Dr. Isaiah Pickens is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in consulting, counseling, and educational services for families, teens, and young adults. He is currently Assistant Director of the Service Systems Program at the UCLA-Duke National Center for Child Traumatic Stress (NCCTS), the coordinating site of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN).
In this role he is responsible for supporting diverse national, cross-disciplinary, and collaborative efforts to make child and family-service systems more trauma informed.
Prior to his role at NCCTS, Dr. Pickens was faculty at New York University School of Medicine and Bellevue Hospital Center in the department of child and adolescent psychiatry where he specialized in treatment of juvenile offenders who have a history of psychological trauma.
Dr. Pickens is currently a Steering Committee member of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges’ (NCJFCJ) and Office for Victims of Crime’s (OVC) Vision 21: Linking Systems of Care for Children and Youth, where he contributes to the effort to implement statewide screening for trauma and victimization in Montana and Virginia.
He consults NCJFCJ and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) on their National Schools-Justice Partnership project and the OJJDP Defending Childhood Initiative to implement trauma-informed practices in the state of California.
Dr. Pickens founded iOpening Enterprises, a multi-media company that specializes in health messaging through the creation of books, films, and life skills workshops for youth and the adults who care for them.
In 2016, Pickens released The Dawn of Generation Why a book about young adult identity development in the context of globalization and use of social media, keynoted numerous national events and conferences, and contributed to Psychology Today, Huffington Post, BlackDoctor.org as well as appeared as a trauma expert on national TV.
Dr. Pickens answers your questions below:
What do you say… when a 2nd grader come home from school and says Trump is a liar?
The first step is always to gain clarity before responding. This will ensure that you aren’t giving a young child information that he doesn’t understand or could cause more frustration/anxiety. Ask, “what makes you say Trump is a liar?”
After your child responds, it is important to be honest with your child and help him understand whether the statement heard was true or false. Helping kids accurately read situations can give them a skill to deal with their frustration and anxiety because distorted perspectives of reality can make the world scarier than it actually is.
Finally, regardless of whether the facts support Trump being viewed as a liar or not, it’s important to reinforce the values of your family and help your child understand how your family values honesty and displays integrity even when dealing with dishonest people.
What are some ways to control anxiety when you feel it is making you physically sick?
One of the first steps is to pay attention to WHEN it is making you physically sick. There are always triggers for our anxious reactions, but sometimes they are hard to identify. Triggers can include thoughts, places, time of year, or even certain people. Try to figure out what is happening when you begin to feel physically sick.
Once you identify these triggers, you are in a better position to manage them. Sometimes managing triggers means avoiding or limiting your exposure to certain people, types of conversations, or situations. Equally important is developing skills to manage anxiety.
Practicing skills such as mindfulness (being aware of the present moment/using deep breathing), monitoring your thoughts and having true specific statements that can counter your anxious thoughts (“Last time I had an exam it went better than expected even though I was worrying”), and making sure your life is balanced with de-stressing activities such as exercise, healthy eating, and connecting with people who uplift you.
It may take practice to use these skills, but the best thing to do is incorporate these skills into consistent routines when you are not anxious so that it becomes more automatic when you sense anxiety coming.
My dad, an avid Obama fan, passed away in October at 62. As a daddy’s girl, I feel the effects of #45 in a different way. I also work for the federal government. So on top of grieving, I am also afraid of losing my job. How do I deal with day-to-day anxiety associated with both?
Grieving is a difficult process, but that’s the important thing to keep in mind, it is a process. When we lose someone close to us, we can be reminded of that loss with anything that was connected with him. Our grieving can be further complicated when we have additional stressors such as worrying about work.
One of the reasons anxiety can be debilitating is because we are uncertain of the future and feel powerless. This applies to both the grieving process and anxiety about the job. A way to deal with this is finding a way to take control where you are able and acknowledging where you are not. While you won’t be able to bring your father back, there are ways that you can honor his life by giving to causes he cared about or connecting with people who will celebrate his life and grow by you sharing the lessons he taught you.
With your job, acknowledging the situation and being present in the moment are two important initial steps to dealing with the day to day anxiety. Anxious feelings grow when we are obsessing about the past or future–creating an endless list of “what-ifs” that we don’t know how to handle. By being present and focusing on the job right in front of you, it will help you feel more grounded and stabilized.
