Staying sane and self-compassionate during a stressful year
Dr. Ali Mattu
Clinical psychologist and host of The Psych Show

2020 has tested our collective resolve – and our mental health. A global pandemic. Fires and hurricanes. A polarized society. Closed schools and daycares. Anxiety and stress are a fixture of life and work this year…along with looming uncertainty about the months ahead. But we don’t have to be paralyzed by it. Dr. Ali Mattu is a clinical psychologist who’s spent a decade treating anxiety and panic disorders in kids and adults. He’s the host of The Psych Show on YouTube, which offers videos about mental health and psychology that are fun to watch and easy to understand. A father and a mental health professional, Ali offers tips and advice on how working parents can get through these crazy days and why the very best thing we can do for our mental health (and that of our families) is to find compassion and forgiveness for ourselves.

Listen to this episode to learn:

  • Why being a “good parent” during a pandemic starts by taking care of yourself
  • How to anchor your day with a few simple habits to create stability
  • The many ways we’re grieving “the before times” of a pre-Covid world, and strategies to process feelings of loss while holding on to what’s most important
  • Practical techniques to help calm your racing mind, physically relax, and get a good night’s sleep (pro tip: invest in a back roller!)
  • Why the challenge of this moment presents a rare opportunity to teach ourselves and our children resilience and strength


For more information, visit www.alimattu.com.


Click here to read the full episode

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Full Transcript

Staying sane and self-compassionate during a stressful year

Intro: Welcome to the Equal Parts podcast, brought to you by Care@Work.

Emily Paisner: Being a working parent is hard, and for many of us, our own mental health has taken a major hit this year. Dr. Ali Mattu is a clinical psychologist who understands what you're going through, because as a working dad, he's going through it too. He has appeared on Netflix, HBO, and PBS but is well-known for his popular YouTube channel, The Psych Show. It offers videos about mental health and psychology that are fun to watch and easy to understand.

Ali is with us to offer sanity check and give practical advice on how to cope with the intense stress and anxiety that 2020 has handed us. For all the working parents who are trying to hold it all together and keep things as normal as possible during these abnormal times, you got this. Have a listen.

Ali, thank you so much for being here today.

Ali Mattu: Emily, it's my pleasure. I'm so happy to have this conversation.

Emily Paisner: 2020 has been quite a ride, from the pandemic to natural disasters to racial injustice and the elections. For so many working parents like me, most of our kids are home doing remote school in the same place where we are working. I don't know about you, but I think 2020 could use a real do-over. I often hear about--

Ali Mattu: [unintelligible 00:01:33] those? Is that an option?

Emily Paisner: I don't know. If you could try and make that happen, that would be great. I hear people talking and experts talking about the importance of self-care, but frankly, myself and other parents I have talked to are just trying to survive. We're struggling here. What can we do to get through these crazy days?

Ali Mattu: Well, I think a lot of it comes down to really being compassionate to yourself and to your kids and your family. It's very difficult to be a parent right now. It's always been difficult, especially in the United States, to be a working parent and to balance your career, as well as your child's well-being, their education, after-school activities. Everything that you feel the pressure to do as a parent, it's always been hard. All over the world, we depend on community support, we depend on relatives, we depend on babysitters, we depend on after-school activities, we depend on a variety of things that are there to help us get through.

In 2020, our ability to access those things is incredibly limited, and we don't have that school support. We might not have the community support of relatives, of grandparents, the very people who are able to step in and help us out when we need a little bit more support. In many cases, those are the people that we need to be most careful of because they might be vulnerable adults, they might be older adults, they might be people who have more compromised immune systems. Not only do we have all the additional stressors, Emily, that you just mentioned, of massive uncertainty that is changing day by day--

Emily Paisner: Hour by hour, minute by minute in some cases.

Ali Mattu: Right, right. I very much [unintelligible 00:03:29] any breaking news alerts, we're recording this. But all of that is changing, the massive uncertainty against a background where we have far less support available to us. So, my very first thing I want parents to know is it's very hard to be a parent right now, and we have to dig very deep down inside and have a lot of compassion towards us and towards our kids. I think that's where everything starts from.

