Sophisticated Psychologist Mom on the Street Nicole Pensak has a passion for mental health and wellbeing, which is evident through her work and her caring lifestyle. She inspires and helps moms, all while balancing family life and writing a book! Read on to learn more about this extraordinary mom!
Dr. Nicole Amoyal Pensak is a Clinical Psychologist and owner of Atlantic Coast Mind & Body in Little Silver, New Jersey. She specializes in treating mothers with perinatal mental health conditions.
She received her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Rhode Island and completed her predoctoral internship at Yale School of Medicine. She completed her practicum training in Neuropsychology at Brown University and completed postdoctoral fellowships in Behavioral Medicine and Palliative Care at Massachusetts General Hospital/ Harvard Medical School and the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.
She is the former Director of Psycho-Oncology at Jersey Shore Medical Center and Assistant Professor in Oncology at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She also held positions as Assistant Scientist at Hackensack Meridian Hospital and the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. She has published over 26 scientific articles in peer-reviewed journals, presented at over 30 national conferences, and is the recipient of 15 grants and awards recognizing her scholarly research.
She is a mother of two; Jordan, age 5, and Max, age 2.5. She enjoys spending time with her husband and children at the beach, making up silly games at home, and snuggling and watching movies together.
Sophisticated Psychologist Beginnings
When did you first know you wanted to work in therapy/ as a psychologist?
I knew I wanted to be a psychologist in my Introduction to Psychology course at the University of Florida. I read about Freud and the subconscious mind and I was fascinated by understanding what drives our psyche. I continued to study Freud and focus on psychodynamic therapy. I switched gears when I worked at the Burn Unit at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. I loved the fast-paced academic environment of the medical hospital, learning from rigorous research, and learning how to prevent the development of posttraumatic stress disorder in patients with burn injuries.
The notion that you could help people in the direst of circumstances inspired me to work with the most challenging medical patients; which is how I spent most of my early career as a Clinical Psychologist. My experience working with medically complex patients informs my current work with mothers in early parenthood, considering the immense biopsychosocial changes in the maternal brain and body as well as the very real difficulties of child-rearing.
Tell us a little bit about your background in being a psychologist.
As I mentioned, I started in medical psychology working with patients with severe medical conditions. I loved the challenge of helping patients cope in more adaptive ways amidst experiencing very real difficulties. I love treating anxiety and in the medical sphere, a lot of anxious thoughts are valid concerns. My background is heavily academic, where I spent many years conducting research and being trained in evidence-based treatments. I use the science to inform my practice working with moms with anxiety, postpartum, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
My main specialty is working with mothers with high-functioning anxiety or depression. High-functioning depression and anxiety look different than clinical anxiety or depression. In the former, the patients are able to function at a high level but are really suffering on the inside. They likely have developed excellent compensatory strategies to cope with high levels of internal distress. Often friends and family would not even know the patient is suffering. Many times, the moms themselves don’t realize how much they are really suffering. They are just used to functioning at high levels at the cost of their own mental health.
The Importance of Mom’s Mental Health
What are the main areas of therapy that you focus on?
Currently, I specialize in working with mothers and parents in early parenthood. I specialize in treating postpartum and perinatal mental health conditions. I also specialize in treating patients with high-functioning anxiety and depression
What made you begin to focus on maternal mental health?
My program of research in academia focused on improving stress management for caregivers of patients with advanced illness. I developed an evidence-based, brief and effective program to help caregivers manage their distress with the premise that the better they take care of themselves, the better they will take care of others.
Since running my own private practice and becoming a mother myself, I easily saw the parallels and used the science for caregivers to translate to myself personally as a mother and for my patients. After all, mothers are the ultimate caregivers. However, it’s easy for mothers to put their needs last. Societal expectations, practical constraints, as well as mom-guilt and mom-shame support this faulty premise, that the mother must sacrifice herself for the well-being of the child. Science does not support this notion, so I have made it my mission to focus on this integral area of clinical practice and research.
What do you see most young mothers struggling with most in their mental health?
I see a ton of mothers getting through their day “successfully,” but suffering from high functioning depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. I see mothers that accept the suffering and ignore, numb, self-medicate, and/or have trouble talking about their honest experiences as mothers. I see mothers struggle with shame and guilt when they admit their complicated thoughts and feelings surrounding motherhood.
I see mothers that did not get proper perinatal mental health screenings and treatment. I also see mothers not aware of the very real brain changes and identity transition that occurs when they become a mother. My mission is to advance the conversation and inform mothers of the immense brain plasticity during this period of time and how to use that knowledge to better protect their brain and support maternal mental health.
What are some of your tips and suggestions for young moms wanting to better their mental health?
