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Licensed Psychologist, Dr. Sue Swearer on #TeaWithMrsG

Mrs. G: Welcome to Tea Time! I’m so excited today. I have a special guest for you. Dr. Sue Swearer. Sue is a longtime friend and colleague. Yeah, Sue, say, “hi!”

Dr. Swearer: Hello! 

Mrs. G: It’s really, really wonderful to see you and I’d like to just take a moment to read a little bit about Sue’s background and then get started with what I think is going to be a really wonderful conversation. Dr. Swearer is the Willa Cather professor of educational psychology at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and is the co-director of the Bullying Research Network, which connects bullying and peer-victimization researchers internationally. For the past two decades, Dr. Sue, that’s what I love to call her, has trained educators in strategies for helping reduce bullying behavior. She’s authored more than 100 book chapters and articles on the topics of bullying, depression, and anxiety in school-aged youth. Dr. Swearer has extensive background on what bullying is and the signs of bullying, how parents can use media as a learning tool for kids, and how social-emotional skills can help prevent bullying. Learn more about Dr. Swearer’s work at the Bullying Research Network (https://cehs.unl.edu/BRNET/), part of the Nebraska Bullying Prevention And Intervention Initiative (https://cehs.unl.edu/empowerment/). So, Sue, I’m so happy to see you and I’m really happy that you joined, and, you know, first things first. I told you to bring some tea. So, what did you bring today? 

Dr. Swearer: I brought some blooming tea and you make it in a clear pot and it just blooms like a flower. So, it’s a green tea and it’s beautiful it makes me smile. 

Mrs. G: That’s incredible. I’m going to have to learn about that. Well, have my lemon tea today and my favorite little leopard teapot. So thank you for coming prepared for tea. As I mentioned, I’m just so happy to see you and you’ve been part of the Born This Way family for a very long time, probably almost since the inception of the Foundation. You’ve been very instrumental in a lot of the research that we’ve done. We have really, really appreciated your leadership and you were also part of one of my favorite things I think that’s ever been part of the Foundation which is helping us craft the Born Brave Bus Tour, which is still ongoing. We don’t have a bus any longer, but we still have these incredible pop-up events in various cities that connect youth with their communities and it’s a way of connecting them to resources, tools, and tips to help them with their mental health and many other things. So thank you for all of that great work. You and I are very much in the same boat right now, Sue. We’re two working moms, everybody’s lives have been uprooted, we’re both home, we both have two daughters. I know you’re at home now working with your two daughters. I’d love to start by asking if you could share a little bit more about yourself, personally and professionally, for those who are less familiar with your work. 

Dr. Swearer: Sure! Well, thank you so much for having me on TeaWithMrsG. I love it. It’s just really great to see your face. We had such fun great memories from the Born Brave Bus Tour and I just love the work that Born This Way Foundation is doing in the mental health space, in the mental wellness space. It’s so important now, more than ever. Well just a little bit about me, I grew up on the East Coast and then migrated West for grad school and jobs and I’m a professor at the University of Nebraska, and as you mentioned I have two daughters, both who are seniors. One who is a senior in high school and one who is a senior in college and so certainly their senior springs have been disrupted and they are doing new things. There certainly some up’s and downs with feeling a sense of loss in terms of our daughter in college has to film her thesis defense and then mail her film to her advisor, so it’s very different than being able to do it in person. For our youngest daughter, obviously schools are canceled, and online learning is hit or miss, but she’s hanging out with her teachers and friends and making the best of it. They’ve had some fun things, which I wanted to share, so our youngest daughter is going to college in the fall and met some new friends from all over the world. A number of them hang out in a Google hangout and they did a Bob Ross class online, so I have a picture I wanted to show you. 

Mrs. G: That’s the painting right? 

Dr. Swearer: That’s what she did. 

Mrs. G: That’s incredible. What a great way to keep active, keep engaged and do something fun with your friend. That’s a beautiful picture, so tell her that it’s all over the place now. 

Dr. Swearer: I think she should frame it and take it to college. 

Mrs. G: Well, you know, I’m sure there are just so many emotions going through everybody’s mind right now. Particularly, young people. On one of my past Tea Time’s I talked about two emotions that have really been leading to a lot of heightened anxiety and sometimes even into depression, and I call them two clouds. There’s this cloud of uncertainty and there’s this cloud of the lack of control. I know that you have a lot of background in both of those areas, so I’d just love to keep that in mind as we enter a couple of these upcoming questions. Starting with, what would you see and say has been the most significant shift in your work since this virus and also for those that are in need at home just some resources. What would some tips and resources, advice and tools, could you share with our community? 

