Parents of school-age children balance working from home and teaching their kids while sanitizing high-touch surfaces. Parents of teenagers and college students confined to online learning walk a fine line between giving their kids autonomy and ensuring their safety. All of us who are used to meeting friends for lunch, seeing our gym buddies, chatting with coworkers or visiting grandchildren are feeling the strain of prolonged social distancing.
With the coronavirus pandemic disrupting our lives in ways large and small, we’re all feeling anxious and on edge, mental health experts say. It helps to feel less isolated if we adopt a “we’re all in this together” mindset, says Trevor Crow Mullineaux, a licensed marriage and family therapist with offices in Greenwich and Westport. “We need each other in times of stress.”
Mental health professionals recommend several steps to reduce household conflict, lower stress, nurture our mental health and adopt healthy coping.
First, there’s the fact that individuals respond to the health risks differently. It’s fairly typical for one half of a couple to minimize the danger and the other to be hypervigilant, Mullineaux says. To help come to an understanding, approach conflict over how to handle social distancing guidelines by agreeing that you’ve got each other’s backs and care about the family, she says.
When talking with teens and young adults who resist parental limitations, parents should use words that express love and connectedness, says Jane Cooper, a Middletown-based therapist.
We could spend hours reading, listening to and watching the news about the coronavirus. Don’t. Checking in once a day is enough, therapists advise. “If you want to stay sane, limit your exposure to things that set you off,” Cooper says. If you’re on Facebook to connect with friends and family, use the phone or Skype [instead] to talk to the people you care about. “Don’t look at the rest of it. It’s not important.”
Make time for yourself
Even a 2-minute break to meditate with a mindfulness app promotes relaxation, Cooper says. Google “guided imagery” or “mindfulness” and you’ll find dozens of apps. She recommends Copper Beech Institute in West Hartford, which livestreams free mindfulness or meditation class daily at 12:30 p.m. (For more info, go to copperbeechinstitute.org)
Mothers of young children are among the most at-risk, Cooper says. “Moms don’t take time for themselves until everyone is in bed.” Cooper suggests that moms (and dads) find time to be alone by having the kids Skype with their grandparents or watch a 30-minute show.
Allow space between each person, suggests Bill Gilbert, Ph.D., a therapist with Griffin Counseling Service of South Windsor and assistant professor of social work at Elms College in Chicopee, Massachusetts. When you come together with those in your household, “make the times you do spend together as stress-free as possible,” Gilbert says. He suggests having family meals, playing board games and watching movies together.
While it’s good to respect one another’s space and enjoy alone time, don’t isolate yourself, either. “Not talking actually lends itself to miscommunication,” he says. “Don’t mind read. Don’t assume what people are feeling. People are going to deal with this in different ways.”
While some people want to talk their stress out, others want to avoid thinking about it and talking about it. If you’re a talker living with someone who prefers to limit discussion, respect that person’s wishes and find a friend to talk with, therapists say. Adopting the mindset that we’re in this together and we’re going to help each other get through it can help with our different coping strategies, Gilbert says.
When people living together disagree on how to deal with the new normal of COVID-19, talk with each other using “I” statements, Mullineaux says. “Parenting is a team effort. Start with ‘What’s our value system around this? Let’s figure out together what’s the best way to get through this.’ ”
When couples compromise, they feel like they’ve been heard and they’re in a better place to help each other through this ordeal, she says. Human beings are wired to connect and lean on each other. Hugging releases the hormone oxytocin, which promotes social bonding.
It’s OK for parents to modify kids’ screen time limits, Cooper says, adding, “Arguing and not talking to one another is more toxic.”
Get fresh air and exercise
In Japan, people escape crowded cities to visit forest therapy trails that crisscross the country to soak up the sights, smells, sounds and textures of the woods, a practice called “forest bathing.” Extensive research by Dr. Qing Lin shows that time in the woods reduces stress levels and blood pressure and boosts mood and energy.
To combat cabin fever, people are flocking to parks, trails and neighborhood streets. Just make sure to maintain proper social distancing (that’s 6 feet). Research shows that exercise and Vitamin D help fight depression. Even if your outdoor options are limited, there are plenty of at-home exercises to keep you busy.
Keep schedules and routines
If you’ve got young kids and you and your partner are both working from home, plan your routine the night before, says Lisa Winjum, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Connecticut. Figure out together who’s got what going on the next day, such as video conferences and conference calls, to avoid distractions.
Relax your standards and explain to colleagues and clients what is and isn’t realistic during this time, Winjum says. Setting accurate expectations lowers your anxiety if the dog barks or the baby walks up while video conferencing.
Productivity expectations won’t be the same with so many people working from home, especially for those who are trying to home-school children, Cooper says. Be patient with yourself.
Whether unemployed or working from home, brushing your teeth, taking showers and changing clothes has a psychological benefit, says Valerie Lepoutre, peer recovering program manager with NAMI Connecticut.