Jamie Pedersen, a psychiatric clinical counselor and the mother of junior Connor Pedersen, recently told a sad story about one of her patients, a high school senior. 

“It was her last year (in theater class), and the sets she designed for the last play are just sitting backstage, and she will never see them again.” 

Pedersen said her patients are showing signs of anxiety and depression during the quarantine as they realize they cannot control the situation. 

“Children, teens and college students are wondering if they will be able to go back to school in the fall,” Pedersen said. “They also wonder when they will be able to see their friends again.

“Parents still have to work, so there isn’t a lot of interaction in the households even though everyone is home.” 

Rising anxiety is common among adolescents and adults alike, according to Dr. Richard Mancina, ’73 . 

Mancina, a psychiatric consultant for three mental health organizations, said his patients’ primary source of anxiety is financial stress.

“The group of people that I serve tend to already be in the lower socioeconomic classes,” said Mancina, the father of Peter Mancina, ’07, and Sarah Mancina, ’11. “So actually, providing food and things that they need is probably the most helpful thing right now for most of the people that are calling in crisis.”

Pedersen said her patients’ most common reason for depression is missing their friends and teachers.

“Truthfully, it’s uncommon to hear about students missing school so much,” Pedersen said. “During the breaks, I (often) hear students telling me how happy they are to be out of school. I think they will have a new appreciation for school and their teachers when they return.” 

According to Country Day social-emotional counselor Pat Reynolds, anxiety and depression can be triggered by any sort of loss.

“This can be a loss of rituals — going out to eat on Mother’s Day, loss of ordinary life — jobs or finances or loss of social interaction,” Reynolds said. “All of this ties into possibly creating a sense of loneliness. If one is sensitive to change, this loss can trigger anxiousness.”

Pedersen added that anxiety generally occurs in adolescents when they become overwhelmed by fear.

“When a child does not outgrow the fears and worries typical in young children, or when there are so many fears and worries that they interfere with school, home or play activities, the child may be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder,” she said.

During the pandemic, a major source of fear comes from speculation, according to Reynolds.

“We overthink things, fill in the speculative parts as the brain will do, start to worry, and everything does downhill,” Reynolds said.

To cope with anxiety, Reynolds suggests examining the underlying fears.

“Try to separate the real fears — washing your hands frequently — from the (speculated) fears,” Reynolds said. “Don’t make any plans based on speculations (of the pandemic) since this stuff has been changing from one day to another.”

An example of speculated fear, according to Reynolds, is watching the news, trying to make predictions and making unnecessary preparations.

“It’s like people who wake up in the middle of the night and think, ‘Did I do that project? Did I schedule that appointment? Did I set up that Zoom meeting?’” she said. “I call this the ‘hamster wheel.’ The voices in your head get your attention, and your brain goes into the ‘fight or flight’ mode.

“In order to calm down, we have to shut down the (‘fight or flight’) part of our brain and think, ‘I can’t do anything about it at 2 a.m. I’ll write it down and go back to bed.’”

Pedersen said her patients often are too hard on themselves.

“Many people with depression or anxiety often look at one thing they have not done and beat themselves up about it,” Pedersen said. “I ask patients to write down the things they have accomplished in a day. It can be quite impressive.”

In addition, Pedersen stresses exercise and self-care.

“I believe exercise is one of the best natural medications there is,” Pedersen said. “Exercise boosts serotonin in the brain. It’s so hard to start, but once you do, it will become addictive with no side effects other than a little bit of pain.

“It is also OK to take time to play video games, watch a funny show, (make) art or meditate. Accept your feelings and do something nice for yourself. You are important.”

—By Ming Zhu

Originally published in the May 26 issue of the Octagon.

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