Therapists help people cope, grow while social distancing

By Eric Berger, Associate Editor

To help people cope during this time of social distancing, Jan Nykin, a licensed clinical social worker, suggests that people could “say a morning prayer such as Modeh Ani or the Shema or words of prayer from your heart.”

Nykin and Sylvia Nissenboim, also a licensed clinical social worker, have therapy practices. They also are trying to help people improve their mental health through work in their synagogues. 

Nykin, who has a pararabbinic certification, leads a group discussion at Congregation Temple Israel called Exploring Life’s Journey, which asks the questions: “What is your purpose in life? Do God and spirituality play a role, and how do you fit into the larger universe?”

Nissenboim has led a number of classes at Central Reform Congregation, including one based on a book by New York Times columnist David Brooks, “The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life,” in which participants did a “deep dive into the search for greater meaning by ramping up the actions and activities in their lives.”

To try and offer some assistance to readers during this difficult time of pandemic and isolation, the Jewish Light spoke with Nykin and Nissenboim about challenges their clients are facing and how the two are helping them stay positive. 

(Their responses have been edited for space and clarity.)

What are some of the challenges or struggles that your clients are expressing? 

Jan Nykin: The people who have chosen to continue the therapeutic process [remotely] during this time have a structural basis that we have talked about while seeing them up to this point, so their challenges are putting into practice all of those coping mechanisms. That means to take this period of time to move toward a positive point in your life, moving away from isolation to connection as easily as possible, which is through the phone or through texting.

Many people, though, are feeling isolated, so it’s more about looking at the appropriate ways of connection so that you don’t endanger yourself or those you love but still feel connected. Isolation is really an emotional situation, not necessarily associated with the physicality of it, so you can feel isolated without the pandemic or you can feel connected in a pandemic.

Sylvia Nissenboim: I think they are dealing with uncertainty, and I try to approach that by reminding them that there really never was certainty. Certainty is a myth, it’s a fantasy. Sometimes our lives look very routine, so it feels like it’s set in stone, it feels like you know exactly what is going to happen. But at the same time, things happen that take us out of our routine, and we have to reinvent or figure out how to readjust. So we spend a lot of time talking about the reality that we have all been living in uncertainty. 

I think loneliness is a very big issue. Many of my clients live alone. Some are older adults and are either single or a spouse has died, so now they are alone in the house and can’t really get out and be with people. In the beginning, people were really anxious, thinking, what am I going to do, and how am I going to do this? And I have to say that I was really surprised at how quickly it sounded as if my clients were readjusting. 

What is surprising to me is that people are finding that they are OK, that there is a quiet and a calm and a safety, that they feel safe in their home, they feel safe in the routine that they have and have established some connections. I am just finding a remarkable amount of resiliency. Over these six weeks, people have really come to find a certain comfort in the routine of daily life.


Does that say anything to you about what life was like before the pandemic? That people are enjoying the pause?

SN: I don’t think that anyone is enjoying the quarantine. What I am hearing is that people are enjoying that things have slowed down, that the pace has slowed down and that there is time in the day just to sit in a chair and read. In the old days, in the pre-COVID days, it was a luxury to take hours and sit with a book, or even if you had the time, maybe we were all rushing around like mice in a cage and just felt pressured and an urgency to get more done and not to take the time to give ourselves relaxation time.


What advice are you giving clients to help them cope?

JN: Realize that coping is taking action, there is a sense of fulfillment in the doing process. Coping physically means doing everything within your power to stay safe. Follow the suggested guidelines for hygiene, health and safety. Do the best you can and be proud of your accomplishments. Move from pandemic physical well-being to personal physical well-being. 

As an integrated body, we must begin with a strong physical structure to build upon. What level of health you have must be maintained and hopefully enhanced. Make sure you get some form of exercise at least every other day. Be creative, maybe just walking or stretching or jumping rope. Phone or FaceTime a friend and exercise together. 

As much as possible, eat nutritious, balanced meals. Enjoy snacks and desert within reason. Continue to take your necessary medications and supplements.

Upon this sound body, we build an emotional, social structure to support you during this time. Create a reasonable daily schedule. Wake up at approximately the same time every day. Have a morning routine. For example, open your shades to see the outside world, say a morning prayer, light a candle, turn on relaxing music, make a cup of coffee or tea or juice, and now do several minutes of deep breathing. You might try the “sevens,” breathe in for seven, hold for seven, breathe out for seven, or you might meditate, making it simple and just repeating a calming word, such as shalom, Adonai or peace for several minutes. 

SN: When people feel really overwhelmed with the challenge of this, we talk a lot about grit and having faced challenges in the past. I’ve been working with most of my clients for quite a while, and so I know from their history and the stories they have already told me that they have gotten through very difficult periods and they survived. 

It’s not without sadness. Part of counseling is helping people connect with that emotion and not avoid it. There is grief that people are experiencing, and it may be on top of the grief of a spouse dying or the grief of a new diagnosis. So the grief of what is going on in our world right now, and in our country in particular, layers on top of an existing grief process, and so we talk about those things as well. 

It’s a reminder that people have already proved to themselves that they have the capacity to get through these situations, to adapt, to be resilient. It’s helping people reconnect with the skills that have made them resilient. 

The biggest thing with resiliency is self-care, so are you cutting back on your news watching? 

Certainly, the stuff that affects you, you don’t want to minimize that. You still need information, but you don’t want to overload. Don’t keep the news on all day long; it will just overload you.

It’s self-soothing, like breathing exercises and connecting with people, and it’s the optimism that I will get through this. I have gotten through many other challenges and course changes, and I will get through this. 

That’s kind of the blueprint that many of the conversations have followed as people have come to different stages of realizing that this is not going to go away April 1, not going to go away May 1, that it’s going to be here for a while.

There is no question that it’s a frightening time but, with that, there is a lot to be grateful for. Having a focus on gratitude, how lucky we are that we have access to food, that we have shelter, that we have connections and using a lot of gratitude work to get through what is scary. 

I am so grateful that I have work and am appreciative that I still have an ability to connect with people.

What is it like for you to be a therapist right now?

JN: I absolutely love being a therapist. It’s my whole life, and it’s so fulfilling to be honored by people trusting me with their personal life and secrets – to be able to help them take the strength that is there and to dissipate the pain and to understand where they come from with some modicum of appreciation.

It’s really like a rose, like a bloom opening up. You see people who come to me and are very constricted and are in a lot of pain, and for them, very slowly as they trust more and more, share more with me, we can work together to bring them the life that they really want to have. I find it such a pleasure and honor to help people through this process.