For the majority of Americans, the coronavirus is scary. But for adults and children dealing with anxiety, "what if" questions and "catastrophizing" scenarios end somewhere between zombie apocalypse and death by starvation. Service members and their families, who already live life on edge, may be used to national panic, but they are not immune.
Panic can be felt, in raised shoulders, clenched fists, upset stomachs and extreme thoughts that can't be dismissed no matter how many episodes you binge. For me, I could tell that my feelings about the coronavirus shifted from casual observer to concerned when I realized that I could not protect my children from panic.
I can keep them at home. I can isolate them. But I can't guarantee that they are well-fed and have access to clean water, or something as simple as toilet paper. Through scrolling fingers, we judge the hoarders, but something inside us wishes we were as prepared. No one wants to be the family who is not prepared. The family who can't protect their children.
That thought alone has put me on edge, not fear of death or illness or boredom or homeschooling.
Ultimately I can't protect my children from everything. But I CAN protect them from me and what my anxiety does to them.
Just like in an airplane, parents first must conquer our fears before we can conquer our children's. As adults, we want to present answers to a lot of these questions, but this becomes complicated when we are uncertain what the outcome will be.
"Children look to adults, parents, teachers and other caregivers to be the competent people in their lives, to have the answers," said Dr. Martha Gleason, licensed clinical psychologist based out of Pacific Grove, California. "When the adults don't even see their children, if they are more worried about where they can grab the next six-pack of toilet paper, they miss some of the symptoms or problems that their children are having that they could have helped them with pretty easily."
Our children take their cues on how to react to this isolation from us. They see the empty shelves at the grocery stores and wonder why they can't play with their friends or go to school. If we panic, our panic trickles down to them. But there are steps we can take to combat anxiety in ourselves that will benefit our children, who are watching our every move:
- Maintain a schedule - get dressed in real clothes every day, create a "new normal" pattern.
- Limit media intake - watching an endless loop of uncertainty and negativity can make anxiety worse.
- Get physically active, inside (find free apps, yoga, stretching) or outside (walks, bike riding, family "field day").
- Calming activities for kids (baths, coloring, writing and telling stories, building, creating) and adults (baths, meditation, reading).
- Combat fears with evidence not speculation. Look at stories that show how we can control our circumstances - St. Louis vs. Philadelphia with the Spanish Flu versus media stories intended to stir up controversy.
- Focus on what stabilizes you. What makes you who you are? Faith? Family? Friends? Stay connected to those things in whatever way you can, online church services, video chats with family or even host a Netflix party.
- Find the fun whenever and wherever possible!
Gleason cautions, whenever dealing with anxiety one must be careful to look for underlying physical conditions. It may seem obvious, but if your child is dealing with asthma, don't treat their shortness of breath by treating it as a panic attack. If you are unsure of the cause of these new symptoms contact a medical professional.
But for the majority who are dealing with situational anxiety triggered by the coronavirus there is a lot we can control. "Whenever your kids give you a fear you give them a reason why they don't need to be afraid. Be honest. Be positive. But only answer what they ask," said Gleason. "Because if you go on and on, it not only confuses them, and they still feel like they didn't get the answer they needed."
Kid: "Are we going to starve?"
Parent: "Of course not, look at the refrigerator and the pantry."
Kid: "What happens when we run out of toilet paper?"
Parent: "We use all those socks that we can't find the pairs for. They'll finally have a home!"
Kid: "Will we die?"
Parent: "One day a long time from now. But we are washing our hands, staying away from sick people and making safe, healthy choices."
All their questions really boil down to, "Why don't I have to worry about this?" Our answers should convince them that the adults in their lives have already thought about their questions. The world has experienced tragedies and epidemics for the history of time. We might not know how this will end, but we know that it will.
COVID-19 Anxiety Resources
For those struggling with anxiety, you are not alone. Military OneSource has confidential resources available to servicemembers and their families. https://www.militaryonesource.mil/confidential-help
CDC's Advice for Adults & Children: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prepare/managing-stress-anxiety.htmlFor Children: National Association of School Psychologists
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