Avoid overexposure to the news. If you find yourself feeling anxious, depressed, or numb after consuming the news, it probably means it’s time to cut back. While it’s important to stay informed, information overload can lead to extreme behavior in one of two ways — becoming anxious and even obsessive, or becoming numb and desensitized.
Asa part of my series about the things we can do to develop serenity and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dana Udall, PhD. Chief Clinical Officer, Ginger. Dana has spent 20 years helping individuals & groups make meaningful change. She is working to level the playing field in mental health.
Thank you so much for joining 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?
Ihad never considered being a psychologist, and instead thought I would be a doctor, lawyer, or politician, like many in my family. Growing up, emotions weren’t something we talked about much, but while coming to terms with my own eating disorder, I started therapy, which was life changing. I came to see the value in being introspective and vulnerable, and I learned that through practice, I could learn skills that had eluded me for years. After being helped so much, I wanted to help others, so I went to grad school and, six years later, became a Psychologist. Though I loved working as a therapist and helping others, I found the work intense, and wanted to use other skill sets. I started writing and founded a company to help parents through a remote platform, which appealed to me because it was a scalable way to provide services. Eventually, I found my way to Ginger. In my current role, I get to do a little of everything, which I love. I oversee our team of behavioral health coaches, therapists and psychiatrists, so I am involved in monitoring care, consulting with our staff, and ensuring that our team has the skills and training necessary to provide high quality services. But I also get to think about high level strategy, like how to evolve mental health services to help those in need. This mixture is really rewarding.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
As is the case for many of us, my work and personal life overlap in many dimensions, and contribute to each other in astonishing ways. For example, I never thought I’d be in telehealth — when I was starting out in my career 20 years ago, the idea didn’t even exist. I was fortunate to stumble into this work because my husband is in the field. So the most interesting story in my career is actually the story of how I met him.
When we were juniors in college, we met on a street corner in Marrakech, Morocco. We were both booked on the same trip, and spent three days traversing the Atlas mountains by minivan, riding camels in the Sahara, and eating incredible food cooked by our Berber guides. After this trip, we both returned to Sevilla, where we were studying, and he tracked me down — no small feat given that we didn’t have cell phones, and our ability to receive messages was predicated on our Senoras’ willingness to give them to us. We dated for two months in Sevilla, then returned to the US, too young and too far apart (I was in LA, he was in DC) to make it work. We didn’t have email at that time, so we exchanged a few letters, then lost touch. Seven years later, he sent a postcard to my parents’ home — fortunately they had not moved — and they forwarded it to me in LA. We then reconnected — first through email and then in person in London, where he was living. After three days, I knew that I would spend my life with him, and we were married 2 years later.
We have supported each other through personal and professional highs and lows, from being entrepreneurs (each of us started a company), struggling to pay for health insurance, to our current work in telehealth. And though our jobs are demanding, we are each extremely grateful. It’s hard to imagine anything more meaningful than being able to ensure that people get high quality health care in an accessible way, particularly during COVID-19. So I suppose the lesson is to have great adventures and treat people kindly; you never know how that person on the street corner in Morocco will end up figuring in your life.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
Like many mental health providers, I spent years feeling burned out and depleted. Though some people are cut out to provide care to others 40 hours per week, this wasn’t a sustainable path for me. Instead, I needed to find an environment in which I could have a diversity of tasks, from managing others to thinking deeply about issues to making decisions about strategy. On the whole, mental health administrators have been slow to understand the very real effects of vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue, likely because the agencies they oversee are often underfunded and under strict productivity requirements. For many therapists and psychiatrists, it is still taboo to acknowledge that they need their own mental health support. We like to say here at Ginger that you can’t pour from an empty cup. Mental health providers play such an integral role in solving one of our nation’s greatest challenges — it’s imperative that they too, feel supported. My advice would be to test the waters, and start by sharing any struggles you have with a trusted colleague or supervisor. If you need time off, ask for it. If there is a particular client or issue that is too close to home for you, ask to transfer care to another provider. I’ve seen people attempt to be stoic for years, until they finally burn out. A better path is to think of your supervisor as a thought partner who can help you learn to make the work sustainable and fulfilling over the long run.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
To me, a great work culture comes down to truly understanding and supporting the needs of employees. We know that stress in the workplace has never been higher. A recent survey we conducted at Ginger revealed that 88% of U.S. workers experience moderate to extreme stress in the past 4–6 weeks. And even before COVID-19, almost 60% had cried at work. Leaders (not just HR managers) must tune in to understand the climate in their workplace when it comes to mental health, and provide the right support. Beyond this, I’m also a big believer in embracing transparency and vulnerability. When we acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers, we help others do the same, which can increase trust across the organization — something that is vital to work culture.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
When I started college, I planned to be an Art History major, but took Psychology of Women my first semester on a whim. It ended up changing the course of my education and, arguably, my life. We read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou, which was perhaps the first time I’d read about pain, trauma and resilience in such intimate terms. We also read Jean Baker Miller’s Toward a New Psychology of Women, which helped me see the pervasiveness of gender stereotypes, and the way in which they limit us. These books were incredibly important to me, given that I was away from home for the first time, trying to understand what I wanted from my life, and thinking much about what it meant to be a white woman. I ended up hooked on psychology and the idea of listening deeply to the stories of others — both as a way to understand myself, and to build empathy with those around me.
Many people have become anxious just from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.
