As the crises started piling up—a pandemic, political turmoil, one wildfire after another—therapist Annie Armstrong Miyao found herself struggling to stay grounded. Which presented a challenge: When you’re supposed to be the strong one, for your kids or for your clients, how can you be a source of comfort for others experiencing grief, displacement, and worry, if you yourself are feeling the same?
To keep her feet on the ground, Miyao starts by telling herself the same thing she tells her clients: It’s okay not to be okay. Then she checks in with her body. She finds stillness where she can. And she looks at her three children, sees how strong and resilient they are, and remembers that she is, too.
Connecting to Inner Quiet and Courage
How do I, a therapist, help my patients and children struggling with their existential fear during this pandemic, when my own is so present?
Last month, to escape the heat and the smoke-choked air during California’s devastating fires, my family and I found ourselves driving in our air-conditioned car to nowhere. I felt a deep ache, almost unbearable, and couldn’t name it. I began to cry. As a therapist, I help people identify and tend to their feelings. But all of a sudden, I was having trouble identifying my own. In that instant, I connected to the gaping hole of grief and fear that my clients and children so often ask me to fill.
During this suspended reality, as I bear witness to both my patients and children expressing their grief, I sometimes go blank, swimming in what Carl Jung might call the collective unconscious. Flooded by our deepest shared experiences, past and present, that define part of what it is to be human, I’m momentarily at a loss as to how to help others—or help myself. How can I help my patients and children with their worry and deep sadness around the state of the world? How do I help them process their existential anxiety when I am feeling so much of my own? How do we help our children feel safe when we are managing so much unknown?
My family, like many others, is feeling the strain of competing space. The children are an odd mix of over- and understimulated. My husband is Mexican and Japanese. I’m Irish, Scottish, and Swedish. We were raised with different political, religious, and economic values, and yet we beautifully team up to make our way through life together. I find that it is when I’m holding his hand in the passenger seat as we drive to a carefully cultivated COVID-safe outing that I cry. As our children shout song requests with mouths full of snacks, tears silently spill out as I wonder what the future holds for my three beautiful Brown babies. By most measures we are lucky: We are healthy and able to work. And yet I ache and wonder: When will they be in school again? Will they have a president who works meaningfully for the collective good, the precious environment, for their futures? And while I relish the richness of our lives in raising mixed-race children, I wonder when they’ll fully grasp our country’s history of racism and violence. How will they reconcile this with their White mother and Brown father?
But the children are resilient. We know this to be true. I witness it with my kids and clients. A large part of my practice is working with children and adolescents struggling with anxiety. Overall, my patients’ symptoms are exacerbated by the stressors of this peculiar time. That said, children adapt and bounce back at high speed. This labile quality is why we can feel such whiplash as the result of their ever-changing moods and soothe them so easily with a hug and words of reassurance.
It is sometimes surreal going through this process of adapting while managing big feelings around the universal challenges of the world in parallel to my children and clients. It doesn’t seem right to play down their fear. It is okay to validate their worries and sadness?
I nod in agreement when my first grader says, “Mama, because of the coronavirus, we can’t see a lot of people and I get bored. And sometimes that boredness turns to sadness.” Yes, my darling, yes.
My husband and I hold her as she weeps with the growing understanding of why people were protesting in the streets throughout her hometown, connecting it to the horrific death of George Floyd. “It’s so awful!” she wails. I know, baby, I know.
My second daughter is a rascal who is turning slightly feral. I often find her half-hidden somewhere, pantless with the brown sugar bowl. She tells me on week two of being cooped up mostly inside, the fires raging, smoke blotting out the sky and turning the sun Apocalypse Now orange, “Mama, my legs itch. I gotta run, Mama.” I know, my love, I know.
My third is only eight months. He is chubby and happy in the constant company of his sisters, having so far escaped the particular hell of an LA-traffic-clogged school commute. While there have been some heartbreaks around having a newborn at the start of shelter-in-place, he is a bright light in all of our lives. Thank you, my sweetheart, thank you.
