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Another View: Local counselor gives advice on what to do when anxiety calls

I owe my grandmother an apology - something I should have done many years ago but never did. Now that she is no longer with us, I hope she can hear it in Heaven.

When I was in college and living with her and my grandfather, I went out to a movie, then to a friend’s house afterward. I might have told her I’d be home by a certain time, but I don’t recall for sure. The clock kept ticking, and the hours kept passing. I knew it was getting late. I did not leave, and I did not call her to let her know I was staying out longer. My phone rang, and it was my grandma, calling to simply make sure I picked up the phone.

At the time, I didn’t think too much of the night and why she called. Today? Without a doubt I do. I know my grandma couldn’t go to sleep until I was home; I know she was worried; I know she was feeling anxious as each hour passed and she still didn’t hear my key turn the door lock - and for that I am sorry. I wasn’t responsible, and I wasn’t thinking about her emotions.

As time has continued, I am now married and have a son, who’s almost 5-1/2 years old. There has not been a day that has gone by that I have not done some sort of overthinking or worrying - did the constant ear infections he had as a baby affect his speech? What does it mean that he gets easily frustrated? Will he have any long-term effects from COVID-19 when he had it in January? Is he going to hit his head outside by doing something I told him not to, requiring stitches? Will he get bullied in school? Will he be the bully? Will he be kind on the school bus? How can I make sure he will be a safe driver? Will he stay smart and not drink and drive? Is he going to call me late at night and tell me he’s staying out one hour later? If he chooses to marry, will he pick a good partner? Will he live a healthy lifestyle? Does he think I’m a good mom? And the list goes on.

My brain tells me if I’m asking all these questions, I am a good mom.

My husband and I kept our son rear facing in the car seat until he hit the maximum height and weight, not simply after he turned 2 years old, the age you legally can turn around a child in Pennsylvania. He must have been around 4 or 4-1/2 years old when he sat forward facing. We are big on eating healthy, getting enough sleep, driving the speed limit, texting when you leave and get somewhere. If you’ve ever watched “Father of the Bride” with Steve Martin playing George Banks, that’s me. I’m the female version of George Banks.

Being a parent is incredibly stressful, and I’m only five and a half years into it!

As of late, some of this worrying has turned into fear and anxiety for me - and not just the normal feeling of being a bit anxious sometimes. At certain times in life, it affects what I choose to do and not to do because of specific tragedies that have been occurring, giving me a “what if” feeling.

For example, my family will not attend some music concerts due to the many active shooter situations that happen around this country. Our fear of “what if” prevents us from going.

Last week, I said to myself, when thinking about purchasing tickets to a theater show, “I guess I just won’t get them because there was an accident and someone died on that highway last week, and I have to drive that way.”

I know this is not healthy thinking or behavior, and I also know I’m not alone.

When I type into Google “How many people suffer from,” “anxiety” is the third suggestion listed.

When I decided on the topic for this opinion piece, I thought of no one else but my friend Chelsea Cortright, M. Ed., LPC, to ask a few questions.

Cortright, who lives in Slatington, said, “Mental health diagnoses, in general, are very common. About 50% of all people in the [United States] will be diagnosed with some kind of mental health diagnosis in their lifetime - and this is just those who get diagnosed. Anxiety disorders are the most common group of mental health diagnoses.

“In terms of what triggers anxiety, I have seen all sorts of things. The most common official diagnosis I see is generalized anxiety disorder, which is basically what we call ‘free floating anxiety’ that can be triggered and focused on all sorts of different things in someone’s life - social situations, work, safety, etc. Since I work with a lot of college students, I see a lot of anxiety about work, success, relationships and life transitions,” Cortright added.

Cortright received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Wilkes University in 2012 and her Master of Education in counseling and human services from Lehigh University in 2015. In 2019, she became a licensed professional counselor.

From 2017 to 2020, she worked as a counselor for Northampton Community College and, since 2017, currently teaches psychology at NCC, having classes in introduction to psychology, developmental psychology and abnormal psychology.

In addition, she said, “I work for a company that contracts out to colleges that don’t have an on-campus counseling center, so I see a lot of college students. I also do some outpatient fee for service work.”

In talking with my friend, I wanted to specifically ask if she has seen an increase in clients coming to see her for anxiety. For myself, these fears and anxiety have recently begun or increased, and they are based on the safety of my son and the traumatic occurrences in our world and sometimes even in our community.

“Right when the pandemic started, I saw a massive increase in anxiety in my clients and also got a lot of new clients who had never gone to therapy before but sought it out due to anxiety around the pandemic,” Cortright said. “The data definitely supports this as well. Rates of anxiety and depression increased a lot when the pandemic hit, and, honestly, much of the anxiety I saw was not anxiety about health or safety specifically. Some was, but a lot was anxiety around other parts of the pandemic - having to switch to online learning, being separated from friends and family, losing their job, their kids being out of school, etc.

“I think that COVID itself was very anxiety provoking, but all of the fallout from having to live through a pandemic and how it completely disrupted our way of life is what I saw as the main trigger for anxiety in most people. I even saw people who said they had never really had much stress or anxiety [but] were really struggling during this time because they could not use the tools they had used their entire lives to deal with stress and anxiety - going out with friends, going to the gym, etc. They were stuck at home and had absolutely no idea how to cope without their usual list of coping mechanisms, so it was like relearning how to manage their emotions, in a way,” Cortright added.

“On top of that, we now have a lot of other high-profile stressors, [such as] school shootings, political upheaval, etc. I think to a lot of people, it has been hard because as one thing settles and becomes less anxiety provoking, some other major concerns seem to pop up. It can feel never ending,” Cortright said.

Another important question for me to ask was what resources, practices and tools can we use to help combat anxiety. Cortright mentioned she uses a lot of cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, which are based on being mindful of your thoughts and how they spark those emotions, causing certain behaviors.

“A lot of times I am working with people to retrain how they view and think about things. I also do some mindfulness and helping people slow down and become more aware of their feelings and internal states.

“During the pandemic, it was also a lot of self-exploration and learning new ways to cope because, as I said before, people lost access to their previous coping mechanisms. One of my biggest tips for people is when they become overwhelmed by the outside world - politics, news stories, etc. - (try) to unplug and use mindfulness to become attune to their own daily lives and the pleasurable and happy things they notice there.

“A lot of times people think they either have a mental health disorder or they’re ‘fine,’ and that’s just not how mental health works. Mental health is like physical health; we all have it, and sometimes we are feeling really good, and sometimes we aren’t feeling so hot,” Cortright said. “For some of us, similar to physical health, we have chronic, ongoing conditions that need to be managed. For others, we might just hit periods where we don’t feel ‘well.’ But mental health and taking care of our mental health is for all of us and essentially important for all of us to do. Just like your physical health, if you don’t take care of your mental health, you are likely to struggle later on.”

I appreciate my friend providing these answers for me and giving us good advice. I hope reading this helps those in need and encourages anyone to find a counselor if his or her mental health needs it.

Stacey Koch

editorial assistant

Whitehall-Coplay Press

Northampton Press

Catasauqua Press