Ask an Expert: How can you alleviate stress around coronavirus?

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With families facing unprecedented stress during the COVID-19 crisis, parents need to prioritize mental wellness in order to be present for their children, according to Vanderbilt University Psychology professor Bruce Compas.

“Parents should remember the old adage, ‘Put your own oxygen mask on first before helping those around you,’” he says. “Proactively manage your mental health so you can be of help to your children.”

Compas says that the COVID-19 crisis is particularly difficult because it hits on the three major features of toxic stress:

  •     it is unpredictable (we didn’t see it coming, and we can’t predict when it will end);
  •     it is largely uncontrollable (aside from following CDC guidelines); and
  •     it is chronic (it has been going on for a while and it is going to last a while longer).

Accept what you can change and what you can’t

“The rule for managing your own stress is to identify the small things that you can control and accept the things you can’t,” he says. “Practice social distancing, wash hands and follow all prescribed guidelines.

Stick to a routine as much as possible

Also, maintain some semblance of normalcy in your life by sticking to your usual routine as much as possible. Compas suggests getting up at your usual time, keeping to your usual habits regarding diet and exercise, and do your food shopping on a schedule rather making “worried” trips to the store. Do the same for your children – create a schedule, post it on the fridge and stick to it, with some flexibility of course.

Limit your time watching the news

He also strongly recommends managing how much you expose yourself and your family to the news.
“The news feeds on TV and the web are non-stop so only look at the news in small doses at prescribed time, such as one or two times a day,” he says. “The rest of the time, turn off the news.”

Set aside time to address your worries

Seeing the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak has naturally caused many to struggle with worry. Compas says you can take charge of worries by scheduling a specific time to address them.

“Set aside about 20 minutes at the same time every day to sit down and write about you are worried about,” he says. “Really dive into what you’re feeling. Whenever worries creep in during the rest of your day, remind yourself that there is a prescribed time to deal with those and it’s okay to focus on other things right now. That’s good advice for kids too!”

Remember to breathe

Breathing is important during times of stress, and most people don’t remember to take time to breathe deeply and release the stress that builds up throughout the day. Muscle tension, clenching your jaw and tightening your shoulders may be other ways your body responds to stress. Compas advises finding an app to guide you through breathing and mindfulness techniques as a way to center your thoughts.

“Taking time to breathe and clear your mind once or twice a day can be calming to the mind and relaxing for the body,” Compas says. “The apps by Jon Kabat-Zinn are excellent and have strong evidence to support their use.”

Embrace your emotions

Prepare to face ups and downs throughout the day, no matter how hard you try to manage your wellbeing, but that’s normal. “Be aware that this situation has created a lot of increased stress for you and your family and it is okay to acknowledge the stress. “You don’t have to deny the reality that this is all very stressful.”

Find the good

For many, there may be good to be found in being sequestered at home.

“This may bring your family closer together, it may provide you with extra time to be with your children or other family members, it may help get you out of some of the ruts we get into in daily life,” he says. “Try to look for the silver lining,” he says.

Bruce Compas is the Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor of Psychology and Human Development at Vanderbilt Peabody College of education and human development.