent more than thirty years as a middle-manager in the telecommunications industry before retiring to pursue her passion as a reporter and non-fiction writer. Beyond writing, Williams’ personal interests include stone-carving, drumming and sculpting.

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