This article re-visits strategies I wrote about at the beginning of “lockdown” in March 2020. The course of the pandemic has changed but many adults and children continue to experience heightened worry and anxiety. I explore how you can help yourself and your child with worry and anxiety during the pandemic.
Your Worry and Anxiety During the Pandemic are a Normal and Understandable Reaction to an Out-of-the-Ordinary Situation.
Your child’s worry and anxiety during the pandemic are also normal. But how can we help your (and them) to feel less distressed? How can we help our minds to manage the situation?
Notice the Symptoms But Don’t be Frightened of Them
Physical symptoms of anxiety are a normal reaction when the brain perceives danger. The danger is not always as big as the brain thinks it is. It reacts in a similar way whether it is a tiny danger or a major danger.
You can help your child to notice these signs, and explain how normal they are. This will help your child feel less frightened. Try drawing a picture of a human body and asking your child to draw what they feel when they are worried or anxious.
Be Patient With Yourself
These symptoms are simply your body’s way of trying to protect you. When your brain senses danger (whether real or perceived) it starts to trigger a fight or flight response (in a “better safe than sorry” kind of way) to get you to safety. It is telling you to run away or fight the perceived danger, and it prepares you, physically, to do this. Every symptom is part of that clever process. For example, a burst of adrenaline and an increase in the stress hormone cortisol, energize you and make you alert. This is connected with feeling sweaty or shaky, an increase in your heart rate (which can feel scary), and a change (quickening) in your breathing which can make you feel out of control.
Of course, with coronavirus, the primitive fight or flight response isn’t helpful. Your brain doesn’t know this, and it is very difficult to override fight or flight.
These Feelings Will Pass
Do not be annoyed or cross with yourself, or feel that you “should be coping” better. The feelings will pass when your body feels safe again. However, it is important to try to manage the anxiety, both for yourself and your children. I read a really helpful quote. Here it is:
If you can support your child (or children) to feel safe and contained, they will remember this as a time of togetherness and it will strengthen your bond. Think about how you want family life to be. This article will help you reflect.
The ideas below are designed to help you and your child feel as calm as possible during the pandemic.
Strategy 1: Shift Your Focus to What You Can Control
This is a strategy to help you sift through your worries and concerns. If you have worries on many different levels at the moment (immediate family, extended family, work, businesses, society, the world), congratulations, you are normal! However, we can feel less out of control if we can put aside those worries that we can do nothing about. Take a look at the diagram below.
Write out your own version of this on a piece of paper.
Here are some examples of things I cannot control right now:
- Which “Tier” of coronavirus measures my local area is in.
- Flights/trips/holidays being cancelled.
- Other people’s behaviour.
Here are some examples of things I can control:
- Eating well and ensuring my children eat well.
- Prioritising sleep in the family to ensure strong immune systems.
- Making time for a fun family activity once a week.
Make your own list. Then make an intention to focus on the things in the circle – those things you can control. When the other things come into your mind, do not be cross with yourself, just acknowledge them and choose to re-focus.
Strategy 2: Limit Access to the News to Limit Worry and Anxiety During the Pandemic
The news, on TV, in print, and online, is not balanced. For understandable reasons, there is a focus on bad news (for example, people dying, rather than people recovering, from coronavirus). Therefore, to help your brain be more balanced, try to limit your access to the news. Much more importantly, limit your child’s access to the news. Children’s brains have not yet developed the ability to balance their fears with rational thoughts – this comes in the teenage years and early adulthood when connections between the frontal cortex and the limbic system strengthen.
Strategy 3: Work on Your Breathing and Consider Exploring or Returning to Mindfulness
Deep, slow breathing helps stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system – the part of the nervous system that calms and soothes us.
Mindfulness is not just about breathing but there is a strong connection. Mindfulness also teaches us to observe our thoughts and choose which ones to engage with, which is a crucial skill in the current climate, with worries and anxiety about coronavirus threatening to overwhelm our brains at times. I highly recommend the four week NHS-approved online course called BeMindfulOnline. This is suitable for adults and teenagers. I did the course back in 2012 and it was life-changing!
If you prefer books, I recommend Finding Peace in a Frantic World, which comes with audio CDs. There is also a website containing some lovely free meditations for you to try. For children, Sitting Still Like a Frog is fantastic, especially at bedtime.
Strategy 4: Focus on activities that soothe the senses
When the nervous system is on high alert (see above), all the senses are working very hard, and you may notice that you feel increased fatigue. Every family is different so write down some activities that soothe your senses and your child’s, and schedule at least one every day. This will contribute to a calmer nervous system. Think of all the senses. For example:
Taste: Make soothing hot chocolate or a comforting casserole.
Touch: Have a sensual bubble bath. Wrap your child tightly in a blanket.
Smell: Go outside and explore the smells of the plants and flowers you can see.
Hearing: Focus on using a calming tone of voice in your family, play calming music.
Vision: Spend time making at least one room into a calm, uncluttered space where your mind (and your child’s) can rest if you need to spend a lot of time at home.
Overall, getting outside is really crucial if you possibly can. There is research showing that the sights, sounds and smells contribute positively to wellbeing, and are calming for the nervous system. This article summarises twelve incredible benefits of spending time outdoors.
Strategy 5: Keep Up as Many Routines as You Can
Children generally thrive on structure and routine, as do adults. Routine and predictability are especially important in times of uncertainty such as these. Routines make us feel a little more in control, and enhance feelings of safety. Preserve as many routines at home as you can. If you have movie nights with your child on a Friday, and you go for a walk on a Saturday, then make extra effort to keep these going.
Strategy 6: Notice and Create Some Positives out of Adversity
This can be really hard if you are feeling overwhelmed. Come back to this one another time if you need to.
Even though we are facing challenges – emotional, social, financial, and more – we are also facing some things that will have silver linings. We may get to spend more quality time with our immediate families. Also, our children are learning to develop resilience in the face of difficulties, which is one of the three essential elements of self-esteem.
Help your child to think about some of the positives that are coming out of this crisis on a global scale, such as the benefits to the environment from less international travel. Here is an example of good news that I found!
What to Do If You Need Further Support
In the first instance ask your GP to refer your child to a local service offering evidence-based treatment. Many NHS services are overwhelmed at the moment and your child may not be accepted for therapy unless their anxiety is very severe. If your child cannot be seen in the NHS or the waiting list is long, the good news is there are other options.
Firstly, you could seek support from an independent clinical psychologist through ACHiPPP, the Association for Child Psychologists in Private Practice.
Secondly, you could take my online course, Outsmart Anxiety.