Sometimes I half joke that the only people I know who are somewhat stable and happy-ish after the last two years are medicated, in therapy or both. (For me, both!) The facts of “why” seem pretty obvious, but today I’ll share an interview with a stress researcher about what all of this tumult does to our brains. Unsurprisingly, financial precarity is a huge driver of stress, and my latest op-ed for Romper argues that we should think about the fleeting Child Tax Credit not as just a successful economic stimulus program (that we should bring back, STAT!) but as an impactful solution to the multigenerational mental health crisis this country is facing. Lots of birds hit with these monthly cash payments, folks! You can read the whole piece here.
I spoke with Dr. Darby Saxbe, associate professor of psychology at UCLA and director of the Center for the Changing Family. She told me for the Romper piece:
“One thing we know from stress research is that the kinds of situations that stimulate the biological stress response are situations that are unstable, unpredictable, and uncontrollable. Poverty is sort of like a perfect storm of all of those situations at once. The brain and body's response is to be hypervigilant. If you don't have that sort of buffer of extra dollars in your savings account in case something breaks or a childcare situation pops up, those experiences create repeated hits to the stress response system and cause us to need to work harder to regulate back to baseline.”
While the Romper article focuses mostly on people living with serious financial precarity, the pandemic has thrown lots of “unstable, uncontrollable and unpredictable” situations at people across the income spectrum -- though of course, those with resources are much better off when unexpected catastrophes hit.
Unsurprisingly, Dr. Saxbe confirms that this kind of repeated stress so many of us are living through isn’t great for us, and isn’t great for our kids. I know this part of the background noise of worry many of us have in our heads. Some of the moments that have been hardest on my mental health had to do with navigating precarity around childcare, career stability, the health and safety of our family, not knowing when vaccines were coming (still waiting for the toddlers!) and of course the massive social and political upheaval that is blaring through everything.
For me, it was a bit of an “aha moment” to learn from Dr. Saxbe that it’s not just the concrete trauma of the last two years that have been harmful, but all of the uncertainty we’ve experienced legitimately takes a very real psychological toll. As a person with anxiety I find this somehow validating. Dr. Saxbe and I discuss how to think beyond our pandemic stress as something we’ve “inflicted” on our kids, what good public policy can do to your brain, and how to get people in power to take these ideas seriously.
Katherine Goldstein: When I talk to moms, and they hear something like “all the stress we’ve been living under causes stress in our kids and can have long term impacts.......” I think a lot of people hear that as something that they’ve done something wrong or that they’ve somehow harmed their children because we're all stressed. Certainly the pandemic is not our fault, but a lot of times people internalize these things, and we feel a sense of personal responsibility for global failures.
What would you say to parents who have been stressed, who feel like “maybe I've damaged my children by my stress?” Do you have words of encouragement for them?
Dr. Saxbe: First I would just say I think you're totally right. We frame parenting as an individual choice and an individual responsibility when in fact, it's a public good and these are public health problems.
These aren't full problems that individual parents should be fixing or are capable of fixing. But we've also seen generations go through sort of tremendous instability and adversity in the past, right? So I think what's most important is that adversity happens within the context of a stable, supportive family environment. So we can suffer the slings and arrows of life if we do so with a stable base -- a secure attachment relationship. And I think that's where parents can put their focus is on, is helping their kids feel safe and cared for.