First, if something feels off, consult with a mental health professional to get feedback. Even if you are not interested in therapy, just getting an evaluation to understand what is going on can be helpful. Obviously, I am going to be biased and advocate for therapy and treatment. I want mothers to understand that even if they are not suffering from clinical levels of anxiety and depression, that therapy can help with problem-solving, personal growth, and thinking differently about a situation. Besides real treatment, I do think of therapists as a thought partners and about collaborating to thrive in early motherhood.
Sophisticated Psychologist Rewards, Challenges, and Book
What are the most challenging and rewarding parts of being a psychologist?
I love when my patients get better and make healthier decisions in their lives. That is extremely rewarding and never gets old! I love helping mothers break the cycle of what they experienced in childhood; trauma, abuse, neglect, and maladaptive parenting. No matter how a mother was parented, they can parent differently. They can work on themselves more, and being in treatment is actually the best gift you can give your child/children because the greatest predictor of childhood well-being is maternal mental health.
It looks like you are also working on a book! How exciting! Tell us a little more about it.
Yes, I am thrilled! The book is about early motherhood and maternal brain plasticity and will be published by Norton in Spring 2024. The book is part narrative, part prescriptive and focuses on the very real brain changes that occur in early motherhood, brain plasticity, identity transition to motherhood, peripartum mental health, mom shame, mom guilt, mom rage, and how to thrive and not just survive this phase.
I also advocate for the brilliance of mom-brain and the process of fine-tuning to transition to the role of primary caregiving. Through personal stories, patient examples, and the latest research, I provide evidence-based strategies to help moms better understand what they are working with under the hood in order to thrive in early motherhood. You can follow me on Instagram @drnikkipensak to stay updated on the book!
Where can people follow you on social media and online?
Sophisticated Psychologist Style
Which three words best describe your style?
Sophisticated, Classic, Comfortable
What are your favorite places to shop?
I love searching for designer items on sale. I never pay full price and I enjoy the hunt!
Who’s your favorite style icon?
There are so many! I think of fashion as art. Some of my favorites are Blake Lively, Rihanna, and Kate Middleton.
What’s your best style advice?
Wear what makes you feel your best.
Stillettos or Flats?
What article of clothing/accessory would you not want to live without?
Black athletic leggings.
What should NEVER make a comeback?
Low waisted pants
What’s your best style secret?
Wearing black. A great skin care regimen (I currently use Biossance) and sleep.
Sophisticated Psychologist Family
What’s your favorite way to spend time with your family?
I love spending time with my family at the beach. We live close to the beach so we try to get there often. It’s my happy place!
What’s been your best family vacation?
My favorite family vacation thus far was our recent trip to Stowe, Vermont. We taught my daughter how to ski and ice skate, and my younger son played in the snow. The village was beautiful, very kid-friendly, and we had lots of family bonding.
Best parenting advice:
That I have received: You and your child are developing with each other, so be patient. Learn your child. Just add water. Connection first. Focus on repair.
That I will give: Tons- stay tuned for my book! I always say do the hard work on yourself and work through your inner conflicts. Mother yourself first. I lean into taking care of myself more and that helps me be a better mother to my children. You can’t serve from an empty vessel. Protect your mom brain.
Parenting true confession:
I am an expert in early motherhood and maternal mental health and I still lose my patience, yell, and feel like a failure at times. I also do not micromanage what my children eat. I focus on big picture. Children regulate their food intake on a weekly basis, not a daily basis. So I keep that in mind if they want cereal for dinner or are not hungry for breakfast.
Go-to dinner for the family:
Salmon in the air fryer- a game changer, steamed broccoli, and whole-wheat pasta.
Sophisticated Psychologist Life
What’s your favorite show to binge-watch?
If you could pick anyone to star as you in a movie based on your life, who would it be?
What’s your favorite beach read?
So many! Most recently, I read Verity by Colleen Hoover. I love a psychological thriller.
What song would you dance to when nobody’s watching?
I love to dance and preferably to ’90s hip hop or rap.
If you could go shopping with anyone from history, living or deceased, who would it be?
Stevie Nicks- I just want to meet her and I would love to wear some of her gypsy-like outfits.
What’s at the top of your travel bucket list?
So many! Lake Como, Morocco, Greece
What’s your favorite way to unwind at the end of a long day?
Sleep! I also love to cuddle up with my kids and later spend time with my husband and watch a show together.
Inspiring and Healing Moms
We love how this Sophisticated Psychologist Mom on the Street has shaped her therapy practice around helping moms through the hard times and changes that come with motherhood. She offers so much wisdom, compassion, and practical advice. Be sure to follow her on Instagram and her website to keep up with her work and life.
And for more interesting and inspiring moms, check out FamilyApp’s Mom on the Street page!