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March 30, 2020
A virus that has spread across the globe, coupled with breaking news accessible to us at any time, has made many of us worried. It can be hard to stay calm when there is fear and unease in the media, stories of self-quarantines, and shortages of sanitizing products. Many people are feeling anxious, even if they rarely experience anxiety.
So how do we stay informed and keep our anxiety at bay in a time where there is a lot of misinformation out there? Equally as important—how can we stay calm and keep our loved ones reassured?
Worrying about catching an infectious disease, the coronavirus or otherwise, while taking care of your family, can be a stressful time. Experts from McLean shared ways to keep you and your family feeling mentally balanced and safe in your household during an uncertain time.
“Given the onslaught of media coverage and information, it’s important to make sure you are getting updates from reputable sources,” said Nathaniel Van Kirk, PhD, coordinator of inpatient group therapy at McLean and the coordinator of clinical assessment at McLean’s OCD Institute.
Good sources include the Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization, and Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress. Each provides timely updates and information that will help filter out what has been sensationalized for the news. “Using these guidelines as a foundation, while acknowledging that you won’t be able to get 100% certainty in an evolving situation, may help you continue to live your daily life,” he said. “It can help you keep your entire day from being consumed by anxiety or worry and instead let you focus on what you can control.”
In addition, experts suggest limiting exposure to media, including social media, to help keep your stress at bay and limit the anxiety that misinformation may cause. Marni Chanoff, MD, a psychiatrist at McLean Hospital, said, “I recommend a daily routine for getting news. If that means checking sites for updates in the morning or in the evening, do that. Try to limit it beyond that so you can conduct your life as normally as possible.”
It is advised not to check right before bed, as upsetting news can disrupt good sleep hygiene and affect your bedtime routine. “You don’t want to start processing and sifting through fear when you’re going to bed,” she said.
Kathryn D. Boger, PhD, ABPP, program director of the McLean Anxiety Mastery Program, explained that when it comes to anxiety and frightening situations, we can find ourselves in two common thinking traps. Catastrophizing takes us to the worst-case scenario in a given situation, and overgeneralizing makes us think that terrible outcomes are much more likely to occur. She explained that these traps are easy to fall into when the facts are already scary. To combat this, we can try to catch ourselves when we go down a path of unhelpful or extreme thinking. “We can ask ourselves, ‘Is this thought based in fact, and is it helpful to me right now?’” Boger said.
Creating a plan when you are thinking clearly can help to manage anxiety and prepare for emergencies. Chanoff said, “Keep and rely on a list. This should include needed food supplies and medications, and health care professional and work contacts. These can help in the moments of crisis when you may not be thinking as clearly.” Make sure to keep the items on your list stocked and replenished, and your contacts updated.
Chanoff also encouraged enlisting others in your social networks in your plans. Going through the process of what a scenario like a quarantine would look like in your home with your family can help with anxiety. And if you live alone, she suggested looking to your support network to help you plan for these scenarios.
Chanoff advised not only thinking about how you can help yourself, but how you can help others. In times of crisis, maintaining a sense of connection with community is vital. “Calm begets calm,” said Chanoff. “If you can stay calm and grounded, you can communicate that to loved ones.”
Boger said, “Even if kids aren’t talking about it, we should broach the topic and create the space for questions to be asked and answered.” Kids can be surprisingly aware of what adults are talking and worrying about behind closed doors, Boger explained. By not talking directly with them about something that is potentially frightening, we can increase feelings of fear and uncertainty in kids.
Ask your children what they have heard about COVID-19, how they are feeling about it, and what concerns they might have. You can also remind them that you are available to talk about thoughts and feelings and continue to check in with them over time.
Boger said, “Research tells us that when we name an emotion, it decreases the intensity of the emotion. Open the space for kids to say, ‘I’m scared,’ and validate their feelings. This can help to take the edge off their fear.”
Recognizing the emotions that arise in a frightening time is helpful for both children and parents alike. There are many adults who are concerned about the state of the coronavirus, both for themselves and for their loved ones. “It’s also important to be mindful of what we’re modeling,” she said. “It’s one thing to give kids facts and educate them on the low risk, but it’s another thing if we do this while appearing visibly anxious. Checking in on our own emotional states and taking steps to manage our emotions before talking to kids is important.”
One of the best ways to be supportive of children, Boger said, is to “empathize with how they’re feeling. We can certainly provide assurance in age-appropriate facts and statistics and precautionary measures, but saying ‘don’t worry about it, it’s not a big deal’ can feel invalidating for both children and parents alike.”
Instead, you can let children know that their feelings are real and understandable, and, at the same time, inform them that the risk is low and preventable through simple measures. Boger suggested putting control back into their hands through teaching them about proper handwashing hygiene and encouraging them to share with an adult when they’re not feeling well.
Chanoff echoed this sentiment, sharing, “You should reassure kids that you’ll get through this, but also be honest that you don’t know everything.”
In a time when there is a lot of misinformation and uncertainty for everyone, it can be difficult for parents to share that they do not have all the answers. To combat this, Chanoff suggested reassuring kids by reminding them that there are experts who are working hard to find the answers. In addition, you can clarify misunderstandings, stigma, or misinformation they may have around the illness.
“Our job as parents,” Chanoff emphasized, “is to stay informed while avoiding false information on social media.” Chanoff said, “You can say things like, ‘I promise you I will stay informed and make sure our family has the information we need. As we learn more, I will share it with you.’”
When talking to kids who have diagnosed anxiety or OCD about the coronavirus, it is best to let them know there is a lot of misinformation and lack of understanding still out there about these psychiatric conditions, and that, in times like these, this can be exacerbated.
For example, people have been posting on social media about “being OCD” because of frequent handwashing. Boger advises warning children that there may be terms thrown around that may make them feel uncomfortable. “We can help them think about how they can mentally protect themselves in these moments,” she said.
One method she implements is “coping ahead.”
“In coping ahead, we predict what might happen, think about how we can respond in advance of the situation, and plan for how we can most effectively take care of ourselves and recruit support in these moments.” Taking a proactive stance can help children prepare for how to cope if upsetting comments are made.
Chanoff suggested taking a compassionate approach. “Understand that fear and anxiety may cause others to be less sensitive than they normally would be. If you feel comfortable being direct, you may take the opportunity to let people who make insensitive comments know how they made you feel. Chanoff said, “But try to also meet them with compassion and kindness. This is a time for us to come together as a community since our health depends on one another.”
The best way to take care of yourself and your loved ones is by getting back to the basics of self-care. “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Chanoff said.
Sleep, nutritious eating, good hygiene, exercise, fresh air, connecting with people—these are the basics, and it’s a good reminder that what’s being recommended now is what we’ve been encouraged to do all the time. Managing our anxiety, said Boger, can also be done through activities such as mindfulness, cognitive coping, and breathing exercises. While coping may look different for everyone, these activities can help with breaking the worry-anxiety cycle, Van Kirk said.
Keeping you and your family to regular routines is important, said Boger. “Kids thrive in structure—if we start to pull away from various activities when we don’t know there’s a risk, it can feel even scarier,” she said. Van Kirk agreed, saying, “Maintaining daily structure and connection with hobbies can help with balance during an uncertain time.”
The biggest takeaway of this health crisis, experts agree, is that we need to take care of ourselves. “Maintaining balance in daily life and not letting your day be consumed by the ‘next headline,’” said Van Kirk, “is important to maintain perspective in the uncertainty of daily life.”
Are you or a loved one struggling to manage anxiety or stress? McLean Hospital is here to help. Call us now at 877.646.5272 to learn more about treatment for depression, stress, or anxiety.