“I’m so blue today. Not anxious, not scared, just tired and depressed. I’m so sick of these days.”
“I reserve my right to force one of you to accompany me to my first AA meeting when this is over.”
“It’s been a really rough week and I just haven’t been up for doing much.”
We reached out to Dr. Bradley Stein for answers. Dr. Stein, a senior physician policy researcher at RAND, treats people with mental health disorders and is a practicing child and adolescent psychiatrist. Professionals and patients alike are stressed from this unprecedented situation and its growing list of unknowns, he says.
Social isolation, stress, a drastic change in daily routines: They all contribute to anxiety, depression and drug and alcohol abuse, Dr. Stein says. And of course, the devastating power of the coronavirus itself cannot be underestimated.
“There’s a legitimate fear of the virus,” he says. “The fear and anxiety that comes with that is real.”
Add in bored, restless kids, vanishing school and childcare resources, and new work-from-home mandates to the equation and the already tough job of parenting gets even harder. The menu of emojis on our phones and social media accounts doesn’t begin to cover the emotional rollercoasters happening in many of our homes these days.
“We have people around us who depend on us,” says Dr. Stein, who has four children. “There are many more demands than we normally face, and that can be stressful.”
But all is not lost.
For parents who feel a pull toward the dark side during this unprecedented time, Dr. Stein offers the following guidance.
1. Sound body, sound mind.
Everything you do to keep yourself physically healthy – proper sleep, fresh air and exercise, nutritious meals – can also help to alleviate anxiety, Dr. Stein reminds us. Stay aware of your caffeine and alcohol consumption.
Practice mindfulness and deep breathing, either with your children or as part of a mini me-time break during the day. When your body is anxious, the brain sends a message to your heart and lungs to speed activity. Taking deep, controlled breaths can send a return message to your brain to calm things down.
2. Know when to say when.
Parents with existing mental health disorders may find that latent demons are roaring back to life during these stressful times. Therapists, counselors and psychiatrists are responding by offering telehealth appointments with their patients by phone or video. Virtual support groups, like the Online Intergroup for Alcohol Anonymous, provide Zoom links to AA meetings across North America to cater to personal needs and schedules. Parents whose mental state may cause harm to themselves or others must seek professional help immediately. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Check out this list of Pittsburgh-based resources to find relief from a number of issues.
Parents who are (suddenly) working from home while managing kids in a (suddenly) homeschooled environment face constant demands on their attention and patience. If this is you, Dr. Stein says, coordinate with the other parent in your family to block off time and trade childcare duties. Give children more ownership over occupying themselves and their days by planning your daily schedule together. Single parents can seek support from each other or trusted friends and family who can be of help.
“Invest in time upfront thinking through and planning out what the activities may be, so you’re more proactive instead of being reactive,” he says. Having that degree of control can help in easing stress.4. Maintain your rhythm.
Your kids need a routine, however flexible, however laissez-faire. So do you. Enlist grandparents, aunts and uncles to schedule phone calls and other electronic connections, which can benefit the mental health of all involved. Feeling overwhelmed? Reach out to a friend, neighbor or relative to virtually maintain the social bonds to people who are close and not-so-close that you haven’t seen or heard from in a while.
The social rhythms we depend on — library story hour, after-school pickups, informal bus stop gatherings, catching up on the sidelines of a child’s soccer game – are on pause indefinitely. But while our routines have changed dramatically, creating new patterns during this time can go a long way in keeping us sane.
“Lack of routine can put us at risk for mental health issues,” Dr. Stein says. “Try to establish a general healthy daily routine of waking up, making meals, and having a bit more structure in your day.”
5. Give back to your village.
Parents can keep their mental health afloat by focusing on the positive things they can do right now. Being able to take action in the face of a crisis, Dr. Stein says, can combat feelings of helplessness that quickly spiral into more significant mental health issues. Text or call neighbors to find out what errands you can run for those unable to help themselves. Looking for more ways to help others? Click here.
6. Go on a social media diet.
Even against a backdrop of anxiety baking and comfort eating, a reduced intake of social media can do wonders for your worry lines. Limit the amount of time watching the TV news or tracking Twitter and Facebook to keep anxiety at bay, Dr. Stein says. Stick with trusted sources and skip misleading information.
Want advice in helping your kids deal with anxiety? Check out our recent Kidsburgh feature here.
This story is part of the Kidsburgh Mental Health Series funded by a grant from the Staunton Farm Foundation. The Foundation is dedicated to improving the lives of people who live with mental illness and/or substance use disorders. The Foundation’s vision is to invest in a future where behavioral health is understood, supported, and accepted.