Many people find themselves feeling overwhelmed by the news cycle, given that there is so much uncertainty around finances, health, and the general state of the world. Here are some tips on how to stay calm and manage anxiety during these times:
- Avoid overexposure to the news. If you find yourself feeling anxious, depressed, or numb after consuming the news, it probably means it’s time to cut back. While it’s important to stay informed, information overload can lead to extreme behavior in one of two ways — becoming anxious and even obsessive, or becoming numb and desensitized. Both of these outcomes are problematic, since they involve errors in thinking which prevent people from making rational decisions and taking action to protect their health. Moderate your news consumption by making sure you’re not overdoing it, and take breaks often.
- Seek out support. Given the isolation that many people feel, finding creative ways to connect is crucial right now. That might mean doing video calls, talking to your neighbor across the fence, or writing letters to family you haven’t seen for years. If you find that this social connection isn’t enough, and your low mood or anxiety doesn’t seem to relent, consider professional help. We know that many people are experiencing an increase in mental health needs, and asking for help is a sign of strength.
- Practice mindfulness. In short, mindfulness is about paying attention and being present. It’s easy to get caught in a cycle of worry about future events over which we have no control. Practice observing your thoughts and physical sensations, so that you can learn to identify these worry cycles. And when you spot them, take some deep breaths and focus on something more immediate — the meal you’re making for dinner, a project due for work, or the people sitting next to you.
- Carve out time for fun. Though your definition of fun may have changed significantly in the past month, it’s important to identify activities that bring you joy or lighten your mood. For some folks that’s reading a good book or taking a bath; for others, it’s watching reruns of favorite shows (Seinfeld and The Office are on heavy rotation in my house). We may have to be more intentional about creating opportunities for fun during these heavy days, but that’s all the more reason to do it.
- Take it one day at a time. Anyone who’s been in a 12-step program has heard the mantra, one day at a time. That’s because it’s pretty tolerable to think of staying sober (or getting more exercise, eating better, or sticking to a sleep routine) for one day. It’s much harder when we have thoughts like, “I’m miserable and I’ll be stuck in my house forever!” Focusing on doing what you can today is key to maintaining mental health in times of uncertainty.
From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
- Tend to your own mental health first. In order to be of use to those around us, we have to be well-resourced and strong. If we’re run down and depleted, we’re much more likely to be resentful and ineffective.
- Know when to disengage. In times of high anxiety, conversation inevitably veers toward overwhelming topics, like the rate of infection in our community, or how so-and-so got sick. And while discussing such topics is natural and at times even beneficial, when we focus on them to the exclusion of other ones, we may inadvertently cultivate more anxiety in ourselves — and everyone we’re talking to. For your sake and the sake of those around you, monitor the course of your conversations, and when they take a dark turn, opt to change the subject or bow out.
- Provide them with credible resources. People often feel anxious because they have inaccurate information. If your loved ones are struggling, point them to reputable sources like the CDC, which offers fact-based information without the sensationalism of social media.
- Ask them what they need. Though this may seem simplistic, the act of asking someone what they need is incredibly powerful and does three things: 1. Normalizes the fact that we all have needs; 2. Allows them to be the expert on themselves, and to identify a solution with a high probability of success; 3. Prevents you from taking action that may actually be unwelcome. For example, you might think your friend would love to find a delivery of one of your freshly baked coffee cakes on her front porch. But perhaps she is so anxious about coronavirus that the idea of eating anything made by others is overwhelming.
- Let them know you’re thinking of them. Create a playlist, recipe box, or handmade card specifically for them. Such thoughtful gifts can go a long way toward communicating that your loved ones are not alone, and that we’re all in this together.
What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?
At Ginger, we’ve recently shared our in-app content with the public at our Ginger Roots website. People can access valuable information and resources on a range of topics — from parenting to working at home to dealing with isolation. And there are lots of other great resources out there, too. Some of my favorites are Active Minds (great resource for teens and young adults struggling with mental health, including a chat line), and NAMI (which has a video library and online support groups).
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
Early in my career, I was working in an extremely intense environment at a group home for traumatized youth, debating whether I was cut out for a career in mental health. I wasn’t sure what I wanted for myself, and wasn’t confident I’d be accepted to graduate school. I remember feeling anxious about the uncertainty, and wishing for visibility into how things would turn out. I remember seeing this quote from Rilke in a supervisor’s office, and feeling an immediate sense of peace. Since then, I’ve thought of it often, as a way to remind myself that certainty is unnecessary and can limit our ability to live full and brave lives.
Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
It would be truly liberating to see mental health viewed through the same lens as physical health. Though we have come a long way in defeating stigma and shame, many people still don’t feel comfortable talking about their psychological struggles or accessing treatment. We’re starting to see people coming forward and publicly speaking about these things with more regularity. But the reality is that many people think they’re the only one who has experienced something — depression, thoughts of suicide, or crippling anxiety. The numbers tell a different story, of course, but changing the culture and increasing mental health literacy — or our ability to understand, recognize, and seek help for mental health needs — takes time. In addition, not all cultures would welcome this change, given that public discussions about mental health, or seeking support from someone outside the family, is considered taboo. There’s no one path to healing, and not everyone needs to publicly self-identify to get better. But finding ways to acknowledge mental health issues and access support in a culturally relevant manner (whether that’s through a mental health professional, priest, or friend) is an important first step. And if people are willing to come forward and talk about it? All the better, since one person’s story can change another person’s life.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
Thank you for all of these great insights!