Dr. Swearer: Sure. Well, this is such an incredible time of uncertainty and people feel like they don’t have control over what’s happening and so as a licensed psychologist, one of the things we always talk about is what can you control. And we can control our thinking so, if a thought comes into my head that this is never going to be over, then I can do a technique called thought stopping and stop that thought and replace it with a more positive or adaptive thought. And then, when we can control our thinking and try to have more realistic thoughts or more positive thoughts, then that affects our mood so we feel better and then it can also affect our agency so then maybe I feel like ok well maybe I’m going to go for a run, I’m going to get outside, or I’m going to do 25 burpees (I hate burpees) but 25 burpees, in my living room just to do something that I can control. So I think it’s really important for people to think, ok what is it that I can control, and the things that we can’t control, then we just can’t worry about and I think that makes us feel better. 

Mrs. G: Of course, so it reduces some of that anxiety. What’s a specific technique for that thought stopping? Do you send a reminder to yourself? Do you just have to know that when your mind starts going there, to try to turn this tool on?

Dr. Swearer: Yeah, you try to say, “Ok, I’m starting to get into a cycle of negative thinking. I’m going to turn that around” and maybe even write down positive thoughts or positive affirmations that you can then use to replace. 

I supervise some of our psychologists in training and this week in supervision one of the students had a great strategy that I thought I would share, which is she’s planning an upcoming wedding and so she’s very worried and anxious about whether the wedding will even be able to take place, and so she said, “I just decided, I’m not going to think about it or worry about it until June tenth” and then she said, “I wrote it on my calendar, June tenth – worry about my wedding” and she said, “there’s nothing I can do between now and then because you don’t know what will happen. So she said, “ I told my whole family nobody can ask me anything related to weddings until June tenth” and I just thought that that was a great strategy. 

Mrs. G: That really is great. So she implemented her own form of thought stopping just by moving it out on her calendar. That’s really great. 

Dr. Swearer: That’s what she said, “There’s nothing I can do.” 

Mrs. G: So, also, I know you and I have spoken about in the past about other resources that might be available locally in someone’s communities. 

Dr. Swearer: Yeah, absolutely, I think one of the things I’ve been struck by in our community is our mayor every day holds a news conference and then shares resources in our local community. I never would have thought of maybe calling the mayors office as a resource, but then I started thinking I mean every community has some type of mayors office or health and human services and so for people to, if they’re not connected, to contact the mayor’s office or health and human services to try to get resources. One thing that I’ve noticed is that everybody is coming together to try to help each other. And so, I think that talking to friends and finding resources is so important. 

Mrs. G: It’s been a really nice thing to see, you know. If somebody is finding they need more than that at this point in time, I mean if they need some therapy, you know, treatments can be scary and just, you know, confusing sometimes. Just the names of some of them and there’s so many different types, you know, you and I have talked about Cognitive Behavior Therapy, there’s Dialectical Behavior Therapy and particularly for youth I think it can be scary. You know, when in fact these are just types of-of reasoning. They’re great tools and strategies for helping you get control of your thoughts and youth are facing so much anxiety and uncertainty now. You know, I know we spoke in the past about many different – um types of these therapies, can you just tell us a little bit about some of them that you might be familiar with? I know we talked about CBT and maybe some other types of therapies uh, you know, cross-cross therapies that people could take advantage of?

Dr. Swearer: Yeah absolutely, you know Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a widely researched and evidence-based treatment for depression and anxiety and other disorders. And so there is an association called the Association of Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, and they have a Find My Therapist locator, so the acronym for the group is ABCT and so, you can go to ABCT.org and find a therapist in your community. So that’s a really nice resource. Other forms of therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy,  is a very useful form of therapy in terms of when there’s times of uncertainty like we’re in right now, as well as Dialectical Behavioral Therapy is also a very useful tool. 

Mrs. G: You know my daughter, Stefani, who many people know as Lady Gaga, she is-practices DBT um, therapy and I know has really been helped enormously by it. Um when– 

Dr. Swearer: Well – One of the things- Yeah one of the– one of my students is doing a DBT group for adolescents over zoom. So that’s been an interesting um opportunity that’s come out of this- is the expansion of tele-health and tele-therapy. While I think in person therapy is obviously different and in many cases it might be better but, having these technological abilities to connect with our clients over zoom or tele-health is really terrific. And she said actually the group has been really fun because you know you can see peoples- the background of their house or where they are, so it’s just different than going to an office. 

