Feeling anxious? Here’s how you can survive, cope
As I write this I bear the anxiety and grief of just hearing that a dear friend and colleague has been isolated with her family at home and placed on the COVID-19 protocol. She has the symptoms. Her physician said that she could not be tested yet. This is real!
We need enough anxiety to stay prepared, but we do not need panic, terror and despair. The COVID-19 pandemic dominates the news cycle and heightens our fears. As the anxiety builds, families are confused about what to believe and are looking for ways to cope.
A flustered friend called to ask how
she could convince her aging parents to exercise caution. As she panicked, they became more confused. She asked, “Who can we trust”?
“I’m nervous, scared, and don’t know what is going on” confessed one young mother.
“Our home is a madhouse with three bored kids out of school and both of us working from home,” lamented a college professor. External stress can intensify the conflict levels between family members.
We have an angst overload!
Where do we turn when all else fails? What can we do with our fears, anxieties and worries in the face of the mixed messages, conflicting advice and alarming news reports?
When the COVID-19 outbreak arrived in the USA, physicians, public health officials and local leaders gave guidance. Some people were alarmed and others carried on with business as usual. But when the NBA, NCAA and Disney World suspended their operations, more people took notice.
We are starting to understand the new realities of social distancing. Tweets of long check-out lines and empty store shelves reflect more than inconvenience. Now travel is restricted, businesses are suspending services, schools are rushing to go online, and places of worship are canceling services or using social media to broadcast services. Hopefully, these changes will reduce the spread of this strange illness and “flatten the curve” (slow the incidence of new cases).
This anxiety is likely to grow, and our social angst indicators already flash red for overload! The demands exceed our resources nationally, medically, economically, socially and personally. Children are confused as their school routines are disrupted. Athletes, musicians, artists and others are disappointed in the loss of their opportunities and dreams. Parents struggle to plan childcare, workers are idled, and businesses are grappling with their future.
I must confess, “I too feel the stress!” However, as a clergyperson trained in psychology, psychiatry, pastoral care and family counseling, I have guided families during their darkest times. We have journeyed in the valley of the shadow of death and feared no evil. We have faced betrayals, economic loss, unthinkable compromise, depression, anxiety and unending grief and found peace in the valley and harmony, goodwill, and serenity on the other side. So at the risk of sounding like an old grandfather (which I actually am) permit me to suggest a few guidelines for facing anxiety in the national emergency called COVID-19.
This is a threat, take it seriously
Bear in mind the folly of imprudence. One person thought taking precautions was “crazy.” Minimizing the threat won’t make it disappear. Laughing this off won’t help you and might put your older family members at risk. This is a real threat, but it is manageable. Most of you who get sick will recover from a flu-like illness at home. Think of others who are at a higher risk; we have a moral obligation to take precautions for them.
Get the facts and make a plan
Go to cdc.gov for reliable information. Listen to the medical experts and understand the actual danger. As a family or friendship group share thoughts and make a plan together. Commit to it and to each other. Stay at home if you are sick, have an isolation room, wash your hands, sanitize surfaces and avoid crowds, etc. By now you have heard it all; but are you doing it?
Take a realistic perspective. Avoid making a mountain out of a molehill. Do not catastrophize, but also do not minimize the threats. Fact-check rumors. They can needlessly increase anxiety. Protect yourself from this disease. However, as possible, maintain your normal family routines. Eat, sleep, work, be active, play and enjoy each other. Verbalize your love, listen to each other, and affirm one another.
Spend quality time with family
Be creative in quality spending time with close family or roommates. Get out in nature away from crowds, play games, tell jokes, try new recipes, write a miniplay, read and discuss a good book, share faith ideas, plant a garden and listen to music together. Maintain the hobbies you can. If you freeze and stare at a problem too long, it will become your private monster.
Face the loneliness and loss but be optimistic
Face the problem caused by this massive disruption to our everyday way of life. The changes imposed by the need to keep social distance, work from home, or miss activities can bring loneliness, grief, economic loss and disruption to relationships. Hopefully, we reduce the rate of increase of this strange illness. Look at the problems and together generate options for managing them. Avoid less effective methods of coping with anxiety, like stress eating, numbing with alcohol/drugs, online shopping sprees, picking fights with loved ones or escaping into cyberspace.
