By Dr Lynda Shaw, neuroscientist, business psychologist and change specialist.
COVID-19 and the uncertainty around it is alarming for all of us and, for many, our anxiety levels are on high alert - and this includes our children. So how can we keep our anxiety in check and get the balance right?
- Uncertainty is difficult - The brain finds ‘the unknown’ the hardest to deal with and research shows that uncertainty is scarier and more alarming than known outcomes, even if they are bad outcomes. Be truthful with your children but share with them age appropriate information.
- Accept that this is a time when it is hard to make plans and always be able to stick to them. Control and organise what you can to a reasonable extent if it brings you comfort but don’t fixate and go to extremes. Use language with your children such as “we hope that will be able to do XX, but as you know at the moment we need to be flexible” and give them something they can count on doing such as having a great time doing something as a family at home together.
- Anxiety is bad for our health - Whilst this is a difficult time, make time for activities that relax you and release feel good hormones like yoga, reading or cooking. Turn off news alerts on your phone if they are making you feel on edge.
- Make good use of the time. Is it time to do some gardening together, paint a fence, shed or child’s bedroom, do fitness videos that the children can join in, things you said you never had time to do? Alternatively, just spend time relaxing and being in the moment with your family.
- Reduced socialising can obviously deeply affect our mood. Humans are social creatures and when we hang out with people we like, feel good hormones like dopamine and oxytocin are released and reward neural activity is stimulated in the brain. This is often even more true for children. Stick carefully to social distancing rules but also communicate with others in a variety of virtual ways as you probably have already been doing. Thinking of social distancing activities that may be a bit different such as fishing, football, book a narrow boat, falconry, visiting national trust properties, horse-riding or playing tennis. It all counts to fill the soul a little.
- We often see the very best in people in very difficult times. Think if you can help any family members, friends or neighbours in any way, whether that is going for the shop for them or picking up meds. See if you can involve the children too. Can they clean the neighbour’s car or weed the garden?
- Catastrophising and panicking about what might happen rarely helps. Chronic panic causes you to live in a state of trepidation and confusion. Don’t let your imagination run wild and accept that some things in life are unknown and unpredictable. Be confident that you have the strength and versatility to overcome challenges when required and that this difficult period will pass in time.
- Being panicked makes people susceptible to ‘fake news’ – when the brain perceives a threat, it works very hard to neutralise the hazard and make you safe again. Stress hormones decrease your rationality and critical thinking and make you more susceptible to inaccurate information. Avoid listening to other’s ‘strong opinions’ and check government websites for official advice. Talk to your children about what is fact and what isn’t known at this point.
- Anxious minds do not sleep well - Sleep loss only adds to the stress which is the very thing stopping us sleeping. When you are overtired you have trouble concentrating, are less productive and feel irritable. Don’t watch or read about the news just before bed if the content is making you feel dismayed. Equally don’t talk to your children about worrying things before bed. Have a relaxing bedtime routine revolving around reading a book, a warm bath, or a bit of mindfulness.
- Fear can be transmitted to other people – Chronic anxiety about potential future dangers can cause low mood, short tempers and grouchiness. Children in particular will pick up on your anxious mood and sense of dread which can trigger their own feelings of stress. Be aware that this happens and control your emotions, so they don’t control you or infiltrate those around you.
- Don’t descend into treating each other badly – During times of confusion and anxiety our stress hormones rise, we sleep less and consequently can be more irritable and shorter tempered. Be aware that this happens and make a conscious effort to smile and be positive. Positivity also rubs off on people, so smile and find things to laugh about, one of our best healers.
- Prioritise self-care like eating well, exercising, virtual socialising, doing your hobby, planning nice things to do when this is all over, reducing your time on social media and sleeping as best you can.
- Have a positive mindset – Research shows that positivity is also contagious so approach your home isolation period with as much zeal and positivity as possible, and your family members, especially children, will catch on to the positive vibes. Research also shows that outcomes are better for positive people.
- Make sure you go outside each day – Spend at least 20 minutes a day outside, ideally in the morning to help maintain your circadian rhythm and to get a dose of vitamin D. Open the windows and get some fresh air coming in. If you have big open spaces around your house, go for an invigorating walk.
- Limit your time on social media – Your teenagers in particular may feel more than ever that their phone is their portal to the outside world. However, it is well documented that spending significant amounts of time on social media can increase feelings of isolation and loneliness. Advise them to limit themselves to 30 minutes of social media a day and avoid it at night.
- Cherish some family time – It’s harder to go the same day trips you enjoyed before COVID arrived, but that also gives you the opportunity to enjoy some real quality time together with the people you live with. Make a plan for each day so you don’t lounge on the sofa too much. Be creative and come up with fun activities that you are normally too busy for like board games, baking together, making a beauty salon and painting nails or a den to hang out in, start an ambitious art project together or watch some classic family films together with a bag of popcorn or even enjoy a nice lie-in.
Dr Lynda Shaw is a change specialist, a regular professional speaker, chartered psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist (as well as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, Fellow of the Professional Speaking Association and author of adult and children's books.) www.drlyndashaw.com