As coronavirus cases continue to climb around the world and across our country, people are being asked to stay away from each other. Schools are closed, parents are working from home, churches have gone remote, and March Madness is canceled. Not knowing where the virus may be lurking, and how your body would respond to it, is scary. It's a time like no other, and one that can easily send anxiety levels shooting through the roof.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is offering guidelines for reducing stress and anxiety during these uncertain times, pointing out that everyone may respond differently to the outbreak. Experts say stress during an infectious disease pandemic can include: fear and worry about your own health and the health of your loved ones, changes in sleep or eating patterns, difficulty sleeping or concentrating, worsening of chronic health problems, and increased use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs.
Those who may respond more strongly emotionally include those who are at higher risk for COVID-19, like older people and those dealing with chronic disease. People helping with the response to coronavirus, such as doctors and nurses, and first responders. Those who are battling mental health conditions may also be susceptible to a strong response. And, children and teens. The CDC says many times, they react to a crisis based on how the adults around them react.
So, what can we do? Experts say taking care of yourself, your friends, and family can help cope with stress, while also making your community stronger. To support yourself, the CDC recommends taking breaks from focusing on the pandemic. Watching, reading, listening to news stories, including social media, that constantly point out the pandemic can be upsetting. Danna Mauch, the President and CEO of the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health, agrees. "We recommend checking in with reputable sources", she says, "such as the CDC website or local news stations, once or twice a day so you know about new guidance or public health measures being taken. But it’s not necessary, and in fact can be harmful, to check your phone and news sources constantly. There is an almost infinite amount of information out there, and much of it is duplicative, contradictory, or just noise. Hearing the same thing multiple times usually doesn’t make us better informed, just more anxious."
It's also important to take care of your body. Try to eat healthy, well-balanced meals. Exercise regularly, take deep breaths, stretch, or meditate. Get plenty of sleep, and avoid alcohol and drugs. Make sure to make time to unwind and do an activity you enjoy. And, even though we're social distancing, make it a point to connect with others. Talking with people you trust about your concerns and how you're feeling can be very helpful. The CDC says it's important to call your healthcare provider if stress gets in the way of your daily activities for several days in a row.
For parents, the CDC says it's important to deal with COVID-19 calmly and confidently. No all children and teens respond to stress the same way. Experts say some common changes to watch for include: excessive crying or irritation in younger children, irritability and "acting out" behaviors in teens, excessive worry or sadness, unhealthy eating or sleeping habits, returning to behaviors they've outgrown (like wetting the bed), poor school performance or avoiding school, difficulty with attention and concentration, avoidance of activities enjoyed in the past, unexplained headaches or body pain, and use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs.
With children home from school and many parents home from work, Mauch says patience can easily wear thin. Many families are now in stressful living situations. Some have lost work or income as a result of the COVID-19 response, and everyone is trying to work, study, and negotiate different schedules and work styles. She says the most important objective is to make sure the family has stable housing, sufficient food, and personal safety. After that, she's encouraging families to try to do something together outside work or school. Perhaps go for a walk, share a 10-minute meditation on YouTube, or play a game together. "Having a schedule every day is important", says Mauch, "but so is being flexible about the details. As always, taking an hour away from our phones can help re-set our intuitive capacities to cope and respond."
The CDC says parents can be more reassuring to their children if they are well prepared. Experts there say its important to take time to talk to your child or teen about the COVID-19 outbreak, answering questions and sharing facts in a way they can understand. Reassure them they are safe. Let them know it's ok if they feel upset, and share how you deal with your own stress so they can learn how to cope from you. Limit your family's exposure to news coverage, including social media. Children may misinterpret what they hear , and be frightened about something they do not understand. Parents should practice what they preach: take breaks, get plenty of sleep, and eat well. Take time to connect with your friends and family members. This is an unprecedented time in our lives, and reaching out emotionally, even though we can't physically, will help everyone get through it.
Kim Lucey is a freelance journalist with more than a decade of experience in the field. Her career has included coverage of big breaking news events like the Sandy Hook school shooting, lockdown in Watertown, MA following the Boston marathon bombings, and Superstorm Sandy. Her in-depth reports have garnered awards, including a focus on treating mental health issues in children. Currently, she is a reporter at a television station covering the news across the Greater Boston Area with an appreciation for fact-finding and storytelling. Follow Kim on Facebook and Twitter.