By Jen Gruel, M.A., Licensed Professional Counselor In the past week, most of us have changed when we work, where we work, if we work, and how we work. Time with our children has changed from a structured, well-conditioned system to a free-for-all as they were sent home from school, then from daycare, and then we were subsequently ordered to remain home, remain together as nuclear families and, of course, remain calm. Talking with friends, family, and clients, one thing is clear: Not many of us have been feeling quite calm. My kids are young. I have been telling them about COVID-19 calling it “the big cold.” I have said most people get it and feel kind of yucky but feel okay after a bit. For some people who have lived very long lives or others who may have been sick, it can be more serious. I tell them kids are pretty tough when it comes to this “big cold.” When they ask, why can’t we go to the playground, the park, etc., I’ve said, “We love all of our grandparents and want to help anyone who could get sick, so we need to do our part to keep everyone safe. This means playing at our house, with only each other for a while.” Due to their age, this is where our conversation stops. With my clients — at least those who are older kids, adolescents and adults — this conversation continues.
It is one that has anxiety as an underlying theme. We are discussing jobs, housing, connection with others, basic needs, time frames. These conversations are different but the same. People are worried, what is next? Will we be okay? There are a few ideas I would like to suggest to help manage these worries. The first idea is one of radical acceptance. This is a practice grounded in DBT (dialectical behavior therapy). It essentially means: ‘It is what it is, and that is it.’ We have all had serious shifts in our reality of day-to-day living this past couple of weeks. As we allow ourselves to accept that this is it right now, it actually gets easier because our brain stops fighting back. We start to work with where we are and see more clearly the options we have this day. This is a tough practice, but it really frees up energy to work with ‘what is’ so we can move ahead. The second idea is to find gratitude. When we can look at our circumstances and consider what we have and what we are able to do in the light of thankfulness, our brain responds by searching out what is worthy of appreciation. By focusing on one or more things that we are thankful for, we can foster optimism and hope when times are extremely difficult.
One idea is to sit down with your family and share one thing you are thankful for that day. It can be an easy habit to implement and, good news, research shows that this brief practice builds our resilience to handle adversity time and again. Another idea I would suggest is letting go. For those of us used to living with structured schedules, carpools, classes, events, practices, etc., this is really difficult, yet there is only so much any of us can do each day. COVID-19 has really thrown these structures to the side. Sometimes, graham crackers for dinner are really okay. Homeschool might mean you play outside and talk about the rocks and worms you find. Sometimes you might have an all-day movie marathon, snuggle close and celebrate the fact that you can hug your loved ones and feel their laughter. There is no perfect way to manage a pandemic. I would suggest making self-care a priority. We cannot get through this if we are not feeling our best. We know anxiety can hijack our limbic system, our immune system, our digestive system, any system we have, anxiety can trump them all. Find something you enjoy doing that relaxes you in a healthy way. Read a book for fun, take a hike in nature, listen to some music, practice deep breathing, build a pillow fort and pet your cat, call a friend who makes you laugh, play a game, try freeze tag, take a walk, take a long shower or bath, journal, create some art, engage in cooking for fun, go for a bike ride, Google goofy animal videos, get some rest. For you and your family, make it a priority to create time to do something you love that makes you feel and act like your best self. You are stronger than you know. It is OK to feel vulnerable. There is no perfect way to manage a pandemic. As your own personal manager, you can strive to accept that this is what it is right now. There are some things to be thankful for today. Think of what you can enjoy as a family and what you can do for yourself to be the best you throughout this time of transition.