Coronavirus Anxiety: Facing the Unprecedented

Counseling Center of Bronxvill

Coronavirus Anxiety: Facing the Unprecedented

by Jennifer Naparstek Klein, Psy.D.

New York City restaurants offering only takeout, trains nearly empty, schools closed, college kids home, office workers telecommuting, fears of coughs, sneezes, or touching handrails or doorknobs–we have never seen anything like this before.  September 11, 2001 may be our nearest reference point, but mostly what we felt that day, and in the weeks following was shock, and a new normal–our country at war with terrorists. However, unless you were directly impacted by the loss of a loved one, within a week, your life slowly resumed.  Businesses reopened, kids returned to school, we went back to work, the gym, the market, restaurants, movies, malls–we went back to life, perhaps emotionally scarred but back to normal.

This return to normal, I suspect, will happen again in the case of Coronavirus (COVID-19), but the wait will be longer–perhaps a month, perhaps more. This cessation of routine –for some, losing work, earnings and the threat of a deterioration of business; for our children a breakdown in their schedules and a need to make a major adjustment to online education; and for the elders in the community downright fear of exposure and illness.  This situation is unprecedented.  So, the question becomes, simply, how do we cope?

Let’s begin with the reality at home.  Not only are we all thrust together, but all individuals in the house are wondering how they will navigate their new routines. Routine is probably the key word.  Humans thrive on routine, so the best thing we can do to manage chaos is to create a new routine.  Working regularly with those suffering with depression and anxiety has taught me that routine and self-care are vital to emotional well-being.  For example, sleeping your usual amount, not more or less; eating at prescribed times, not all day long; being productive during certain hours, not loafing all day.  It is certainly nice to take a staycation, but after a while we need to feel productive; it is actually therapeutic.

Productivity can be defined differently by each person. (Parents should resist the urge to impose assignments on children who are 12 and older; rather ask them for a list of what they want to accomplish and build from there.)  It’s advisable to choose a few activities that have been on the back burner for a while; now you may have time to accomplish them. Binge-watching some video series may be on the list but, of course, that should not be the list!  Also, it’s good to keep up hygienic care–shower, get dressed, do the usual grooming, for a sense of health and well-being. And, of course, physical activity, which releases natural endorphins, is advisable. Most people, especially those who are prone to anxiety and depression, will benefit from being outdoors in the sunlight. Families can do this together, or if solitude is what you need, take turns and support each other’s efforts to self-care.

In my work with tweens and teens, I am typically not a fan of excessive use of social media.  Despite the connectivity it affords its users, it can create stress and cause relationship ruptures between peers.  But during this crisis requiring social distancing, I am amending my take on it. Our tweens and teens need to know how their friends are feeling.  They need to share their own experiences and hear them validated by their peers.  The common fear of being left out of gatherings should be reduced to a minimum since most people are, or will be, keeping their children home.

Therefore, chatting and laughing, sharing what they create while home–music, art, poetry, videos, etc.–and celebrating birthdays virtually, etc. will be important for tweens and teens. It won’t be ideal for them to spend all their time on social media, texts, and phone interfaces, but maybe some time each day, if they choose to, so they can stay connected.

One caveat is that the internet contains some alarming, and sometimes grossly incorrect, news and memes about Coronavirus (COVID-19).  If your teens and tweens seem upset by what they are seeing or hearing, encourage them to take a break (the same goes for you!). Similar rules apply for COVID-19 as for academic research and current events–check your sources. Trust only reliable sources, and discard anything that feels like hearsay.

By the way, teens may loudly express a desire to get together physically with friends, but this is not advisable. As their adults, we need to protect them and the community.  Remember that teens and young adults have a developmentally appropriate sense of omnipotence and egocentrism, so it’s up to adults to set these difficult boundaries–and enforce them.

Parents of young children are the ones I am, frankly, most concerned for.  The comforts of routine are bound to be terribly disrupted–preschools and elementary schools closed, nannies and babysitters afraid to travel, the usual places of comfort like climbing jungle gyms in parks, or music and art classes, or sports activities, all cancelled.  Parents may be home from work, and suddenly becoming early childhood educators on the fly, or spontaneous elementary school teachers, or at the very least, facilitators. Co-parents in these circumstances must support each other–create a tag-team approach. Take breaks. Try not to fight with your children over schoolwork–these are not ideal circumstances, so in the Fall, primary educators will be bound to do a great deal of “review.”

Just remind yourself that you don’t need to be a super parent, just a “good enough” parent, the clinical term coined by D.W. Winnicott, one of the fathers of child psychology.  Your child needs you to be good enough, not perfect.

Sample schedules for families are being circulated on Facebook and elsewhere that might be helpful to some parents, but they can make those who are overwhelmed feel inadequate. This crisis is new to all of us, and the key is finding a rhythm that works for you.

My advice for the good enough parent is to combine what your children need to do for school with what is in your wheelhouse, and what you already enjoy doing with your children. What are their talents and abilities, or their “wheelhouse” activities? If you like to cook, then cook with your children.  If you love music, put on some music and listen, or dance. If you like quiet activities, then do those, and if your kids become bored or disinterested, release them. You will not be evaluated on how well you did–there will be no scorecard.

One additional piece of advice: be forgiving of yourself and your family.  Every one of you is out of your normal routine, and there are certainly additional stressors for each family.  Financial concern is a common stress point for adults under normal circumstances, and during this crisis, that stressor is bound to be on red alert. You’ll be arguing over trying to get children to do chores or to exercise, but you will really be feeling the stress of trying to get work done while care-giving, or not being able to work at all, maybe losing some of your usual income, or the uncertainty of what work will look like after this crisis is over. So, be gentle with each other, and use your intuition.  If your family needs to relax rather than stick to a prescribed schedule, do what feels right.

Finally, stay connected. Stay in touch with your friends and family. Take care not to become isolated.  If you are feeling stressed, check with friends–I’ll bet they feel stressed too.

Here at The Counseling Center of Bronxville in Westchester, we are available for teletherapy on an as-needed basis for our community, so feel free to reach out if we can help.