When we hear about things like self-care, you're not going anywhere unless you are able to have a lot of compassion towards yourself, a lot of forgiveness towards yourself, giving yourself a lot of flexibility and a lot of acceptance of there's a lot that I cannot change right now and there's a lot that is making this so difficult for me.

Emily Paisner: Yes, there is so much that we can't control, and I think my kids have been pretty resilient, but there are times during the school day where they need our help. They are having a challenge with technology, and they're having a bit of a meltdown. My husband or I are supposed to be on an important Zoom meeting with our co-workers, not of course that that's ever happened to me, but how do we sort of check and manage our anxiety at those key points so that A, we can help ourselves, and B, we can model the right behavior for our kids?

Ali Mattu: We've all been exposed a bit. Our co-workers are seeing the realities of our environment and the challenges of our environment. In my experience, people have been a bit forgiving when they see the wild stuff that parents have to deal with, and hopefully, folks are a bit more patient, whether you have co-workers who have kids or not, some of my [chuckles] folks that I work with who don't have kids are like, "You know, I think I'm good for now. I don't know if I want to be a parent now." I think it's been some type of mass scale of birth control, seeing what happens in some of my Zoom sessions.

My daughter came up to me during this guest lecture I was giving at this university and of course it was all through Zoom, but she has learned that the best time to ask me for something is when I unmute on Zoom and have something to say.

Emily Paisner: It's always the way, isn't it? [laughs]

Ali Mattu: Right.

Emily Paisner: They have impeccable timing.

Ali Mattu: Oh my gosh [laughs]. They're brilliant in their way of picking up on this stuff. My daughter, she kept asking for snacks every time I spoke. So, I tried giving her the healthy stuff, wasn't working. I tried giving her some popcorn, wasn't working. Eventually, I gave her a cheese stick and that worked, but then she wanted more and more and more. Emily, I ended up giving her five cheese sticks [chuckles].

Emily Paisner: You've got to do what you've got to do.

Ali Mattu: You've got to do what you've got to do.

Emily Paisner: Oh my gosh.

Ali Mattu: Right. I was beating myself about that, like, "Why did I do that? I should have managed this so well." I think that moment taught me so much about forgiveness, forgiveness of myself, and also flexibility that these five cheese sticks are not going to ruin my daughter's upbringing. In these moments, it is about us finding a way to meet our emotional needs, whatever that might be. Given all those stress and anxiety and despair, one of the things that I've been encouraging parents is focus on what you can control, and there's a lot that you can control, maybe meals are the place to start, that is one thing you can control.

Early on in this pandemic, one of the things that I told parents a lot is one of the ways you can exercise control is just anchoring the day, have one thing that anchors the morning, one thing that anchors the afternoon, one thing that's anchoring the evening to give you a little sense of routine, a little sense of normalcy. Early on in the pandemic, a lot of us just didn't have anything scheduled out. It was all just, every day, we felt like we were making it up as we go along. I think to some degree, it still feels like that.

Emily Paisner: Exactly.

Ali Mattu: But when you have this wide-open schedule, that creates even more anxiety, more uncertainty because our minds don't differentiate between the stress of deciding what to eat for breakfast versus the stress of what am I going to do today versus the stress of how do I navigate this really scary situation of going to the grocery store or doing this or doing that.

Emily Paisner: I remember you talking about that in one of my favorite videos of yours on YouTube for The Psych Show called "How can I be a good parent during the coronavirus?" And you had recorded it a few weeks in, and it was featuring a very special guest, your daughter.

Ali Mattu: My daughter, yes.

Emily Paisner: It was really helpful for me. I recommend that people check it out because you give some really nice pieces of wisdom around how to be a good parent in the pandemic and what you're talking about right now was one of them. Can you share some of those other ideas that you shared there around how to help parents parent during a pandemic?

Ali Mattu: Well, this is a really good assist because this kind of gets to something that you were mentioning, which is about modeling good care. One of the things that I think we can all do as parents that is both helpful for us as well as very helpful for our kids is label these experiences, give them names, describe them. What I mean by that is when you're anxious, find ways of being able to put words to your anxiety and communicate that in a way that makes sense for your child.

