Dr. John Duffy Featured in Article for Chicago Tribune

Dr. John Duffy, author of Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety, has been featured in an article by Heidi Stevens on what to do when the news overwhelms you.

Column: When the president has COVID-19 and all the news is scary and you don’t know what to believe: Call a therapist. (I have extra if you need one.)

By Heidi Stevens

What do you do when the president and first lady test positive for COVID-19, hours after secret tapes reveal the first lady sounding aggrieved over Christmas decorations and caged kids; three days after the president refused to condemn white supremacists during a globally televised debate; the same week an investigation revealed the president’s habitual tax avoidance; and one month before a crucial election that will take place during a global pandemic and may, in fact, alter the course of democracy as we know it?

And what do you do when some fraction of your friends/relatives/colleagues are telling you that one or two or all of those things aren’t true? And you don’t know whether believing what you read makes you a rube? Or not believing what you read makes you a cynical jerk?

You call a therapist is what you do.

Don’t have one? No problem. I have a bunch: My own, whom I probably shouldn’t interview for reasons having to do with HIPAA or, at the very least, billing (Was that … a therapy session?), and those I respect and turn to as professional sources.

John Duffy, a licensed family therapist and author, is one of the latter. We record a podcast together, and I occasionally turn to him for insight on parenting, anxiety and depression — three areas in which he specializes.

Friday morning, as I came up for air between headline gulps, I called to ask him how people are doing. I mean, this is a lot.

“Honest to God, I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “I’m working until 10 every night, and people’s personal issues have been completely back-burnered by headlines. Which is typically not the case. On 9/11, I went to work, and nobody talked about 9/11. They’d say, ‘New York. So crazy. Anyway, about that thing with my wife.’ Now, it’s all headlines.”

People are angry, he said. And scared. And confused about who and what to believe and who and what will make any of it better.

“And it’s getting in the way of their relationships and the rest of their lives,” he said.

Pre-2020, Duffy said, he would help his clients (who range from teenagers to adults) sort their irrational thoughts and fears from their rational ones.

“But I have no leg to stand on,” he said. “People say, ‘I’m really scared about COVID. I’m really scared about what’s going to happen with the election.’ I can’t say, ‘Here’s what’s irrational about your anxiety. Here’s why you’re thinking incorrectly.’ They’re not thinking incorrectly.”

(I promise this gets helpful in a minute.)

One teenage girl told Duffy on Wednesday, after watching the presidential debate, that she felt like she was on a boat that was starting to sink, and all she could do was try to limit how quickly the water took over. For her, that meant limiting her media consumption to certain parts of the day and prioritizing her friends and the musical instrument she plays.

Which is an approach Duffy wholeheartedly endorses.

Mindfulness — the practice and art of focusing on the present you’re experiencing, not the future you can’t control — seems like a wildly insufficient antidote for these times. But Duffy calls it crucial.

“It’s like, ‘You’re right. There’s probably going to be chaos on the fourth of November. And the fifth and the sixth,’” he said. “You can do your part, but you also have to be in the moment and have your day. Otherwise your whole life is crisis. We do really poorly in crisis, and we’ve been sitting in it for months and months.”

It’s tempting to stay connected to some information source — the news, social media — every waking hour, given how quickly events break and shift.

“There’s always another angle or rabbit hole or theory or conspiracy you can chase down,” Duffy said.

It’s also fruitless. And unhealthy.

“You look up and your time is gone and you’re literally shaky,” he said. “You’re shaky from upset and anxiety, and all your headspace is filled with upsetting thoughts. And that’s when people’s well-being starts to fall apart.”

He’s watched a shift in his clients from spring to now.

“People were overly anxious in April,” he said. “Now, they’re kind of giving up. Anxiety is giving way to hopelessness. Anxiety, there’s energy behind. Hopelessness has no juice behind it. The psyche disintegrates. In order to keep yourself afloat, you have to be in the moment.”

Indeed, in August the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported increased symptoms of anxiety and depression among Americans, with 41% reporting at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition, including a trauma- and stressor-related disorder or substance use. Black Americans, who are suffering disproportionately from the virus, are being hit particularly hard, with pandemic stressors landing at the same time as an overdue reckoning on racial equality.

Tuning out bad news doesn’t make it disappear. Obviously. A healthy democracy relies on an informed citizenry. But there’s no moral obligation to serve up your health and sanity as sacrificial lambs to the news altar. We can, and probably should, step away from the headlines and pursue things that bring us peace — joy, even. Even if it means missing the theory-of-the-hour about Trump’s diagnosis.

And then we should vote. Like the health and sanity of our nation and its people depend on it. Because they do. And in that instance, I think it’s OK — crucial even — to look past the present and focus on the future.

Need help finding or affording a therapist? Open Path Collective and The Family Institute at Northwestern University are good places to start.

parenting the new teen in the age of anxiety

A Complete Guide to Your Child’s Stressed, Depressed, Expanded, Amazing Adolescence

Learn about the “New Teen” and how to adjust your parenting approach. Kids are growing up with nearly unlimited access to social media and the internet, and unprecedented academic, social, and familial stressors. Starting as early as eight years old, children are exposed to information, thought, and emotion that they are developmentally unprepared to process. As a result, saving the typical “teen parenting” strategies for thirteen-year-olds is now years too late.

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