Shanda Wells QA 110220 01-11022020135919

Dr. Shanda Wells from the UW-Madison Department of Psychiatry poses for a portrait at Wyldhaven Park in Monona. She has advice for people going into a challenging holiday season. 

With the COVID-19 pandemic adding an extra layer of anxiety during a contentious presidential election, this year’s holidays feel even more complicated than they did in 2016.

Dr. Shanda Wells understands. Wells is a clinical psychologist and adjunct faculty for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Psychiatry. The pandemic has been hard for everyone, she said. 

“The really tough part about this is we know enough,” she said, “but there’s still more we need to learn. We’re all choosing what kind of risks to take or not take.

“I’ve been really trying to encourage people to be confident in their own decisions but hear other people out. Otherwise it can pretty quickly dissolve into hurt feelings and arguments.”

As the Behavioral Health Manager for Primary Care at UW Health, Wells and her team have noticed a steep uptick in demand for mental health services — “the need is just very, very high,” she said. Their work since March has been conducted largely via telehealth, treating patients with anxiety, depression, substance abuse and other conditions.

As Wisconsinites approach an unusual Thanksgiving, Wells shared advice about how to set boundaries with loved ones, when (and when not) to have hard conversations, and her favorite meditative podcast. 

Many of us are weighing the risks of gathering for the holidays. How can people frame those conversations with their families?

It’s so hard. Everyone is struggling with this right now, especially in Wisconsin where our (COVID-19) numbers are so high. It’s hard to weigh what your comfort level is, and then balance that with what your family members’ or friends’ comfort levels are, because they might be different.

I have been talking to people about being clear about their own boundaries first, knowing ahead of time what you’re comfortable with and what you’re not comfortable with. And then trying to be open-minded in hearing the other person’s side.

It can go both ways, right? Maybe we are more comfortable taking some graduated risks. Or maybe it’s the other way around, where you aren’t taking risks when some of your loved ones are.

It’s good to go into a conversation knowing, “This is where I’m going to set a boundary,” but also being open to hearing the other person’s thoughts and ideas on it.

I’ve had complicated feelings when friends ask about my own COVID safety practices. On one hand, of course we should talk about it. But are they assuming I’m not being safe? It’s weird.

I think it’s good to acknowledge that we’re all experiencing this right now. It helps us come to a place of compassion rather than defensiveness. We’re all struggling. None of us has the answers, and it’s hard for everyone.

It’s good to take a step back and breathe before we have these conversations. It’s probably as hard for another person to have this conversation with you as it is for you to have it with them.

I spoke with a young woman who said she’s avoided talking to her parents about who they voted for in the presidential election for fear that she won’t like the answer. What are some pros and cons of not having those conversations?

I recommend that people be clear about their own boundaries and comfort level first. Because maybe for someone, in order to protect their emotional integrity in the moment, it’s best not to talk about it. And that’s OK. It’s OK to work hard on maintaining our well-being. Sometimes that means not having the conversation.

That being said, sometimes not wanting to have a conversation turns into avoidance. There comes a point when we might need to talk about things that are making us feel uncomfortable.

This seems like it would apply to family members taking different levels of COVID-19 precautions?

You decide ahead of time. So, “OK, I’m hearing from you that you don’t want to wear a mask, because you feel X, Y and Z. That makes me feel uncomfortable, so I don’t think I’m going to be able to see you this weekend.”

It’s always good to take a moment to take a deep breath. It sounds so simple, but it really helps. Take a breather, and tell the person, “This is hard for me to hear. That upsets me.” It’s good to label that, so other people know. Then say why it’s upsetting, and quickly transition to setting that healthy boundary.

“That upsets me to hear that, because I care about your health. I have already decided this is what I need to do for me and my health.” Owning our independent thoughts and feelings is important, while still respecting people’s autonomy and their ability to make their own decisions as well.

It seems particularly hard when a partner or a roommate doesn’t share the same safety concerns.

In many areas of life, other people’s actions don’t have to affect us as much. But with a virus, that’s not really how it works. So it does become harder. I think it’s always good to take inventory of what you have control over and what you don’t have control over.

You can’t control your spouse, as much as we would like to! Don’t get me wrong, that’s not easy. We’re all learning a lesson in human autonomy.

It’s easy to see one decision and extrapolate how that person feels about other things.

It is so easy to take others’ actions personally. And we all do it, everyone does it. Not only is it not true, most of the time, it doesn’t make us any happier. It doesn’t help us. It’s a very dysfunctional way of thinking about the world, even though we all do it.

Basic respect of other people’s autonomy does make the world a lot easier. But you know, COVID is a challenge to that. I don’t think that is necessarily the answer here — in a pandemic other people’s actions do affect us.

We can go back to recognizing our own comfort level and respecting that. And if there’s a way to reduce your anxiety, I think everyone should do it, if they have the capability.

Do you have recommendations on what we can consume to reduce anxiety?

I do like the Calm app; it’s one of my favorites. It’s visual and audio and they have a ton of stuff to choose from. They do a little intro for every one, which I think is nice to understand why you’re listening to the thing you’re listening to.

The other app that does a really good job is Headspace. Headspace is purely mindfulness-based. Calm is mindfulness and relaxation. I like them both.

My favorite podcast right now is Ten Percent Happier with Dan Harris. It’s all about meditation and coping. I highly recommend it.

What are some long-term effects we might see from this time?

I do hope that, if anything, this is teaching us all to have a lot more grace with each other. My kids have interrupted conference calls. We’re all seeing the humanity in each other.

It’s harder to pretend like people don’t have lives outside of work. I hope that’s for the best. I Hope people are a little more understanding.

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