By Dan Marullo, Ph.D.
With COVID-19 being declared a pandemic, we are now tasked to change our personal and collective behavior. It is understandable that many will experience fear, anxiety and anger in the coming days and weeks. This is normal and certainly a typical reaction to a crisis. However, whether we respond with grace or with terror is in our individual and collective control.
It is normal to be afraid. It is OK to acknowledge that fear and to take steps to cope with anxiety. Please consider the following:
Fear of the unknown is normal. We are each subject to feeling a host of emotions such as anxiety, worry, irritability and sadness. We can also experience poor sleep or appetite, trouble with concentration, a tendency to withdraw from other people and perhaps even feeling hopeless. These can be normal reactions to the situation and it helps to recognize this in ourselves and in others. For example, recognizing that your spouse or child is uncharacteristically moody or snappish may mean that they are feeling overwhelmed and need support. Certainly, anyone feeling suicidal may need immediate attention.
Seek reliable information. There is much that we still do not know about COVID-19 and that alone increases fear and anxiety. Gaining reliable information is key to addressing this uncertainty. Reputable websites for updates and information include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization. Websites for good psychological information related to COVID-19 include the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association.
Practice self-care. Because we are all susceptible to emotional distress, it becomes more important to take care of ourselves physically and emotionally. This may be complicated by social distancing given that social activities are commonly used by people to cope. We may not be able to attend religious services, go to work or school, the gym, shopping and so on. However, we can adapt and remain connected. Many churches are hosting online services, you can exercise at home using YouTube classes, and so on. A few things to keep in mind:
- Maintain a typical routine as much as possible. Try having your kids do schoolwork at home at the times they would at school. Do the same if you are working from home.
- Take a media/social media break. Depending on what you read or watch, COVID-19 is either the world’s biggest hoax or the end of the world. Neither is true. Seek accurate information and take a break from all the chatter.
- Social distance does not mean social isolation. We may not be able to go out, have play dates or travel, but we can maintain contact with family and friends via Facetime and other platforms. This is especially critical for our most vulnerable family and friends, those that must be on isolation because of health concerns such as the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions.
- Consider volunteering in some way. The simple act of giving has been shown to reduce distress in the giver. It is gratifying to see people organizing food drives and other activities to support their communities.
- Find ways to maintain your spirits. A good sense of humor goes a long way. Our Italian brothers and sisters are singing from their balconies in defiance of their isolation. People are amazing. Find your path.
Be a role model. Our children are watching how we react to this crisis. What do you want them to see? Children and teens rely on the adults in their lives to model and teach behavior. A child’s coping often relies on how adults cope. Now is the time to teach resilience, compassion, self-sacrifice and healthy coping. These are lessons children will remember for the rest of their lives. We adults should manage our emotions and fears, and be the leaders our children need us to be.
Support our children. Our children are responding to this crisis as well and need support during this time. How children cope and what they need varies by their age and level of development. For example, small children respond to the distress around them and need comforting and security. School aged children, tweens and teens need information that is tailored to their age (Younger children need the basic facts, older kids can deal with more detail and abstraction). Recognize that a change in behavior may be a sign of distress and an opportunity to engage and support. Please consider:
- Maintaining a typical routine as much as possible. This includes schoolwork, bedtimes and mealtimes.
- Giving age-appropriate information and answering questions honestly.
- Monitoring use of TV and other media, particularly if your child is constantly looking at COVID-19-related content (Remember, bad information is scary).
- Providing opportunities for kids to give and contribute. Help them organize a food drive or a video chat with nursing home patients. This promotes a sense of engagement and teaches resilience.
- Managing your own emotions. Remember, our kids are watching. What do you want them to learn?
Acknowledge and recognize grief. Many of us are experiencing loss and uncertainty and it is OK to acknowledge that fact. As this process unfolds, we may lose people we love, jobs that we depend on, perhaps even that sense of safety that we once enjoyed. Coming to terms with loss is necessary and healthy. Now is the time for each of us to reach out as individuals and as a community to support one another, in small ways and in large.
Look for the lesson. I, like many of you, have experienced tragedy in my life. From that experience I have learned valuable lessons. I have learned much about myself and what I value and treasure. I do not know what lessons each of us may learn from this pandemic, but I do know there is something of value to learn if we leave ourselves open.
As I conclude this message, I feel a tremendous sense of community and hope. In some perverse way, this event has given all of us a “time out.” Perhaps this is our time to reflect, reconnect with others and remember what is truly of value in this life. I wish you all well.
Dan Marullo, Ph.D., is a pediatric psychologist and neuropsychologist at Children’s of Alabama and the University of Alabama at Birmingham.