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Talking Stress, Grief & Anxiety During 2020 With Psychotherapist Asha Tarry

Photography by Markus Winkler

2020 forces us to take a real look at the disparity in our communities. Whether you see them or not, the problems in today’s society effect us all. Economic inequality can result in poor mental health and seeking help can be even harder in the midsts of a global pandemic. The health crisis has shown us what many already knew. Too many live with the reality of being one pay check away from not being able to pay their medical bill, from being homeless, from putting their mental health at the bottom of the to-do list. Maybe that one person is you. The coronavirus in particular has effected the black community in much larger numbers, but to people of color, these health disparities are not new. If you just started to wake up to these inequalities, if the pandemic effected your mental health, if you feel grief for George Floyd, if you know it is not about you, but you could not imagine the same type of treatment happening to someone you know, then keep reading. 2020 started with a pandemic, but there was something about George Floyd’s death in particular that trigged us all. This resulted in a movement reflecting the sadness, anger and love we all feel. Making change happen should have never taken this long, but when enough is enough, real change and healing can begin. Award-winning community mental health advocate, psychotherapist, certified life coach and author, Asha Tarry, gives us an insider look into working within her community, and provides tips on coping with stress today.

Psychotherapist and award-winning mental health advocate Asha Tarry

Cultivated: Please tell me why you chose to enter this field of work, and how can the mental health community better reach marginalized people? 

AT: Ever since I was 4 years old, I knew I wanted to work in healthcare. Initially, my plan was to become a nurse, which is what I talk about in my new book, Adulting As A Millennial: A Guide to Everything Your Parents Didn’t Teach You, but things changed. Though I didn’t enjoy everything about my nursing program in college, I loved learning and applying my knowledge to help other people empower themselves. Upon entering my third year of college at Pace University, I changed my major from Nursing to Human Services, and three months post-graduation, I started my Master’s program in Social Work at Fordham University in New York City. At this time in my career, I’ve noticed that being a POC and in private practice has left a lot of people out of the equation. Although, 98 percent of my clientele are people of color (POC), they are working class and professional. People who aren’t able to access the Internet, or speak English, or cannot afford out-of-pocket costs for therapy, even though I charge a sliding scale at times are, unfortunately, unable to access care with me or other providers like myself. I think this is where the government can step up more and provide access to quality mental health treatment in places where most people who are marginalized are captured on the map–places like public schools that could offer counseling for families and destigmatize it; as well as setting up mobile trucks for mental health treatment in rural communities, similar to what we see with mobile medical trucks that give free healthcare screenings and register patients for insurance.

Cultivated: What are some essential tips you’d give to someone who had anxiety long before 2020, but now finds it even harder to manage due to the pandemic, the disparities it brought to light and injustices that continue to happen in today’s society? 

AT: My recommendation is to take your health seriously. If you experienced moderate to severe anxiety, or were already experiencing anxiety attacks or panic attacks before COVID-19 and racial tension, know that those symptoms may return. Seek cognitive-behavioral skills training and therapy that can decrease the likelihood of them recurring. Some people need medication for moderate to severe anxiety. Some people can manage without medication by applying breathing techniques and adding grounding exercises to their daily routines. This can be taught to people in individual or group therapy. Also consider joining a support group or a meditation class, which will help teach you how to center yourself and to learn how to breathe better. These techniques work!
I also recommend identifying the things one can control in their environment.

Panic is triggered by people, places, and sensory overload: sounds, smells and imagery. So, if someone has a history of anxiety, notice if going certain places causes anxiety, so one can minimize or avoid those places if possible. Or use visual imagery to imagine the steps to take to endure traveling to and being at the place that triggers the unwanted emotion.

If there are people who trigger strong or unpleasant emotions in you, or you experience racing thoughts around them, you may want to rehearse what you will say before encountering that person. Or, you can choose to limit your involvement with the individual or individuals that create the unwanted memories.

Cultivated: How can we best manage the grief we felt watching George Floyd being mistreated and killed on video? 

AT: For one thing, we have to accept that we can’t go back. A lot of people have seen the video, and some have seen it more than once. We can learn from this time how best to take care of ourselves now and later. And ask ourselves if we ever want to engage in voyeurism that way again. Aside from that, we should be exactly where we notice ourselves, which means that if you feel sorrowful, be with that feeling, don’t avoid it.

Avoidance is a defense mechanism that tricks your mind into thinking if you don’t think or speak about what’s happening it’ll magically go away. That’s primitive and untrue.

If it helps to write out what you notice with your thoughts or feelings, do that. But for other people, grief might be best addressed by transforming it into something physically active, such as being creative, or being involved in activism. The beauty in the midst of this storm is to make wiser decisions on a personal level that you resonate with, then activate your power in a way that means something to you. 

Cultivated: Where do we go from here? What are some big and small ways to take control over the constant negativity, instead of sitting still in our depression/anxiety? 

AT: I recommend continuing to ask that question of yourself. Then, commit to the action of doing something helpful, such as reading more about black and American history or black and global history, because there’s so much more than what we learn in schools. Most people are not taught the great accomplishments of black people, as well as the prominent rebellions in black and African history. We have a very slanted view of things here in America. So, do your own independent studying. I’ve often noticed that when we put our minds on other things, we feel less anxious and more present to the moment, which also counters depressed mood. I encourage people to listen more and talk less. Listen to how angry and sad people are, without judging it. Listen to yourself when you speak about people that possibly you know less about. Become more curious is often my recommendation, and that means to ask more questions and listen intently to the responses you receive.Lastly, I would suggest working on compassion practices, such as building empathy, patience, and understanding for differences, so that it will increase one’s tolerance for the unfamiliar. 

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