Managing anxiety during uncertain times

The current social-political climate is unprecedented in modern history.  Not since our grandparents and great grandparents were called up to war in the early twentieth century have we seen such a global predicament as that of the COVID-19 virus.  Whilst each individual country affected is implementing their own policies to manage the disease, there are similarities and learning lessons that we can take on board both as citizens and individuals during these turbulent times.

From last night, the UK has been told to 'lockdown' similar to France, Spain and Italy, and this has caused widespread concern amongst communities as to what that will mean for them and their loved ones. 

This situation is causing heightened anxiety for many, especially those who already suffer from mental health illnesses, parents and carers.

Taking care of our mental health

As Anxiety UK's Nicky Lidbetter explains, the fear of being out of control and unable to tolerate uncertainty are common characteristics of many anxiety disorders. So it's understandable that many individuals with pre-existing anxiety are facing challenges at the moment.

"A lot of anxiety is rooted in worrying about the unknown and waiting for something to happen - coronavirus is that on a macro scale," agrees Rosie Weatherley, spokesperson for mental health charity Mind.

So how can we protect our mental health?

The best way to manage anxiety is to limit the amount of exposure you have to social media and tabloid news.  Sensationalist headlines, coupled with Chinese-whisper style rumours, will inevitably lead to over-exposure of shock and awe, which will only heighten and individuals stress levels.

Whilst it is important to keep up to date with the latest developments, restrict the amount of time you are spending on news websites and stick to one reliable news source rather than web surf numerous sites about the same issue.

When it comes to Twitter and What’sApp groups, mute any words that may trigger you and any conversations that are causing distress.

When times get particularly hard, use telephone help and support lines.  Anxiety UK offer support services and their details can be found online here.

Managing OCD during the coronavirus

OCD Action has seen an increase in support requests from people whose fears have become focused on the coronavirus pandemic.

For people with OCD and some types of anxiety, being constantly told to wash your hands can be especially difficult to hear.

The advice to individuals is to wash hands, but not to excess and if you know of anyone who may need support you can find them online here.

Stay connected with people

Increasing numbers will join those already in self-isolation so now might be a good time to make sure you have the right phone numbers and email addresses of the people you care about.

"Agree regular check-in times and feel connected to the people around you," says Weatherley.

If you want to get your family involved with supporting the elderly from a distance, then AGEUK has a Postcards of Kindness campaign where you can write to residential care home residents to help them stay connected with the outside world.  It is also a great way to get your children practising their handwriting and letter writing skills!

Avoid burnout

With weeks and months of the coronavirus pandemic ahead, it is important to have downtime. Mind recommends continuing to access nature and sunlight wherever possible. Do exercise, eat well and stay hydrated.

AnxietyUK suggests practising the "Apple" technique to deal with anxiety and worries.
  • AcknowledgeNotice and acknowledge the uncertainty as it comes to mind.
  • Pause: Don't react as you normally do. Don't react at all. Pause and breathe.
  • Pull back: Tell yourself this is just the worry talking, and this apparent need for certainty is not helpful and not necessary. It is only a thought or feeling. Don't believe everything you think. Thoughts are not statements or facts.
  • Let go: Let go of the thought or feeling. It will pass. You don't have to respond to them. You might imagine them floating away in a bubble or cloud.
  • ExploreExplore the present moment, because right now, in this moment, all is well. Notice your breathing and the sensations of your breathing. Notice the ground beneath you. Look around and notice what you see, what you hear, what you can touch, what you can smell. Right now. Then shift your focus of attention to something else - on what you need to do, on what you were doing before you noticed the worry, or do something else - mindfully with your full attention.

Social distancing and parenting

For many, the ‘simple’ act of parenting, or parenting well, requires some baseline anxiety.

"Part of becoming a parent is about becoming hypervigilant to potential threats. You become a threat detection machine," said Darby Saxbe, associate professor of psychology and director of the Center for the Changing Family at the University of Southern California.

What makes coronavirus anxiety so much worse than 'will-my-toddler-run-into-traffic' anxiety is its potential for disruption of our daily routines combined with a deeper uncertainty about how it will play out.

How long will our kids be out of school? How will we get our work done? And this goes for parents with paid employment, as well as those who stay home. Managing kids and a house is hard work.

The logistical anxieties are far more severe for the millions of parents who are also caring for an elderly parent, or are self-employed and don’t have sick pay.  A lot of people who work for the gig industry or on zero-hours contracts live month to month, and the stress of not earning enough money to pay for their basic necessities, whilst caring for others is extremely difficult.

A sense of order amid the chaos

While all kids are feeling nervous to some degree, now that schools are cancelled for most families, children are likely to be extra unsettled. Kids thrive on stability and routine. When it goes away, it is up to parents to model how to cope.

To survive, we all need to both commit ourselves to some sense of order, and at the same time, yield to the chaos.

Parents, do what you need to lower your stress levels, whether it is carving out alone time or exercise time. Maybe ease up on your television and video game policy or accept the power of candy as a bribe to help your kids comply. Create some structure that you can realistically commit to and on most days, achieve, and importantly, make sure you are enjoying some parts of it.

Work as a team.  Create structure with your children by planning their daily schedule together.  Put in fun activities as well as responsibilities.  Create a list of agreed activities you can do either apart or together and commit to doing one a day. Try to have lunch together where possible so you can catch up on how everyone is feeling and how they are coping.

Whether children are in or out of school, the threat of the coronavirus has made managing family life a much bigger job. Odds are, mums are taking on more of this emotional and domestic labour.

Eve Rodsky, author of "Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do (and More Life to Live)," said research shows that the majority of daily life disruptions are handled by mothers, including when both parents work.

"We treat women's time as infinite, like sand. And we treat men's time as finite, like a diamond," Rodsky said. As a result, women do caregiving when they have to, and men do caregiving when they can.

On top of this, women are more likely to do what experts call "worry work," Rodsky explained.  Mothers are more likely than fathers to anticipate the needs of the family and plan ahead for worst case scenarios. It is vitally important for both adult and child relationships to work well that the responsibility of parenting and caring for the family is shared and that division of labour is split equally if both parents work. 

Remember, we're in this together

Try to look through both your work schedules and see where you can each offer individual time to the children and when you can support one another. 

Also make sure you have some space that is a ‘do not disturb’ area of the house where you can step away and re-group during those more pressurised moments!

Looking to other countries, it is clear to see that the human spirit can rise when we work together to support one another.  Viral videos of Italians singing together, Spaniards exercising on balconies and Chinese health workers coming to the aid of other countries shows that as species, us humans can do wonderful things when we support one another. 

Showing your children the kindness of strangers and the strength in humour will make them see that laughter can be the best medicine during scary times.

If there is a silver lining in all this, or at least a lesson that we might want to impart to our kids, it's this. In our cities, our workplaces, our classrooms, and our homes, we are being forced to realise that life works better when we can depend on one another.

Parental Choice helps working families secure care solutions for their children and elderly relatives, all backed up with a comprehensive payroll, pension and legal team.

We also work with small and large businesses to support the wellbeing of parents and those with eldercare responsibilities.

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