A psychologist discusses how to cope with pandemic stress and family options. Much has been written and discussed about pandemic-driven anxiety in our families and local communities.
In the early days of Covid-19, when shutdowns were widespread, we experienced the novelty of being confined to home for extended periods of time. Families celebrated more “together time” and embraced the opportunities for fun and relaxation in spite of external fearful events. Gardening, breadmaking and daily walks gained immediate popularity.
With the passage of time, the novelty wore off and tensions began to rise with safety concerns, financial fears, and parents working from home while attempting to manage their children’s online lessons. Mothers, and in some cases fathers, stepped away from their jobs to focus on fulltime childcare and home education.
Over a year has passed since our lives were altered so dramatically, but in varying degrees many of the initial challenges remain. With the surging “Variants of Concern” in the forefront of newscasts, stress levels have begun to peak once again, especially in countries that are still in the midst of vaccine rollouts.
Anxiety related to ongoing suffering intensifies over time, but can be managed in basic ways: talking, walking, writing … and adjusting one’s attitude and behaviour.
Taking time to talk about our fears or frustrations can be extremely beneficial. To prevent the pandemic from dominating every conversation, some families set aside a half hour, sometimes called a “family meeting,” a couple of times a week to discuss their current worries.
Additional sharing times can take place as well and include other aspects of life and the associated challenges and joys. Each family member tries to hear the others’ feelings as they take turns sharing. The aim is to simply reflect the feelings without falling into the trap of giving advice.
Grieving people heal over time by repeatedly sharing their sadness, guilt or anger. In the past this sort of openness was, in a well-meaning fashion, intentionally avoided or discouraged; we now know the importance of sharing emotions. Feelings will blossom or flood as they are addressed, and then they settle down.
Sidewalks and trails are popular now with families who rarely if ever walked together in the past. Walking releases body anxiety (neuro-muscular hypertension) in a way that writing or even talking cannot do. To add variety to the outings, it can be an adventure to explore new neighborhood routes or local parks.
Reading is a relaxing pastime that can transport each of us to other realities. Young children will relish the hours spent listening to their mother or father sharing a favourite story. Even an older child can be enticed into reading a book that aligns with his or her interests. The pandemic has given all us of more time to seek out spiritual books and to experience the profound value of meditation.
Writing about the Covid reality can be liberating. For those who have not begun a journal, it is not too late.
Journey back to those early pandemic days and recall the shadow of the pandemic and what you experienced in those early days. What happened those many months ago and what did you feel? What was the emotional impact? What changed for you?
Write whatever comes to mind, in brief spurts. This process may free up residual feelings and perhaps release their hold on you.
During the second World War, Anne Frank used writing to help her manage a pandemic of evil. Freedom had been wrenched from her and the fear of death was ever present.
Through her written words, Anne explored her limited world. She expressed the feelings that were generated through the severe deprivation and discovered that this process helped her to cope with the stark reality that had been forced upon her.
She continues to inspire anyone who has had the good fortune to read her diary.
Changes of attitude and behaviors
Covid calls for creativity. Psychiatrist Victor Frankl states in Man’s Search for Meaning that we have little control over what happens to us. We do, however, have control over “how we deal with what happens to us.”
Are there any silver linings related to the pandemic and its impact on your lives? Are there any new behaviors that you will retain when life returns to normal?
Prior to the Covid crisis, the therapists in our counseling practice only rarely offered virtual counseling sessions. Last March, during the first lockdown, they were forced to offer all their sessions online. This platform turned out to be a gift for some clients, such as the mother with young children who lives miles from the counseling office and is now spared the inconvenience of finding a sitter and driving for two hours.
Although many clients have reverted to in-person sessions as restrictions have lessened, many continue to opt for the virtual approach. This hybrid system of therapy will be retained after the pandemic.
Birthday celebrations have been a challenge during the pandemic. One of our granddaughters turned six in the Fall, and the usual family gathering was not able to take place due to restrictions. What transpired instead was a “drive by” birthday party by family members. At a scheduled moment, when the birthday girl was on her home driveway, a parade of half a dozen cars slowly drove by with music blaring, lights flashing and horns honking.
Our granddaughter exclaimed to her mother afterwards that it “was the best birthday of my life!”
Have you been glued to news broadcasts during the pandemic? The use of media in general should be limited, whether it be TV or video games or internet sites. There is an addictive quality to these mediums that can alter our ability to cope with reality. In addition, contradictory and confusing news reports can heighten our anxiety and feelings of helplessness.
Taking care of your spiritual self
When we take steps to strengthen our spiritual life, we are simultaneously strengthening our psychological life.
Being the first to love is one of the steps in Chiara Lubich’s Art of Loving. Reaching out to others during this period in our lives can be a healthy way to deal with the stressors of pandemic life. It can be as simple as thinking about friends and family and calling one person each day to see how they are doing. Making ourselves one with these people during our phone or facetime call, can offer a distraction from our own thoughts and worries.
There may be a neighbor next door or down the street who could use some concrete support. Checking in and perhaps picking up items from the store for them or doing other “acts of love” are wonderful ways to manage our stress and ease theirs. We are detached from our own concerns in the process of loving our neighbor.
What will life be like when the restrictions end? Some older people may be cautious and fearful about re-entering the outside world, as the pandemic may have led to hypervigilance. Younger people will savor their freedom and experience the joy of reconnecting with friends. Most of us will have a new appreciation of the value of relationships and how much we need each other to fulfill God’s plan.
By Denis Boyd
A couple of additional resources:
Arts and crafts activities: cbc.ca/parents.
Denis Boyd is a registered psychologist living near Vancouver, Canada