Your family was coping well with coronavirus — until this week.
Now your 10-year-old is scared to go to his best friend’s birthday party; your phone-addicted partner can’t stop talking about it; your elderly mother calls every hour because she has a cough.
In a myriad of ways, coronavirus has moved in on us psychologically, which means it has the potential to splinter families at a time when we most need to pull together.
Family members inevitably feel and express anxiety differently. This is due to age, genetics, personality, life experiences — or just individual ways of dealing with uncertainty.
It can mean even families that normally function well may find themselves out of sync: distracted, easily upset, arguing over small things, behaving in out-of-character — even irrational — ways. And conflict escalates, as people are forced together for extended periods.
How Coronavirus Anxiety Looks
The classic symptoms include edginess, irritability, tearfulness, raised heart rate, sleep difficulties, racing thoughts, headaches, stomach and gut problems and feelings of dread.
It can also trigger unhelpful behavioural change. For example, people bombarding Healthline when they’re not sick; maxing out the credit cards on groceries; or keeping the kids out of school without any reason or directive to do so.
Fear works in varied ways, across all generations.
- Kids may refuse to do things they would normally enjoy, be upset by the cancellation of sports or activities, have sleep difficulties, complain of physical symptoms like tummy and headaches or feeling sick, ask a lot of fear-based questions and to think the worst — like someone will die.
- Teens may have sleep difficulties; be emotional, unfocused, indecisive, irritable or withdrawn — which makes them hard to read. They may also take greater risks, like partying and drinking to avoid their worries.
- Older people may seem stoic, but retreat physically so they suffer from loneliness and isolation as visitors stop coming and their few activities dry up. Their frustration with the situation may cause them to be more irritable and harder to reason with.
Families need to talk and work together, right now. Domestic conflict won’t make coronavirus go away — it’ll just raise everyone’s anxiety and trap you in an unhealthy mental state.
So, if your family is feeling the heat, here are some strategies to help.
1. Show empathy to those who are struggling.
Everyone’s different: even partners can differ hugely in the way they deal with uncertainty. So if you’re made of tough stock, be gentle. Telling others to “get on with it” is not helpful. Try to be empathetic and reassuring to those who need it.
2. Talk about worries — but set limits.
Let each person talk about their worries — but keep boundaries around it (e.g. 20 minutes at a time). Beware of letting pandemic conversations drip feed through your days because it will fuel angst and promote the idea that life, the world — everything — is out of control.
3. Adapt for teens, kids and older people.
Tell kids the truth in an age-appropriate way but don’t bombard them with information. Remind them of positive things, like that most will not get sick and most of those who do will recover. Answer their questions, but, when you’re done, distract them into another activity.
A great question for teens is: what do you know? You can then use their answer to explore any worries and correct any mis-information — or even upskill yourself. (Teens, with their ease of navigating the online world, can be very well informed!) Encourage and help them to make good decisions at a time when they may be frustrated and isolated from friends.
Check in with older people to see if they need any practical help, like groceries on the doorstep, and/or just to see how they are. They need to know they (still) matter.
4. Set the mood in your home.
Anxiety is highly contagious. Your kids will pick up on your angst through your body language and behaviour as well as your words, so try to model the tone you want to set in your home. Turn the TV off, play music, watch a light-hearted movie, make home-cooked food, slow down your movements, act calmly and try to lighten up — funny things will still happen. You’re allowed to laugh at them.
5. Routines make everyone feel safe.
Keep domestic structures in place: do what you would normally do at home. If that’s not possible (because so much has changed), adapt your routines to suit your new “normal”. But don’t let them go altogether. Routines anchor us, they give us structure when we feel adrift and they help us feel safe. That makes them even more important when we’re worried and don’t know what lies ahead.
6. Going outside will help you physically AND mentally.
Research shows a “walk in the wild” or even through the park, boosts mental health. So take a daily walk if you can — even if it’s just around the block. Being outside also helps to normalise life and help you feel connected to the bigger world than the one coronavirus would have us live in.
7. Don’t wish for it to be over — do this instead.
Coronavirus or not, life will keep chugging forward. Other things (some of them difficult) will keep happening, even as we navigate a pandemic. So the goal is not to long for coronavirus to be over, even though that’s what we want. It’s to learn to live as well as we can alongside it, for however long it takes.
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