However, this doesn’t mean you neglect the reality of a uncertain professional future. One of the ways to really increase your anxiety is to pretend you don’t have any. You can actually schedule time to worry.
I don’t mean the unproductive worrying that overwhelms you, but a time where you honestly self-assess and acknowledge that you are feeling stressed because of this and will start to put a plan together in the event the worst happens. Having a person to share your feelings and plans with who is not negative toward you will give you even more support for managing day to day stress.
Why does anxiety cause chest tightness?
Anxiety is a stress response. It begins in a part of our brain called the limbic system. The limbic system is responsible for our emotions and memories. When we become very anxious, a part of our brain impacted by the limbic system called the hypothalamus sets off our nervous system. The nervous system is responsible for our fight, flight, and freeze responses when we feel anxious or threatened.
When this response is activated we feel ourselves become hot, stomach churn, muscles tense, or heart beating very fast. This response is generally responsible for chest tightening. When this is caused by anxiety, it is usually anticipatory anxiety that is making this happen.
This is what happens with panic attacks. A person is so hypervigilant and expecting to have a strong panic reaction, that the anticipation actually becomes more terrifying than the actual panic attack but also the anticipation becomes a trigger for the panic attack. This is generally remedied by working with a professional to reset the way you think about anxiety and slow your body down to better manage stress.
Good morning, what do you tell a child that is here on a student visa and their families here on a work visa? I’m a teacher in Wilmington and I have three students from another country here that are over here for education.
This can be difficult since we don’t actually know what will happen. When dealing with situations like this it is important to do 3 things: 1) be optimistic but realistic; 2) convey support and unity; 3) make class predictable.
For the first strategy, it’s important to not blanketly say ‘everything will be okay.’ This is problematic because it may invalidate the real fears that the student has when they need to feel validated and know the experience isn’t just in their heads. Also, it gives you less credibility to help them in the future because your statement may not be true and it becomes difficult to trust someone if you think the person is going to say whatever you want to hear.
However, it is important to use real world examples for how other families are dealing with this uncertainty and helping the students feel optimistic about their ability to plan with their families and organizations that support these families to manage worst case scenarios.
The second strategy is helping the students understand that they are not alone in these experiences. Without getting into specifics, letting them know that other students are struggling with the same issue and that you are there to listen and provide any support that you can will help them feel less isolated, which can really increase feelings of anxiety.
Finally, these students have so many issues on their plate outside of class, the less they have to figure out in the classroom the better. This doesn’t mean lowering academic expectations, but by making the class day predictable it gives students one less thing to worry about and potentially can give them a respite from thinking about the problems outside the classroom.
Being fully engaged academically in a safe, predictable environment can be one of the most stabilizing places for children. Here is another great resource from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
What is the best way to calm down senior citizens about possible cuts in Social Security?
One of the best ways to get to the heart of this issue is to figure out what a senior citizen thinks will happen if Social Security is cut. The issue isn’t really about the money, it’s about what they are counting on the money to do. Maybe it’s to pay for food or medication. Maybe it’s to have money to secure transportation to see family who is far.
Once you have an idea of the reason the social security funds are important, you can start working with the senior citizen to find alternative methods to meet these needs. Often once a practical plan is in place and people feel like they can create a stable situation for themselves despite challenges that loom, they tend to calm down.
How do I deal with my young Muslim students, ages 5 to 10, who ask me if I voted for Trump? They say they are scared. I am not Muslim and am being asked.
This is difficult because your students are really asking whether you are someone who supports them and whether they will be safe. If you feel uncomfortable sharing your political affiliations, then you should clearly tell them that you don’t share that information because you want to respect everyone who has different perspectives.
In addition to this, it is important to validate the feelings of your students and let them know you understand why they are scared. With kids this age, it can be helpful to discuss a time when you were scared and how you were able to deal with it in a healthy way such as by reaching out to someone or problem solving.
It doesn’t have to be related to politics or current events, but it will convey to your students that you are human and can connect with their experiences even though you don’t share their faith. You can also ask them what scares them about the current situation and try to clarify misconceptions they may have.
Finally, finding ways to keep them connected in the classroom by making the day predictable, providing opportunities to release anxious energy in fun and safe ways (like playing games), and connecting with your school mental health providers to identify and support students who may be experiencing debilitating levels of anxiety will go a long way to help students better manage their anxiety.
PHOTO: Courtesy Dr. Pickens