~ 5 minute read
Stress. It is an inevitable part of human life. It is the traffic on the way to work, the new cough that developed overnight, the flooded basement, and the upcoming work restructuring. Our ability to overcome and adapt to stress and adversity facilitates growth, development, and resiliency. It is why we over-prepare for a presentation, avoid going to a big box store on a Saturday morning, and ask for a day off for personal reasons.
COVID. It is not a normal part of human life. However, is it our new normal. It is not something we asked for or could have even prepared for, and yet, it is something that completely turned life as we know it upside down. Along with the normal stresses of life, COVID and the chronicity of its consequences have drastically increased the amount of stress in our lives, a degree to which our brains are not really designed to handle.
Increased stress depletes our resources, both mentally and physically.
There are individual differences in terms of how people have experienced COVID. Some may have been only slightly impacted; they have been able to continue working, they do not have any family members who are ill, or they are comfortable staying home and avoiding others. Others may be struggling more so; they have lost their job, have to balance the role of parent and teacher, or they worry about getting sick. Regardless of how much COVID has impacted your life, most people have noticed that their functioning has changed in at least some way, including, but not limited to, increased irritability, sadness, anxiety, fear, and grief, disturbed sleep, increased physical complaints, and weight changes.
COVID has made it difficult to utilize the coping skills that have served us in the past. For months at a time, we have been socially isolated, unable to partake in many pleasurable activities, and many support services have been put on hold. COVID forced our lives to change hastily and radically. A degree of adjustment has likely occurred over the past few months, as we learned new ways of living, connecting, and finding happiness. However, as we enter new phases of re-entering the community, we might notice another spike in our stress levels.
To help reduce the impact of these new stressors, the following checklist might be useful in facilitating adaptation and resiliency in yourself and your family:
- At home, promote healthy eating, exercise, and rest.
These are basic human needs that, when appropriately met, can increase your stamina to withstand stress. Your exercise regime may look a bit different these days, so try to utilize easily accessible and pleasurable physical activities (e.g., outdoor activities or online yoga classes).
- Monitor your own stress level, especially if you are a parent or caregiver.
As a parent or caregiver, you are a barometer for your children to gauge how to feel and react. If you appear stressed, your child’s brain will interpret this as “I should be stressed too” and then their stress response will be activated, even though they may not be aware of what the exact stressor is.
- Make self-care and relaxation a priority.
This can look like 2 minutes of deep breathing before work, taking a bath at the end of the day, or talking to a mental health professional. If you are a parent or caregiver, attempt to model appropriate and helpful coping strategies. Children are sponges and the best imitators!
- Focus your thoughts on the things that you can control (e.g., handwashing, wearing a mask, maintaining an appropriate distance from others).
There is so much uncertainty related to COVID and many factors are out of our control, which can be overwhelming and create a sense of hopelessness. Threats appear smaller and less intimidating when we feel in control and believe that we have the ability to handle whatever happens.
- Be kind to yourself.
Remind yourself that it is completely normal to experience some stress and that it will take time to adapt to this “new normal”. If your stress is difficult to manage, do not hesitate to reach out to qualified professionals. We are still able to support you; either in-person, over the phone, or virtually.
- Limit your access to the news.
In a stress response, we typically become hypervigilant and watchful of our surroundings, so it is understandable that most people want to be aware of what is going on with COVID. However, there is no benefit to being inundated with reminders of threat. You can plan a specific time to worry or limit the amount of time you interact with this type of information (e.g., only check the news at 1 pm and only for 20 minutes). Also, make sure you are accessing your information from reputable sources (e.g., Public Health, World Health Organization).
- Avoid avoidance of fears.
When we avoid the things that we are afraid of, our brain will categorize it as something threatening and it will always activate the stress response when it is encountered. Try your best not to avoid activities that you can do safely (e.g., if you are afraid to leave your home, go for a car ride or do an activity in the backyard).
- Concern about missed social and learning opportunities for your child.
Remind yourself that learning is a lifelong process and not limited to a few months of missed opportunities. Children learn best when they feel safe and loved. Try to prioritize connection with your child and maintaining a low-stress environment, rather than getting into power struggles over completing schoolwork.
- Be aware of potential cognitive changes.
Because our brains are working in overdrive to keep us safe, it is expected that many will experience difficulties with concentration, attention, problem-solving, etc. Try to be kind to yourself and to others, as we are likely not functioning at full capacity.
- Try to create structure and routine at home, especially if you are not working or if your children are not going to school. Our brains thrive on predictability and knowing what comes next.
- Don’t be afraid to check-in with others.
Call your family and your friends. Ask your children how they are feeling about going back to school. Be there to actively listen. Don’t try to “fix” the problem; rather, attempt to validate their experience (e.g., “Yes, this is tough”). Help them to problem-solve ways of feeling better. Use this as an opportunity to connect and feel safe. Threats, like COVID, will feel manageable and less overwhelming when we do not feel alone. We really are all in this together!
Watch the "Finding a “new normal”: How psychological services can support you and your family in the COVID era" webinar to learn more!
About Dr. Stephanie Price
Dr. Stephanie Price is a clinical and school psychologist at Mariani and Associates, a private practice in Sudbury, Ontario. Dr. Price has a broad scope of practice—she works with individuals across the lifespan (infant to adults) who present with mood and anxiety disorders, trauma, neurodevelopmental disorders, delays in growth and development, learning difficulties, behaviour problems, interpersonal and social skill problems, and difficulties adjusting to life changes. Dr. Price has particular interest and training in dual diagnosis and working with individuals with developmental disabilities. Dr. Price has delivered numerous presentations, such as technology use and child development, anxiety in childhood and adolescence, mindfulness and self-care for caregivers, and life transitions for individuals with ASD, for various agencies and organizations across Northern Ontario.
DISCLAIMER: This document reflects the views of the author. It is Autism Ontario’s intent to inform and educate. Every situation is unique and while we hope this information is useful, it should be used in the context of broader considerations for each person. Please contact Autism Ontario at firstname.lastname@example.org or 416-246-9592 for permission to reproduce this material for any purpose other than personal use. © 2020 Autism Ontario 416.246.9592 www.autismontario.com