There’s nothing like a pandemic to make kids of all ages feel anxious. Here are a few coping strategies.
By Laura Jean Whitcomb
Your heart races. You break out in a cold sweat. Then your stomach starts to clench and churn, and you know you’ve had enough of the current situation: the classroom, the workplace the grocery store, a birthday party, even a beloved family holiday activity.
It’s not the stomach flu, although some of the symptoms are similar. It’s anxiety, a worry that creeps into your mind, takes over, and floods your whole body.
An estimated 31.1 percent of U.S. adults experience any anxiety disorder — general, social, panic — at some time in their lives, states the National Institute of Mental Health. Children are not exempt: anxiety disorders affect 25.1 percent of children between 13 and 18 years old.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety disorders develop from a complex set of risk factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, personality and life events. Coronavirus, with all its risks, protocols, outbreaks and stay-at-home orders, certainly counts as a major life event. In fact, the National Institute of Mental Health estimates 19.1% of U.S. adults had an anxiety disorder in the past year.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agrees that pandemics are the perfect playground for anxiety. There’s an entire health section on their website (www.cdc.gov) dedicated to coping with stress. “Fear and anxiety about a new disease and what could happen can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults and children. Public health actions, such as social distancing, can make people feel isolated and lonely and can increase stress and anxiety. However, these actions are necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Coping with stress in a healthy way will make you, the people you care about, and your community stronger,” says CDC experts.
How do you stop the worry cycle? First, talk to your doctor. Anxiety can take a toll on your body and your primary care physician will want to make sure everything is in working order. Your doctor may also refer you to a mental health professional. You may not have to set foot in a doctor’s office right now; many offer telehealth options allowing you to access health care right from your living room.
I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one on television, but I was treated for anxiety in my late 20s and helped several family members deal with it as well. What I’ve learned: a few small changes can increase your ability to cope. Here are a few things that I’ve practiced.
Stay on a schedule. It would be so much easier to stay in bed all day. But roll on out, shower, eat breakfast, exercise — start your day as you would any other day. Eat lunch when its lunch time, take a break when you need one, and go to sleep at your normal time. Don’t let anxiety take you off track; once you mess up your sleep cycle, for example, your tired mind is more susceptible to worry.
Stay social. Normally, you’d want your teen to step away from the technology, but that cell phone or computer can be incredibly helpful right now. Encourage (even add it to the schedule) time for online gaming with friends, video calls with friends and family, and let them text to their heart’s content.
Change your expectations. This is not a normal world so don’t expect things to be normal. It’s acceptable to be learning from home or working from home right now. You may not get as much done or you may get too much done (by focusing too much on school or work), and either one is fine. Remind yourself (and your family members) you are doing the best you can. (And it is okay to ask for help if you need it.)
Recognize what you can’t control. Unless you’re a virologist working on a cure, you are not going to be able to control what’s happening in this new coronavirus world. Focus on the things you can control: wearing your mask in public places, social distancing, boosting your immune system by eating healthy and taking vitamins, washing your hands and using hand sanitizer.
Talk it out. When my daughter is anxious and wants to talk, I put everything down and listen. It’s hard not to correct her, or offer suggestions, but this situation isn’t about me or a reflection of me. It’s a time to let her feel her feelings and get that worry out of her head. Let your child (or spouse or friend) do the same. If they ask for advice, try to be helpful (and not critical).
Volunteer. Nothing makes me happier than to help someone else. And, right now, many people would appreciate a hand. Go through your pantry and donate food items to the Upper Valley Haven. Clean out your closet and give what you don’t wear to the Listen Center. Check in with your local nonprofit to see if residents would appreciate receiving cards, if family programs need financial help or if you have a skill or talent (knitting, gardening or public relations) that could be helpful.
Laura Jean Whitcomb is the editor of Kearsarge Magazine and Kid Stuff magazine. She was treated for anxiety and depression when she was 29 and going through an early mid-life crisis.