COVID-19 continues to dominate the news, and even the luckiest among us—those who continue to have income, flexibility, and health—are feeling stretched and stressed in ways we haven’t before.
Like most parents, the vast majority of your energy over these past few weeks has probably gone to helping your children cope with changing schedules, e-learning protocol, and anxiety about the “new normal.” Making time to focus on your own emotional health is likely at the very bottom of your list, but it’s far from a selfish or frivolous act—it’s actually one of the best things you can do to care for your family. Think of this time like being on a turbulent airplane: it’s rough and scary, but you have to pause and put on your own mask before you can be any help to others. Only by learning to manage your own anxiety—by taking the time to put on your own mask—can you truly show up for your children as a model of safety, generosity, and resiliency.
Get ahead of your anxiety.
- Learn to recognize symptoms of anxiety in yourself, physical and otherwise. Get in the habit of rating your anxiety on a scale of 1 to 10 throughout the day, and let your family know when you start feeling overwhelmed.
- Practice mindfulness or another form of meditation. If you don’t want to meditate, try running, swimming, playing guitar, or drawing—anything that keeps you focused and physically engaged while allowing your brain to “turn off” for a while.
- Make it a priority to take care of your body. Try to go to bed at a reasonable hour, eat a varied diet, exercise frequently, and try to get outside for a few minutes each day.
- Be mindful of your media consumption. Try to limit checking news apps to once or twice per day, and don’t have cable news constantly going in the background.
- Allow yourself to engage in some “silly” self-soothing behavior, as long as it’s safe and within reason. If it makes you feel better to make a family budget in Excel, reorganize the bookshelf, or alphabetize your spice rack—do it.
- Take some time each day to sit down as a family to focus on what is good, certain, and predictable. (“Today we are safe, we are loved and able to be together, and we have plenty of good food to eat.”)
Learn to cope with panic attacks.
- If your anxiety does lead to a panic attack, verbally acknowledge what is happening and recognize that you’re not in physical danger. (“I am anxious and am having a panic attack. I am safe. This will pass.”)
- Focus on getting control of your breath. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose, so that your belly expands, and exhale through your mouth. Repeat until you start to feel better.
- Make a conscious effort to relax your body. Starting at your head, focus on alternately tensing and relaxing each successive muscle group until you’ve worked all the way down to your toes.
- Don’t let fear scramble your brain. Remind yourself that you are in control and think about other times you were able to overcome difficult or stressful situations.
- Every few minutes, rate your level of anxiety on the 1 to 10 scale. This will force you to come back to the present moment and see that your anxiety is slowly getting better.
Be generous with the ones you love.
- Check in with friends and family members, especially those prone to anxiety or depression. Ask them to rate their own feelings using the 1 to 10 scale, and focus on being present and empathetic.
- Be aware of what produces anxiety in others, and don’t let your coping become someone else’s trigger. Don’t insist on a two-hour family budget meeting, for example, if it will soothe you but leave your spouse even more stressed.
- Try to have a kind, generous interpretation of others’ actions. For example, your kids are probably interrupting your conference call because they need your help, not because they’re trying to annoy you and make your day difficult.
- Keep in mind that children process stress differently, and acting out may be a sign of fear or anxiety. Work on helping your children name their feelings, and avoid punishing them when you’re stressed or anxious.
- Try to find comfort and meaning in the ways you can help others. Organizing a food donation, writing letters to quarantined grandparents, caring for a pet, even just warming up some coffee for your spouse—serving others is a great way to get out of your own head and see the positive impact you have on others.