Anxiety in and of itself is not bad or dangerous. It is in fact a very natural part of the human experience. Anxiety helps to motivate and energize us to complete many important tasks such as studying for and writing exams, preparing for presentations, organizing events, executing household chores and providing care for those around us. When anxiety increases it can feel uncomfortable, and when it becomes extreme it can feel debilitating. When anxiety seriously affects someone’s ability to function in their everyday lives it is usually recommended that they seek professional help to learn how to manage their symptoms.
The below steps are some practical approaches that can be helpful to parents and care givers when dealing with pandemic-related anxiety:
- Acknowledge that we are unable to change the situation, we can only change our reaction to the situation.
- Recognize that because our external structure to a large extent has disappeared, (work, school, sports, religious worship etc.), it is important to organize our interior lives to compensate. Developing a structured approach to each day helps to provide predictability and productivity, along with a sense of accomplishment. So for example, making a schedule that has specific blocks of time for eating meals, household chores, work activities, play activities, digital social interaction, physical exercise, meditation and entertainment- movies, board games etc. , and relaxation, will give us that sense of purposeful living.
- With the unpredictability swirling around outside, it is important for us to set boundaries on the inside. Along with structuring time, saying no to excessive demands and taking time for self-care are vital to maintaining mental and physical well-being. And to reinforce what is already well known: eating well, sleeping well, and regular physical exercise must be given priority. Without these foundation blocks of healthy existence it is difficult to function effectively in other aspects of our lives.
- By recognizing and paying some attention to symptoms of anxiety we can quite readily implement strategies to mitigate their effects. So if we become aware of that feeling of uneasiness and irritability possibly triggered by the fact that we can no longer meet that friend, or drive by for a doubles, we can try to articulate the feeling to someone close, and then come up with alternatives such as making a fun snack at home, laying in a hammock with a cold coconut water, cuddling with a spouse and/or child, or looking at old pictures in an album and reminiscing. These are of course examples, and you can choose any positive activity that will work for you.
- When anxiety is provoked by a thought that comes into your head, it may help to ask: “is this thought helpful?” and “Is it helpful right now?”. If it is not, you can consciously dismiss it by using creative visualization to watch it float away on a cloud in the sky or on a leaf down the stream, or place it in a file in your mental file box for later use if necessary. It is important to differentiate thoughts that are based on fear and thoughts that are based on reality.
When children are displaying symptoms of anxiety adults need to acknowledge this and allow them to articulate what they are thinking and feeling. Some techniques for helping children to manage anxiety are as follows:
- Validate their feelings and thoughts. Let them know that it is okay to express them
- Explain things to them as appropriate for their age
- Hug them and reassure them
- Teach them child appropriate breathing exercises – Gently placing your hands on your tummy, slowly breathe in, counting 1-2-3-4, feel tummy rising like a balloon, then slowly breathe out counting 1-2-3-4, as if you are lightly blowing bubbles through your lips. Repeat 4 or 5 times
- Practice yoga stretches with them – some favourites are mountain pose, tree pose, eagle pose and downward dog. Any other stretches will work just as well.
- Encourage them to start a garden or look after a plant
- Allow them to help to look after a pet
- Make available activities that can help to distract them such as puzzles, building blocks, activity books etc.
- Allow them to expend energy through indoor dance party/ exercise or outdoor play activities
- Include them in activities with adults in maintaining order in the home.
Normalizing feelings for children can help them to be more at ease with the unusual circumstances in which we find ourselves in the past few weeks. “It’s okay to feel fearful, it’s normal to feel anxious, worrying is expected”. Having adults listen to their concerns, discuss with them, and assist them in determining what will help them to feel more secure and in control is an important aspect of managing their anxiety. It is not helpful for children to be told “you shouldn’t feel…” and “you shouldn’t think…”. Instead, by acknowledging their thoughts and feelings and discussing with them, “help me to understand what made you feel or think…” they will feel respected and valued and be more likely to communicate openly with adults in the home.
Lystra Mahabir-Mongroo, Self-Care Psychotherapy & Counselling Services
B.A./B.S.W., M.S.W., EMDR II, C.Hyp.