Mrs. G: Yeah. I mean how would someone necessarily know which type of therapy would be right for them? And do different tele– tele-health services offer different types? 

Dr. Swearer: Yeah, so different providers will offer different types of therapy. And again I think going to maybe the local health department website to see, you know, what are the different types of therapists in the community. Googling people. Often word of mouth, just asking your friends who- you know do you see somebody? Do you like them? So much of the therapist-client relationship is so- you know it’s very personal obviously and so you want to find somebody that is one who is licensed and trustworthy and that has a good reputation and that you connect with. 

Mrs. G: For sure. You know, and for those who really don’t have access to those types of resources, you know. And our youth are- their lives have been uprooted and their routines have changed um, what are some ways to help your children at home? 

Dr. Swearer: Yeah, no absolutely. I think a routine is really important. And so, even if parents are working and their children are home to make sure that there’s a written schedule you know that people know that at this time I’m going to do x y and z. And allow schedule time for fun time, you know playing, doing puzzles. I think puzzles have made a resurgence in the past couple of weeks. 

Mrs. G: For sure yes!

Dr. Swearer: Um you know so having time scheduled I think is really important and critical and also the predictability. Again we might not be able to control next week but if I know I’ve got a schedule and I’m following that, that it creates a sense of stability and for children that’s incredibly important. I mean for all of us it’s important. 

Mrs. G: Well,  especially the little ones, but you know when you get a little older, teenaged, college; “I’m gonna get up when I feel like it” so how do you maintain a routine when you know you just wanna go with the flow?

Dr. Swearer: Yeah, absolutely. I think when parents can explain to kids, if you have a routine- even if you’re getting up at noon, then have a routine for the afternoon and evening, it’s really important. Um, again, it’s predictable, I can control the routine. And then you can schedule work time and playtime, reading time, exercise. Exercise I think is critical at this point in time for all of us.

Mrs. G: For sure. So your routine- there’s no pressure then, is what you’re saying. You don’t have to be up at 8 am like when you had to go to school, or even earlier. There’s no pressure necessarily. 

Dr. Swearer: I think it’s important for parents and for all of us to give ourselves some grace during this time. That this is an unprecedented time in all of our lives, and if people feel a lot of pressure to, you know, get great grades, you know I think a lot of schools are moving toward pass/fail. I know our university just extended the deadline for students to apply for all pass/fail. And I think that’s really great, because everyone is feeling a lot of stress right now and so the less stress we can put on ourselves in terms of expectations– You know I’ve read things like don’t think you’re gonna be as productive as you were when you went to the office. And personally that makes me feel better because I have a list of things that I need to get done and each week I’m like well I didn’t get that done and so it gives me some freedom to say ok, I’m not gonna be as productive because my schedule’s completely different, just like all of ours. 

Mrs. G: Yeah and you know we’re living under this. You know people talk about social distancing and we put that in a little bit different perspective at the foundation we talk about physical distancing and remaining socially connected. So how important is it to remain connected in times like these? 

Dr. Swearer: I think it’s just critical. It’s critical to facetime, zoom, talk to people, um– one thing that I read which is interesting, ‘cause I had had this experience was now moving classes to zoom- at the end of class I just felt exhausted. And I thought well, you know, when I’m in class for two hours and fifty minutes face to face I never feel exhausted. And there was some study that said there’s a dissonance in your brain when you – so I see you and you see me, it’s great to see your face, but we’re not in the same room and so they said your brain is almost kind of tricked into thinking we’re together but we’re not. And so that’s where this kind of tiredness comes in. I’ve noticed a lot of my friends who are teachers have said they just feel more tired on zoom. Um or on you know-

Mrs. G: You think the tiredness is a kind of anxiety from not being in the same room, or, or some other factor? 

Dr. Swearer: Yeah or just it’s a different right? I mean this is so different for all of us that I think it just takes energy to process something that’s new and different. And I’ve noticed that as the weeks have gone on, I’ve become more comfortable teaching in this modality. I still miss the face-to-face um but I’ve become more comfortable. And so it’ll be interesting to see, when this is you know, over what our work worlds or the academic worlds will look like in terms of face to face or distance or online. 

Mrs. G: Yeah, because you know we’re more resilient and adaptable I think than we realize. That’s been one of my ‘lessons learned’ that people are adapting – that’s young people, older people. It’s unfortunate that it occurs in this way. But I think you’re right. We’re not quite sure what it’s gonna look like afterward. But because of all of the changes that people are dealing with, what are some of the ways that you recommend that people at home could take care of their mental health right now? Any specific resources, really, any tips that you would like to share?