Find ways of communicating to our kids that I'm really stressed about this or I'm nervous about going to the doctor, I haven't been to the doctor since all of this has happened, I don't know what to expect, I'm really nervous about this, and here's how I'm going to go about dealing with my fear. When you put words to these emotional experiences, you're really building on your children's emotional intelligence. And when you put words to experiences, it does take out some of the intensity of that emotion, whether it's anxiety, whether it's anger, whether it's grief, whatever the emotion might be, when you label it and when you describe that to your child and then also when you describe how you're going to go about dealing with it or even that I'm not sure how to deal with this but this is what I'm going through, that is immensely helpful; so, so helpful and it's fantastic modeling. A lot of parents are so concerned about how is this going to affect my child's development. I think most kids as we come out of this are going to be okay.

There's going to be some kids who are going to struggle more and some kids that might be struggling with their mental health and some kids who we need to keep a closer eye on their developmental milestones and how they're progressing. But there's a big opportunity here to really show our kids how do you cope with very strong, very difficult emotions. If we're able to just communicate what we're feeling and how we're thinking through dealing with these feelings, we might be setting up our kids for a lot of success in navigating the uncertainty that they're going to be dealing with later on in their lives.

Emily Paisner: You mentioned grief earlier, and back in the beginning of the pandemic in March, I remember reading a really powerful interview with David Kessler in the Harvard Business Review about grief and this collective feeling that we all have. We really are, as you said, we're mourning the loss of the way things were, but he also said we're feeling anticipatory grief with so much open-ended uncertainty. I heard you talk about it in a similar way. Can you share your thoughts and things we can do to help process this grief?

Ali Mattu: It's two things really. The first is finding ways to move forward. What I mean by that is finding ways to deal with the powerful emotions that are created by grief. People often say there's no right way to grieve. One of the reasons for that is there are a variety of emotions, sometimes conflicting emotions that can be created by grief. Sometimes, there is sadness. Sometimes, there is anger, there is confusion. Sometimes, there is a sense of relief. All of these emotions can happen all at the same time, which is what makes grief so powerful and difficult.

In the short-term, it is about finding ways for you to be able to tolerate these emotions and still be in your life. Then the other part of grief that you speak to here is about processing. This is really the long-term stuff. This is about how do you find ways to keep the memory of what was lost, still a part of your life, still a part of your life in a way that's not overwhelming.

To put this all together, grieving right now, what I want to recommend to folks is finding one way to be able to hold on to the memory or the thoughts or the emotions that you're experiencing in a way that's not overwhelming for you. For some of us, having conversations about what we're going through might be too much. It might be too overwhelming, and it might make it hard for you to get through the day and take care of your kids and do your work and still somehow make dinner. That's been a big challenge for me, is just making dinner.

Emily Paisner: Tell me about it [laughs].

Ali Mattu: Right, like-- [laughs]

Emily Paisner: I feel like all I do is cook and do dishes [laughs] [crosstalk]

Ali Mattu: Oh, the dishes, the dishes, oh my gosh. My daughter, I don't know why, I think she just sweats grease at this age because everything she touches is just immediately greasy--[crosstalk] Oh, yes, [crosstalk] My glasses. Oh my, she touches my glasses. It's just-- I can't see, it's all foggy [laughs]. Anyways, for some of us given all the stuff you have to do in the day, if you think about these things, it might be too much.

My wife and I process this stuff very differently; very, very differently. My wife, it's very therapeutic for her to listen to podcasts, news podcasts, to read trusted news sources, even if it's late at night, it helps her to get some type of context and perspective around this stuff. I'm the opposite. If I read those things late on at night, I can't fall asleep. So, we've had to figure out not only what are ways in which we can experience a piece of these losses but also how can we experience this together, because our style is very different now. What works for her is overwhelming for me and what works for me, has no impact on her at all. So, what I've been doing is I've been doing more private journaling when needed. Sometimes, I write something privately and it's just for myself. I use an app called Day One, and it's just on my phone, and it's password protected, so I know no one else can get into it.