Remember the power of hope. Do not give into immobilizing fear or languish in complacency. Giving into doomsday thinking is a prescription for depression, desolation, and despair. These crises will pass someday. Optimism is good medicine.
Look for someone to help
Reach out to an elderly family member or friend in need and offer to bring groceries or pick up their medications. Find ways to pool resources with those around you. Trade your surplus items for their extra goods. Share your extra paper towels, rubbing alcohol, newspaper or bleach. While being mindful of safe distancing and sanitizing, we can share meals, form childcare coops with neighbors on different work schedules or babysit each other’s children for a brief respite.
Be there for each other emotionally. Connect with people. With proper use, social media can help us communicate authentically. Especially, remember those with little or no emotional reserves and make a sacrifice to share your “loaves and fishes.” Looking out for others will decrease our worries.
Form new relationships
Who knows what new friends we will find in this worldwide menace? Suffering together bonds us at a deeper level. Foxhole buddies, rehabilitation ward friendships, recovery group veterans and marathon survivors can be friends for life. Welcome others into your circle.
Focus on your children
For parents, one more big thing demands mentioning! Focus on the needs of the infants, children and teens in your family and your extended care. Provide for their personal safety, physical needs and emotional security. Let your children know they are important by spending time with them, protecting them and listening to their fears.
Take kids’ worries seriously. Do not laugh at their naive questions. Let each child know how they will be provided for. Be sure they have good sleep, enough nourishment, a place to exercise and space to play. Being outside together seems safe. Talk so children can understand and listen so they will talk. Children are understandably egocentric because of their vulnerable position. Keep them in the loop by clearly conveying the plans you make for them. Keep the lines of communication open. Stop and listen when they tug at your sleeve.
Clarify any misperceptions. Ask “What have you heard about this new bug going around”? Answer their questions at age appropriate levels. If is OK to admit that you do not know and add that you will try to find an answer. Share the basics of how you can protect them and listen to their fears! Remind them of what they can do to help, like good hand-washing. Look for options that ensure they are safe. Request help if you cannot provide for them.
Model a calm presence
Consider having a quiet corner or a separate room where the family can relax to music, read, color, work puzzles, draw, tell stories and make things together. Help them stay up with any homework for school. Limit screen time and social media. Overdosing on these can add to the stress and anxiety. Help them with their favorite toy, the family pet or time with a special friend. Celebrate their creations. Nurture calm voices and patience.
Remember to address youngsters’ losses. Children and teens grieve when their friends move, or they lose a favorite toy, their activities and games are canceled or their routine is disrupted. Let them talk about what they are missing. Help them verbalize their feelings. Ask, “What is making you sad”? (Mad? Bad? Happy? Afraid?) Help them name, claim and tame (understand and control) their emotions. In a way we are all grieving the loss of routine. We need to accept our losses, express our emotions, adjust to reality and embrace our new normal.
Practice your faith
If you are persons of faith, practice your faith with others. If your place of worship is closed for the time being, have a family time of worship. Let children and teens participate as is fitting. Follow the habits and practices of your faith traditions. Be creative and continue rituals at home if possible. Listen to church services on your media device. Read sacred texts together and discuss their meanings. Stress can raise new questions about the world, about God and about how the world works. If you are uncomfortable discussing such issues, call a trusted teacher, mentor or your clergyperson. Help your children and teens grow in faith as they experience the fierce winds of reality. Find a faith guide if you now feel the need for someone to ask.
New threats may bring new doubts. Doubts can be a hole through which faith seeps away or the window through which new light shines. Listening, exploring and imagining with them can make the difference. Where do we turn when all else fails? We turn to each other and lean into our faith, hope and love. May we all find peace in this new storm.
G. Wade Rowatt is a Kentucky licensed pastoral counselor and senior professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Baptist Seminary of Kentucky/Simmons College. He has a Ph.D. in psychology of religion and is a retired Gratis Professor at the University of Louisville Medical School’s Department of Psychiatric and author of “Adolescents In Crises.”