Dr. Swearer: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I mean certainly the tried and true ‘make sure you get enough sleep’, and you’re exercising, and you’re eating well. Those are all really important. But I do think this idea of cognitive training is really important if you find yourself getting stuck in negative thinking, really training yourself to substitute those thoughts. One of the things I found as I was watching a lot of news and then feeling really hopeless, and so I really limited my news consumption. So I think people have to be aware of how they’re spending their time, and then be very strategic about making sure the time that they’re spending is productive and helpful. So, helping a neighbor, helping family members. I’ve done a lot of organizing around the house – projects that I have put off. So in many respects, it’s an opportunity to get things done. If you have a yard, do yard work and be outside. So, really thinking about and being very mindful of how we’re spending our time I think is really important in terms of mental health. And I think then if people feel like ‘I’m just overwhelmed with anxiety’ or ‘I feel really hopeless’ then seeking out support in the community through therapy, group therapy. Again, I think one thing that has been really a positive explosion of telehealth. There are a lot of options now that we really didn’t have before. 

Mrs. G: In your opinion, do you feel that telehealth will now be more present moving forward?

Dr. Swearer: I think it will be. And I think we’ve always done telehealth in more rural areas because it’s hard in many rural areas for people to get to a provider. But now I think this has kind of normalized it for the entire country. Again, I think that’s a real positive because I think it’ll give people more options for therapy than maybe they had in the past. 

Mrs. G: Yeah. We also found, and I know Sue, you were part of this research when we found that depending on the age group for young people, they react differently to services. So, the younger youth prefer an anonymous service like texting or talking, and the older ones might be more inclined to do a live session with a therapist. So, I suppose in that respect that now that people can experience telehealth you’ll have a different perspective on it. 

Dr. Swearer: I think so, and also from a provider perspective. I’ve said to our students, they’re learning a really valuable skill. The providers or psychologists who have been in practice for a while, they’ve had to learn how to do telehealth. And so now I think it’s given everybody greater flexibility in terms of when this is over, probably most practices will have a combination of face-to-face and telehealth, but I think telehealth has really opened the door to reaching more people which I think is really amazing.

Mrs. G: It’s really amazing, yeah. I’d also like to mention that we also have tips on our website, bornthisway.foundation/gethelpnow. We have partnered with the National Council for Behavioral Health as well as the National Association of School Psychologists. And we offer tips and resources, not only in this time, but always there for your health as well. So, Dr. Sue, the other thing is I was listening to my daughter on a show this morning. And she spoke about, she kind of mentioned, you know everyone is talking about currency these days – financial currency, all types of currency. And she talked about kindness currency and how important it was for all of us to be kind right now. I know I see that in many communities, and seeing it on television. I’m reading about it, where people are really rallying and coming together and being kind. We can’t underestimate the interrelationship between kindness and your mental health. I know that we’re really hopeful that that continues, that that becomes a habit during this time and just continues. Are you seeing the same?

Dr. Swearer: Yeah, I mean you’re seeing people making masks and neighbors helping each other. We have a neighborhood email chain that goes around – anybody who needs something, or someone’s going to the store because we’re trying to only go one person at a time. And so, I think people are reaching out in ways, at least in my experience, that I haven’t seen before. I noticed if I see a neighbor, people stop – and we’re six feet apart – but people stop and say “Hey, how are you doing?” versus before this, I think a lot of the time you’re busy, you get home, you go to work. I do see that people are stopping and slowing down and being kinder, and I hope that lasts.

Mrs. G: I do too. Very much so. Well, I would love to end on that note. Let’s end with resilience and with kindness. So, Dr. Sue, are there any last thoughts that you’d like to share with anyone that’s listening right now?

Dr. Swearer: I think ending on a kind note is a great way to end – everybody thinking about ‘what can I do today, tomorrow, to be kind to my family, myself, my community, and my neighbors?’

Mrs. G: Well, thank you for your time, treasure, and talent today. Thank you for all that you’re doing. Thank you for all the support you’ve provided over years to Born This Way. I would like to toast you with some lovely tea.

Dr. Swearer: Thank you, Mrs. G.

Mrs. G: And thank you again, Dr. Sue. Alright, cheers!

Dr. Swearer: Cheers!

Mrs. G: Talk to you soon!

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