Back-to-school anxiety is perfectly normal. But this year, it’s the parents who are worried about sending their kids to classes, while the kids are anxious about not going back to school – or at least to their normal school environment. It’s more evidence of the world gone topsy-turvy thanks to COVID-19.
“I would say that probably more than 50 percent of my caseload is kids and parents with anxiety, anxiety that gets in the way sometimes of day-to-day living,” Harwich Youth Counselor Sheila House said this week. The situation is understandable, given the disruption that the pandemic has caused to young people and their families. While the Monomoy schools, for one, have gone to great lengths getting the schools ready for the return of students, many uncertainties remain. And that can bring anxieties.
“With COVID-19, it sort of doesn’t matter what we all want,” House said. The virus seems to be in charge of our daily plans and our long-term goals, and that can leave us feeling a lack of control, she said. House is circulating an informational sheet with 16 ways to help reduce anxiety during the pandemic, and she said there are many strategies for coping with the uncertainty of life today.
“What I’m trying to focus them on, with the therapy work with kids and parents, is ‘what can you control today?’” House said. A routine, coupled with a modest, manageable list of tasks for the day, can help people feel that they’re accomplishing something and that they’re grounded.
“That works for kids as well,” she said. “Having some kind of little schedule is really helpful.”
Joshua Gordon, the director of the National Institutes of Mental Health, offers similar advice in an article on the NIMH.NIH.gov website.
“The disruptions to daily life are already being felt by many, my family included — my son has been sent home from college, my place of worship has closed, and the comforting social gatherings that usually fill my weekends are off-limits,” Gordon wrote. “We are all feeling uncertain about what could happen in the coming weeks, as we hope to slow the spread of this pandemic. Feelings of anxiety and uncertainty are completely normal during times like this.”
The anxiety caused by COVID-19 can be particularly disruptive for those with mental illness like clinical depression, he noted. He urged people who are currently being treated for mental illness to continue on the treatment regimens. But staying connected with others is important for everyone in times like these, Gordon said.
“It is important to realize that social distancing does not have to mean social isolation, especially with modern technologies available to many of us. Connecting with our friends and loved ones, whether by high tech means or through simple phone calls, can help us maintain ties during stressful days ahead and will give us strength to weather this difficult passage,” he wrote.
For her part, House encourages people to focus on what they can control – their thoughts, actions and behaviors – rather than focusing on disturbing news or frequent social media updates. People should remember that they are resilient, and so is humankind. “We will get through this,” she said.
“Do your best to model peaceful behavior for those around you,” her tip sheet reads. “Remember that everyone experiences stress differently.”
While it might not be good for lawns, the dry weather has presented lots of opportunities for people to spend time outdoors, “and that’s been a godsend,” House said. “Absolutely get outside for an hour every day,” she said.
It’s also important to control one’s intake of comfort food, she said with a chuckle. Proper nutrition is key to handling stress. “It really does make a difference if you try to eat healthy,” House said. A proper diet provides energy and a feeling of being well grounded, she said.
Self-isolating at home has presented new opportunities for parents to connect with their children, and House has seen lots of suggestions from local parents about safe outings, backyard activities and other strategies for staying connected during the pandemic. “They’re so creative, it’s so wonderful,” she said. “I think that parents in Harwich and Chatham are just doing an amazing job with the stress of all this, and having to have the kids at home all the time. I’m just blown away by how creative they are and what a great sense of humor they have about it,” she said. That’s important, because the fact of the matter is that life during a pandemic is no picnic. “It’s really hard,” she said.
Elementary-age children are not directly attuned to the stresses of the pandemic. “They tend to pick up more on the anxiety of their parents,” House said, and can feel stress after listening to grown-ups talking about COVID-19, politics or financial worries. It’s more difficult for teens.
“They’re the ones that struggle so mightily with not being able to see their friends,” she said. In Monomoy, about 78 percent of students plan to return to in-person classes, and the ones House has spoken to are extremely excited to reconnect with peers. Parents can find themselves in the middle when they need to enforce social distancing rules and the prohibition on large parties.
“Focus on the good things: the helpers, time with family and friends, and opportunities to pull together,” House’s sheet reads. “Write down three things you are grateful for each day.”
Just as it’s important to be patient with others during this stressful time, it’s also important to be patient with ourselves, she said.
“Anytime you get up in the morning and you’re feeling any type of emotion around this whole coronavirus situation, remember, there’s no emotion that’s a wrong emotion,” House said.