In my work, I hold space for people’s pain and joy. I’m there to guide and empower them to find their own understanding and solutions. I was trained to tolerate my own discomfort at the discomfort of others. I’m schooled in finding my own center at every twist and turn of a session so as not to put my emotions onto my clients’ experiences. These days, as I listen to them describe surges of anxiety and overwhelm, depression, and angst I find myself saying, “You are having an appropriate response to what is happening. What you are describing is a reasonable reaction to what is happening.”
I need to tell myself now: I am having an appropriate, reasonable response to what is happening.
In the past, I would swim laps to get grounded. I always chose the slow lane in the public pool at Santa Monica College. Breathing in for two strokes, out for two, the world outside muted, I’d slice slowly through the water, my pace matching that of the little ladies wearing shower caps doing aquatic aerobics alongside me. I can’t do that now. The pool is closed. Plus, I have three children, and I work; I’m lucky to find time to eat a bowl of soup. I used to find antidotes outside of myself: dinner with friends, casual conversations at school drop-off, and family vacations. These devolved into overpurchasing green kitchen items and cleaning supplies and scouting for projects reported to entertain children stuck at home. This tactic of buying stuff stopped working rather quickly. I also used to be very good at white-knuckling it. That was no longer a sustainable option. This limbo is long.
I am grateful for the distraction and purpose my children and work provide. Some days feel completely normal. Other days, the world and the demands of my responsibilities are too much, and I must get down to business finding new ways to tend to my hole of worry. So I follow my instincts and join a workshop billed to reset my nervous system with a soulful, wise woman. It was simple and quiet, and I thirstily drank it up. After a bit of exploration and releasing expectations, it worked. I found it: peace.
I arrive at it on a gray morning watching the ocean roll in. I wait for it to come when I breastfeed my baby before bed, tracing the tips of his tiny shoulder blades and slopes of his chubby shoulders. I notice it as I watch my toddler’s fist, with its dimpled knuckles, grab on to the handle of the food mill. She grunts in a fruitless effort to turn the tomatoes through the sieve. “I big, I strong. I do it.” she says with grit. I stretch the feeling out standing at the stove stirring the simmering simple tomato sauce I make over and over again these days.
My way of soothing the ache, that hole of grief and worry, is to notice when my heart rate is even and thoughts are slowed, when I find myself present in the moment with an absence of angst. Then I try to breathe it in, stretch it out. Oh hello, calm, there you are.
Connecting clients to moments of peace has become more prevalent in my work these past eight months. I have tricks and tools—I am a therapist, after all. My favorite is a guided meditation in which I have my client choose a place, real or imagined, where they feel safe and calm. We close our eyes and breath, letting our bodies just be. Then I talk them through imagining in their mind’s eye what the place they chose looks like. I ask them to picture the color, the objects, the light—as many details as they can conjure. Then I ask what it feels like, this place where they feels safe and calm? Is it warm or cool? Is there a heavy blanket they are cozied up under? Then what do they hear? And last, what do they smell? After spending ten minutes walking them through the sensory experience of imagining themselves in a place where they feels safe and calm, I have them check in with their body again: What do they notice? I invite them to slowly open their eyes. They almost always end the mediation with a smile, stretch, and yawn, like they’ve had a nap. A reset.
I have my clients—and my children—do this exercise as often they will. As do I. When we connect to our place of stillness and calm, our children will feel it, and we will have a greater capacity to hold space for whatever is going on with them. Find that place within and connect to it, even for a moment. Rewire those neurotransmitters, carve new grooves in those somatic pathways, and increase your capacity for peace and calm. This might not get rid of the ache, but it allows me to tend to it and to fill the hole. Hold on to your still point. Get to know it, and visit it as often as possible. We need it now more than ever.
Annie Armstrong Miyao is a Los Angeles–based psychotherapist, writer, and mother of three.