Create new rhythms. Ah — the bliss of unscheduled time — it sounds so great in theory, something that we may have longed for in those employment-intensive decades, but truth be told, we are creatures of habit. We may not miss work so much, but we may miss a schedule. The sudden lack of structure can be disorienting and even exhausting when we have to reinvent the wheel every day of what to do. Make a wish list of what you’d ideally like your ratio ofstructured time to free time to look like. Create a “mini-work day,” before it was 8 hours, now your workday may be condensed to a few hours, with the elements you would like — exercise, learning, errands, socializing — and decide when is your best time to do what. This structure is not set in stone, and should not feel limiting, instead, it should feel freeing having just enough predictability to make your days both more efficient and expansive and enjoyable.
As a part of my series about the “5 Things You Should Do to Optimize Your Wellness After Retirement” I had the pleasure of interviewing Tamar Chansky, Ph.D. Dr. Tamar Chansky is a licensed psychologist, founder of the Children’s and Adult Center for OCD and Anxiety in suburban Philadelphia, and author of numerous books on the treatment of anxiety and negative thinking in the popular Freeing Yourself from Anxiety series: Freeing Your Child From Anxiety, Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking, Freeing Your Child From Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Freeing Yourself from Anxiety: 4 Simple Steps to Overcome Worry and Create the Life You Want; her work has been translated into many languages. Dr. Chansky is the creator of the educational website worrywisekids.org and her website: http://tamarchansky.com/. She is the mother of two grown daughters, and lives in Philadelphia with her husband, two cats, and a whole lot of ideas.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Somehow I always knew that I would be a psychologist, even as a little girl I was always trying to understand other people’s behavior and imagine what they were thinking about — it was perplexing and fascinating to me. I started working in the field of anxiety disorders by a fluke in graduate school, where the very first child I treated on a research study was afraid to raise her hand in class to go to the bathroom — and I was hooked. I found my purpose. I have dedicated my life to working with kids, parents, and adults to change their relationship with anxiety. Yes, it’s a given that the anxious soundtrack will barge in first with what ifs and fill in the blanks with catastrophic narratives, but it’s up to us what we do next. One of the most important practices we can undertake for our well-being is to realize that we don’t have to give worry the last word.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Early in my career, a few years after I had written my first book, Freeing Your Child from OCD, I was invited to speak back at the hospital where I had done an internship during graduate school. To say that I was very apprehensive about how to approach that talk is an understatement. Here I was, in my 30’s having been an Intern there not long ago, about to teach an audience full of accomplished, gray-haired, and importantly psycho-dynamically oriented men (and a few women) reaching the end of their careers who were trained in a time and orientation that considered OCD as a neurosis caused by early experiences in the parent-child relationship about Cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT), an empirically proven approach that runs counter to the psychodynamic school of thought in every way. CBT, the state of the art treatment for OCD, takes as it’s starting point that OCD is a no-fault neuro-bio-behavioral condition — and a very treatable one at that. Feeling like I was stepping into a turf-battle or minefield, I steadied myself by returning in my mind to the children that I treat with OCD, and so many others suffering, and summoned my courage and spoke. I didn’t want to make anyone feel bad for practicing in a way that I thought reinforced fear and stigma in patients with OCD, but I also had a responsibility to do my job and try to do it well. It was tense. I got through. At the Q and A at the end of the talk one fine gentleman, a psychiatrist, stood up and kindly said, “So, basically, you’re saying that we have been seeing this all wrong all these years.” I breathed a sigh of relief and I think the audience breathed a sigh of relief too. The tension broke. I paused, smiled and said, “Well, yes.” I hadn’t said it like that, but they got it. It was a powerful shift in understanding of a mindset which I could not have achieved without him. The audience needed someone in their tribe to bless this new information. And there he was. I often tell this story when I’m giving a presentation to help break the ice with other practitioners to see how biases — however damaging — can be changed. And it’s never too late, but the sooner the better.