There's some pretty good research that has shown when you're struggling with memories of an experience, just spending about 20 minutes a day for four days, writing about that experience is enough to unlock some of that stuckness that you might be experiencing. That's something that's been helpful for me, and writing is not for everyone. You can also narrate, you can do an audio recording, you can take photographs, whatever helps you to feel like you are able to experience some piece of the distress that you're experiencing in a way that's not overwhelming.

Emily Paisner: Yes. Well, I think everyone has to find their outlet, right?

Ali Mattu: Yes.

Emily Paisner: Their way that they can get that emotion out and whatever way feels comfortable for them.

Ali Mattu: Exactly. That will likely change day-to-day, week-to-week, how much you can handle, how to handle it, and with whom, is likely to change throughout the near future and that's okay. It's okay if something has worked for you and now it's no longer working for you. That's because grief is a process and your emotions are going to fluctuate.

Emily Paisner: You mentioned a few minutes ago how your wife reads the news but you can never do that before you go to bed because you'd never be able to sleep, and sleep is something that I know I'm struggling with right now. My mind won't stop racing. I can't quiet my thoughts. I wake up at all hours of the night. What are some techniques that we can do to try and relax and get the sleep that we need in order to stay healthy, both mentally and physically?

Ali Mattu: The first thing I want to tell folks is, even if you can't get more sleep, there's always something you can do to improve the quality of your sleep. Emily, I'm a big fan of [unintelligible 00:17:17] interventions. What I mean by that is anything that makes it easy for good changes to occur. Start off with doing a little inventory, like what does your bedroom look like, what are some small changes you can make that might improve the quality of your sleep. Maybe that means getting blackout curtains. Maybe that means plugging in your phone very far away from your nightstand so you're not getting alerts or things like that.


Emily Paisner: [crosstalk] of not having it within the arm's reach.

Ali Mattu: Yes. Making sure it's not that very first thing you see in the morning is this wall of notifications. Or something I've done is turn off every notification except for the most, most important ones. I never used to wear sleep mask before the pandemic. Now, I swear by it. There's always something we can do to improve the quality of your sleep, even if you're getting four or five hours, which is very much on the low end, we want a lot more than that, can we maximize those four or five hours and make them just a little bit better.

Then on the other end of things is things that might make it a little bit easier for you to fall asleep, physical forms of relaxation. I've been doing a lot of back exercises before I go to sleep because I'm sitting at home not walking around as much. So, my back is actually hurting a lot by the end of the night in a way that didn't used to happen. I got a back roller, it was like 20 bucks, some of the best 20 bucks I've spent. It's all about experimenting. It's about having the humility to try out different things, see if they work, and keep experimenting until you find a nice combination that does work for you.

Emily Paisner: If you could leave our listeners with one piece of advice right now, what would it be?

Ali Mattu: The best thing we can do for our children is to be honest and open about what we're going through in a way that they can hear and understand, because not only is that going to help you but it's going to give them the tools they need to cope with this situation and it's going to set them up for good success in the future. Our kids might not be able to be near their friends as much as they want. They're kind of stuck with us, better or worse, where a lot of their-- their in-person social interaction. I know teenagers, they have a lot more tools at their disposal, as do older elementary school kids and middle school kids as well but right now, our kids are sort of stuck with us. We've got intense emotions going through our homes. As much as we can be open and honest about those emotions, communicate those, really be very compassionate about all of the difficulty of being a human right now. This is such a wonderful gift we can give our children, and it's going to set them up for wonderful future mental health.

Emily Paisner: Ali, thank you so much for sharing your advice and wisdom today. It was very, very insightful and helpful, and I know it will help all of our listeners as we continue to navigate this very uncertain time.

Ali Mattu: My pleasure. I'm so happy that you have made space for this kind of conversation and are out here helping parents to think through this kind of stuff. There's no right answers and no one really has the answers. We're all just kind of figuring it out as we go.

Outro: Thanks for listening to this episode of Equal Parts. See you next time.

Emily Paisner: Wait, before you go, I just want to tell you a little bit about Care@Work by Care.com. They work with some of the world's largest companies to offer family care benefits to their employees. If you're one of the lucky ones who already has care benefits at work, use them. If you don't, ask for them. It's a real lifesaver. To learn more, visit care.com/careatwork. Again, that's care.com/careatwork.