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Listener Questions On Maintaining Mental Health During The Pandemic And Lockdowns


You don't need me to tell you that living through a pandemic takes a toll on our mental health. We're eight months into this thing, and there is still no clear end in sight. So I wanted to talk with two people I knew would have some good advice for all of us right now - Gina Moffa, who is a clinical social worker, and NPR's Linda Holmes, host of the podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour. I asked them to respond to some of your questions about pandemic fatigue, anxiety and simply making it through the day. Here's our chat.

All right. So this first question comes from Matt McClain (ph) in Madison, La. He's trying to support four kids and his wife. He's currently unemployed. And so he's seeing, basically, the bills pile up - right? - as this pandemic has drawn on. And he's really struggling to stay motivated.

MATT MCCLAIN: I think the worst part of it is every day you wake up and that stress is still there and that fear is still there. I'd love to know how to better cope with that.

CORNISH: I don't know how to put it better than what he just said. And I'm going to want to hear from both of you on this one. Gina, can we start with you?

GINA MOFFA: Sure. First of all, I'm so sorry that you're going through this. I think instead of answers, I may actually want to start with some questions. Like, we know the stress is there. We know that, you know, the pile up of bills and the anxiety and the survival mechanisms that are kicking in are all there, but what are some things that could feel good? What could feel replenishing?

I'm not sure if you've already reached out to someone to talk to or, you know, join a virtual support group where people are going through the same things as you, but I think right now, I would - if I had you in front of me, I'd really want to know what are some things that we can bank on that can feel good or that do feel good. Just even the smallest things.


LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: Yeah. You know, I think about two things when I hear this question. One is actually - hopefully this is not too personal - but I actually remember having a really bad experience one time, and I actually came and I spoke to Audie about it (laughter). And one of the things she said to me was the reason why this feels terrible is that this is terrible.

And even if you think of yourself as someone who doesn't like to bake or work out or take pictures or things that mean something to other people, it's worth trying a few things. You want to find the things that can be meaningful to you because this has to be a stretch of your life that has meaning of its own. But it doesn't mean it's not going to be really hard because I think it obviously really is.

CORNISH: I remember that conversation. And it gets back to the idea of just acknowledging, right? Not pretending that things are fine...


CORNISH: ...Can go a long way.

Now, let's go to a question from Ann Findley (ph) in Salt Lake City. Her question is about her kids.

ANN FINDLEY: What I've been wondering about is how we might recognize symptoms of depression and anxiety in our kids. I have an 8-year-old daughter, and it seems since - especially since the beginning of the school year, she's been having a harder time. She seems to be feeling angrier sometimes and just more defiant and also lonely. And I'm trying to help her with all those things.

CORNISH: Gina, we wanted to bring this to you because this is something you've actually written about, right?

MOFFA: Yes, I'm currently writing about it. I think it has been so much harder on the kids around us or our own kids than many of us actually realize. I mean, out of nowhere, they were uprooted from the routine. They stopped having social/physical interactions for months. And they likely listen to the news or hear you talking about it.

And honestly, I think we have to remember that our kids are grieving, too. You know, your child is ripped away from all she knew more or less overnight. And that is a trauma and a real loss. So kids who are lonely or feeling grief for their normal routine will act out. And I want to make sure that we normalize these reactions because their routines have been totally turned upside down.

CORNISH: I want to turn to another one that I think a great many of us can relate to. It's from Britney Reyta (ph) in Lebanon, Ore.

BRITNEY REYTA: My question is about the 24-hour news cycle and how that affects individuals with anxiety, as well as people who may have not struggled previously with anxiety, especially this year with the election and the pandemic happening.

CORNISH: Linda, I want to come to you, and then Gina again.

HOLMES: Yeah. You know, it's not - to me, it's not just the 24-hour news cycle, it's the 24-hour social media cycle. It's the thing that the writer Karen Ho talks about as doomscrolling, which is the practice of just kind of following social media constantly, particularly during times that are really difficult. And I have come to the conclusion that as human beings, we are just not meant to poach in other people's anxiety all the time.

So my suggestion is you got to hop off. You got to hop off, take breaks. The minute that it starts to make, like, your heart pound every time you pick up your phone or look at your computer or whatever, hop off. Same thing with the news. You're not going to miss anything between noon and 4 that you can't find out at the end of the day.

CORNISH: Gina, I want to turn to you because hearing Linda say poaching in other people's anxiety - just such a good phrase. And I wonder kind of what you've been doing - right? - and what you're hearing from clients.

MOFFA: That's so true. Linda, thank you for that. I think that so many people are doomscrolling more and more. It's become almost an addiction. So for me, I turned off, honestly, most of the news notifications. And I gave myself five minutes a day to read sources like a newspaper as opposed to Facebook or social media. And being a therapist working with anxiety 12 hours a day and living through it myself, you know, I needed to make sure that I created really strong boundaries.

CORNISH: Finally, part of the exhaustion right now is that a lot of the activities that seemed quaint and new at the beginning of the pandemic don't really have the same appeal. We're on a Zoom call right now (laughter). Other people are having Zoom nights. A few people wanted to know if we had suggestions for connecting with our friends and family as the weather gets colder and as the number of cases begins to climb higher. Gina, can I start with you.

MOFFA: Absolutely. You know, I think, unfortunately, we are not finished with the electronic socializing or electronic working. It's just a matter of how do we maintain a semblance of balance in there. You know, I don't think the weather should deter us for getting outside and still doing activities. You know, the TikTok dances and the sourdough bread and all of that can only last for so long, for sure. But I think it really is survival care for us to continue looking at things that keep us engaged, connected and creative to make these connections more steady.

HOLMES: You know, for me, the other thing I would add - and I agree with all of that - but I also think sometimes you have to remember that you can step back in time in addition to forward in time in trying to communicate. I think a lot of people have found that it seems like Zoom calls would be best. It seems like video calls would be the most similar to hanging out in person. But in some ways, it's like the uncanny valley thing where, as you get really close to something being similar, it actually seems more fake.

And so I know a few people who have decided that they're going to go back to just talking on the phone. They just say, can we just talk on the phone? Zoom calls stress me out. Can we talk on the phone? Or I also have sent some people some physical cards or letters in the mail. People don't send a lot of physical cards or letters as much as they used to. And so don't forget there are some pretty tried-and-true methods from before we had all this stuff, too. So.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Linda Holmes, host of Pop Culture Happy Hour, and Gina Moffa, a clinical social worker based in New York City.

Thank you to you both.

HOLMES: Thank you.

MOFFA: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF VETIVER'S "LOST (IN YOUR EYES)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linda Holmes
Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.