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
I am an anxiety therapist, but that doesn’t mean that I have no fears of my own. Now I refer to myself as a recovering bug-phobic, but I wasn’t always so forthcoming about that fear. Early in my career, I had a new patient come in for a session, a teenager, for my last session of the day. It was the height of stink bug season, and I had been through a long day of flicking bugs off window screens, and dodging a couple flying through the office, and even having one land on my hand. My nerves were a bit fried. My own inner alarm system was wound pretty tight, ready to spring at anything. There I was trying to attentively listen to this young person talk about her panic attacks and suddenly I jumped out of my chair at what I thought was another bug landing on my hand, but it was actually just the buzzing of my cell phone vibrating jumping all over the table as it went off. This was back in the days of the big bulky flip-phones. At the time, I tried to cover for my reaction and regroup back into my role as the therapist. It didn’t work. I lost her confidence. It would have been an absolutely perfect moment to join with her — first of all in laughing at myself, the irony of that situation! But also joining with her by demonstrating — live-action — how the fight or flight system builds and is ready to protect us at every turn — her nervous system was going into panic mode when there was nothing wrong, mine was making me jump into the air at the sound of a cell phone buzz. A missed opportunity for sure. What I have done since that time, is to more fully embrace and emphasize the fact that we are all built the same, we all have inner alarm systems that go off when we don’t want, and we are all at work trying to free ourselves from anxiety — one thought, or one bug at a time.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I started writing about anxiety early on in my career. For that I thank one of my first college professors, Father Sloyan, who said to me, “you’re a good writer, what are you going to do with it?” I never thought of myself that way and could not have imagined that I would go on to write a series of books. A few years after finishing my doctorate, I started writing a book for parents of children with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Freeing Your Child from OCD, because they were so frightened that they were losing their kids to this strange disorder of rules and rituals they didn’t understand and couldn’t impact. I wanted to empower parents to demystify OCD for themselves and their kids so that they could take charge, break the rules, and reclaim their life. From then on writing — with its farther reach and impact — complimented and extended the work I do one-on-one as a therapist.
But far and away the most life-changing person I’ve met is my husband, Phillip Stern. We met in college, married soon after, and began our unconventional and often highly impractical adventure, experiment, collaboration as two creative people (he is a sculptor and illustrator) having jobs and kids and also making room for our creative life. Phil has pretty much edited every word I’ve written (including these!) and illustrated all of my books, translating the metaphors I write about into illustrations — a kind of visual short-cut for the ideas I want to convey — bringing to life such concepts as the brain nets where we learn how things get stuck and how to shake them out, the worry Ferris wheel where we spin in place until we realize that ride can spin without us, and junk mail boxes in the mind where we can learn to recognize worry’s warnings as generic rather than specifically personal to us. My work wouldn’t be possible without his willingness, and generous sharing of his time, to take my vague visual wishes and turn them into memorable mnemonics. Even more than that, I’ve learned from the way Phil walks through life to see life as a constant process and not fear little moments along the way that look like they’re off the path or mis-steps. It’s all part of a process. As a sculptor, Phil works to translate the invisible into the tangible, and this describes my work as a psychologist bringing the invisibles of human emotion and interaction into concepts that are concrete and give us clarity — that we can as good as hold in our hands.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
On a personal level, I live by the principle of little things, often. I am especially committed to bookending my day with practices that ground me. The reality of going to the gym regularly that kind of structure isn’t feasible for me but doing something meaningful in the morning and at night that is quick and accessible — that’s what I benefit from so much. I listen to inspirational music in the morning and read at least one poem — or even just one line of a poem — at night. These practices lift me out of the fray before I step back into it. The current of day to day life is very strong but flows between these two anchor points; there’s never enough time, we are busy and distracted, so I protect myself by ensuring that I stay connected with a sense of something bigger than myself.
I also buffer myself from burnout by remembering that I am just one piece of the great big puzzle on earth, and lots and lots of other people are working on the puzzle too. Still, I have a lot of ideas about how I want to have an impact, how I think the quality of life can be improved with understanding of something difficult or painful that I am parsing out, and when I face disappointment, or frustration, I have to remember that life is process, and even if it feels at times like I am not getting anywhere, that’s just where I am in that process, and I need to stay true to my mission through thick and thin. It is immensely helpful to have great friends who are also very mission-driven. We help each other stay in our lanes and do the hard work. We remind each other that the work is hard, but that’s why we need to do it. The wisdom of the Lorax, by Dr. Seuss comes to mind here: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing’s going to get better. It’s not.” We have to be that person who cares an awful lot, for each other and ourselves. I have my mission, and others do too, and together we elevate each other as we strive for a better world.
The Children’s and Adult Center for OCD and Anxiety has been a thriving practice of excellent clinicians since I founded it in1999. First and foremost, I prioritize autonomy. My colleagues have control over their practices — I trust that if they are taking care of themselves, they will do their best work. Second, we create room for saying “I don’t know.” Without that safety, people can’t be creative, and growth isn’t possible, because we learn from what we don’t know. Third, we share positive experiences. Yes, it feels like there isn’t time for this with all the problems we juggle, but this is such a mental boost, a kind of passive income — in the sense that with little effort and time it gives such a lift for all . We are wired to look for what’s wrong, that’s not our fault that’s our long-standing neurological inheritance, but we need to create a habit of pivoting from those negative pulls to see what’s working, what we appreciate. Doing so relieves stress, it balances the picture of where we stand in life.
Can you share with our readers 5 things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.
As much as retirement is a much anticipated wonderful milestone, with the absence of required rhythms and structure, anxiety is increasingly common in the aging population. Because we have that song playing in our heads — “This is what you’ve been waiting for, all these years! Don’t waste this precious time being unhappy! These should be the best years of your life!” — we may ignore the other signals, the valuable information from our inner selves about what doesn’t feel so great, like we don’t know what we enjoy because we’ve been on auto-pilot for so many years, or we don’t know how to plan for the future, or stay in touch with people now that we have to go out of our way to see them, or even merely the fear of growing older and those existential uncertainties. Many of those concerns are absolutely solvable — and the existential ones, truly universal — can not only be managed, but can enrich our lives in the process. Rather than going further into anxiety and avoidance mode by freezing up and avoiding questions, concerns, and uncertainties, retirees can see this time as a transition, something they can get “good” at by working on expectations and fears. For instance, just because you were looking forward to something, doesn’t mean all parts are going to be great, or great all the time, and further, if it isn’t great, it doesn’t mean you’re necessarily doing something wrong. These are lessons we likely already know, we may even use them to advise others, but we ourselves need to dust off this wisdom and apply it in this new context. Retirees can hone their worry management skills, which are especially important now that they have more time on their hands and see the opportunities for optimizing their life, taking stock of their accomplishments, and giving back.
1. Manage expectations We think of retirement as a destination, a fixed point where everything changes, instantly and for the better, but as with every milestone that has come before, it is a process: We have to grow into it. Because retirement is long anticipated, we may expect that it should feel great right away, and when it doesn’t, we are surprised, frightened, and look for a cause. Either something is wrong with us, or that we’re doing it wrong, and we may get anxious or even depressed that we don’t feel wonderful. We may even second-guess our decision to retire at all. But really what’s happening is that we are misinterpreting the temporary and universal discomfort and growing pains of a new stage as a permanent and personal circumstance. Ease up on your expectations for how things should be and try to pay attention to how they actually do feel to you. Don’t feel pressured by the myth of the golden years, see this chapter as the transition it is. It will take time. It’s like a swimming pool, it won’t feel great at first, but trust you’ll adjust, and you’ll do so in a much more satisfying way if you can pay attention to your needs, likes, and dislikes. It helps to think of retirement as a landscape that you can craft to suit your needs, structure needs, social needs, physical needs. Remember too that those needs will change over time, so be flexible and attentive to the need to regroup with yourself and set out new plans for the shape of your days.
2. Distinguish worry time from planning time The flipside of the accomplishment of retirement is the recognition — sometimes very viscerally — that we are getting older. This can hit hard. Rather than trying to hide from this fact, tackle it head on. Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “It takes as much time to worry as it does to plan.” It is not realistic for most of us to have no worries, but do your worrying on a schedule, rather than letting it take over any time. Don’t be in the dark about your fears, identify them, research them, fact check them and come up with a plan to either address them or decide that they are unfounded. Rather than getting overwhelmed with worry over finances or what happens if you get ill or injured, dig into what you need to learn, like how to hire a financial planner, or what are the long-term care options. It’s normal to have fears. It’s what we do with them that counts. No need to chide yourself about feeling afraid, but you will feel better faster as you learn what the distinction between “reacting” (with more fear) and “responding” (with thoughtfulness and facts) looks like at this stage of life. And remember this stage is not one thing: Think of the decades that preceded — there were so many subchapters and through-lines and detours, this stage will be similarly varied and evolving. Your worry time should be brief, as it won’t yield any benefits, your planning time on the other hand, will, even if it is stressful, be productive and impactful in allowing you to be responsive and proactive about your needs.
3. Create new rhythms Ah — the bliss of unscheduled time — it sounds so great in theory, something that we may have longed for in those employment-intensive decades, but truth be told, we are creatures of habit. We may not miss work so much, but we may miss a schedule. The sudden lack of structure can be disorienting and even exhausting when we have to reinvent the wheel every day of what to do. Make a wish list of what you’d ideally like your ratio ofstructured time to free time to look like. Create a “mini-work day,” before it was 8 hours, now your workday may be condensed to a few hours, with the elements you would like — exercise, learning, errands, socializing — and decide when is your best time to do what. This structure is not set in stone, and should not feel limiting, instead, it should feel freeing having just enough predictability to make your days both more efficient and expansive and enjoyable.
4. Write your own retirement ticket If you’ve spent your whole life thinking about comparing yourself and trying to keep up with the Joneses, and we all fall prey to that to some extent in life, this is a wide open opportunity to be true to yourself and do your own thing. The first step may be figuring out what that looks like now. You may feel lost being out of the seeming competition based, survival of the fittest work world, but fear not. Start by writing your wish list, but do two versions: your day-to-day bucket list for the little things you want to do — like stay in bed all day and watch every Marx brothers movie back to back — and your bucket list with a capital B — things that take planning and funding to accomplish. Experiment to see what feels right and best to you. Your list might overlap with others you know, or it may not, but what matters is that you are living your one true life, whatever that means to you.
5. Connect, connect, connect to protect your emotional mental health Work life, life with kids, all those things we alternately enjoyed and complained about also allowed us to complain — together. Colleagues at the office, fellow parents, we had instant connections through those settings. With retirement we don’t suddenly not need those social boosts, we may in fact need them more given the absence of these settings and our sudden surplus of free time. We need to create those opportunities for connection ourselves. Researchers have found that three out of four adults struggle with disabling loneliness. Connection is not a luxury, it’s essential for emotional mental health and well-being. Friendships buoy us, but research has also found that even just a brief conversation with a stranger — in coffee shops, at exercise class, in line at the post office, gives a powerful boost to our mood. Repeat often. Be proactive, explore other venues. Though we may hesitate to invite someone for coffee or to a movie together or a book club thinking that they wouldn’t want to, it’s kind of that first day of school phenomenon where everyone is so grateful that someone talked to us first. Be that person. Respond to that person. Don’t go it alone.
Thank you for all of these great insights!
Thank you for a great interview! Here’s to less worry and more fulfilling retirements all around!