What we can do to help ourselves and our families enjoy better mental health
By Sue Baldani
COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on our country and the world at large. Not only have millions of people lost their lives or are dealing with the long-term health issues of the virus, but its effects are being felt in a myriad of other ways as well.
Being out of work has caused great financial strain, and living under a cloud of uncertainty has led to mental fatigue. While vaccines and other measures have helped curb the spread, COVID-19 variants still have people on edge.
With no end in sight, scores of people are looking for ways to overcome the depression and anxiety that have either begun or have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Mental health professionals have been inundated with calls for help over the last year and a half.
“Requests for therapy blew up, which I can totally understand because people lost their jobs, or couldn’t work or were worried about their finances and how they were going to survive,” says Brittney Henderson, a licensed marriage and family therapist with her own practice, Luminous Clarity, in Westlake Village, California. “All these anxieties, and they didn’t have any help with the uncertainty of it all – we had never been in anything like this before.”
Dr. Bethany Vaudrey, a clinical psychologist who founded Sunlight Psychological Services in Agoura Hills, California, saw a big increase in demand for services as well. “I think all of us have struggled with the uncertainties, health fears, losses of socialization and recreation opportunities … it has been such a hard season.”
As with adults, there has also been a noticeable increase in COVID-related mental-health issues among children. Their once structured lives of school, playdates, summer camps, and birthday parties had been totally upended this past year and a half. “Structure leads to predictability, which in turn leads to feeling in control,” says Dr. Vaudrey. “As humans, we are most comfortable when we feel capable of controlling what happens to us, and predicting what is coming. COVID has made us all feel powerless, and has removed our capacity to know what to expect in our own (short-term) futures.
“And kids are very attuned to the stress of parents (even when we think we are hiding it so well!) and little ears overhear and understand so much,” she adds. “In my practice lately, I see kids discussing their anxiety about these social issues (e.g., political fighting between family members, parents disagreeing over COVID precautions, friends disagreeing over masks or vaccines, etc.) more than I see anxiety about actually contracting COVID itself.”
So what can adults and children do to overcome these challenges? The number one action is to reach out to others, whether it be a friend, a therapist, a member of the clergy, or someone else you trust.
“It’s important to find someone you can connect with,” says Lori Donnelly, a clinical hypnotherapist who founded Wolf Creek Wellness with offices in San Rosa Valley and Tarzana in California. “You have to have that rapport, and if it doesn’t feel comfortable or you don’t click, then you should find someone else. However, it’s important to have someone who will challenge you as well.
“People don’t need to suffer,” she adds. “There are ways to move away from your pain and out of your trauma and stop the loop of suffering. People get stuck and they just don’t know there are options out there or they think that no one can help, or they are stigmatized by therapy.”
“If you don’t reach out or express it, then you’re internalizing it and that weighs on you and creates anxiety, depression and anger,” says Henderson. “These feelings are going to come out at some point, so letting it out little by little is a release. There is support out there, so reach out.”
In addition to talking about their feelings, there are other things people can do to help alleviate stress and anxiety. “I like mindful walking,” says Henderson. “You go outside, which changes the environment, especially if you’ve been in the house for a while, and you shut your eyes for a minute and just listen. Name something you hear, like a bird chirping, and name something you feel, like the sun on your face or the breeze. If you’re paying attention to your senses, then you have to be present in the moment and your brain can’t go elsewhere.”
Also focus on the tactile, she adds. “Pay attention to your steps, where you feel the pressure on your foot when you’re stepping. Do you feel it on the heel, on the ball of your foot; is the ground firm or squishy? Really focusing on the tactile forces you to be present in the moment.”
There are many techniques for children as well, says Dr. Vaudrey. “Parents can give the gift of predictability in the home by being consistent in routines, schedules, and rules/consequences. These structures make life feel safe and help kids relax. Sometimes when things feel crazy, we are tempted to relax the structure at home as a treat or privilege for kids. Although counterintuitive, this actually increases kids’ stress!
“Another small way to help manage kids’ anxiety (and their accompanying controlling behaviors) is to yield decision-making power to your kids (in areas that won’t compromise your structure). Give kids control over things that are reasonable for kids to control. Toddlers can pick out their own outfits or choose between two parent-offered options. Early elementary kids can help with meal planning or choosing chores. Teens often do a great job of helping decide a reasonable curfew, rules, and consequences.”
Fortunately, many schools have opened for in-person instruction, which will give children that much needed structure. However, being in school again and with their classmates can bring on mixed feelings.
“Students are really responding differently to being around other students,” says Devon Hiltibran, a marriage and family therapist and the high school social emotional wellness counselor at Oaks Christian School in Westlake Village. “For some, it feels awesome and exciting, while for others, it’s anxiety provoking.”
“You can feel the mixed emotions of students adapting to life back in the classroom,” adds Gaia Altshuler, the middle school social emotional wellness counselor at Oaks. “Our counseling offices are a space for students to stop by to talk about their concerns, grab some tea and a mint or take a moment to color or play with fidgets. These activities can support their regulatory system when feeling overwhelmed or anxious.”
“Parents can support their children by creating space for them to identify and communicate their feelings,” says Hiltibran. “Allow them to say they feel mad, or scared, or nervous or confused.”
She also suggests that parents ask their children how they’re feeling, and invite them into conversations over dinner or during some other quiet time. In addition, she adds, parents should encourage children to use positive and adaptive coping strategies like listening to music, creating art, or exercising.
Parents should also validate their children’s fears. “It could be helpful to remind children of all the efforts their school has made to provide a safe environment,” says Hiltibran.
“If kids have questions, answer them,” says Henderson. “Don’t lie or sugarcoat. If they’re worried about COVID or getting sick, you can tell them that mommy or daddy (or whomever is caring for them) is going to do everything in their power to keep them healthy. There are little stress balls, stress putty and worry stones for kids which can be helpful for them to have with them. They have something to do with their hands which can be soothing and ground them.”
One good thing that has come out of the pandemic, says Donnelly, is that some people are finding a better balance in their lives. “My clients are now finding the time to do more healthy things and are changing their lives in more positive ways.”
So, find some enjoyable things to do with your extra time. Adopt a pet, try a new hobby, or acquire a new skill, such as playing an instrument or learning a new language. And, if you or your children are feeling depressed or overcome with anxiety, don’t hesitate to reach out to one of these professionals or someone else who will actively listen. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Instead, it’s a positive step toward a healthier and happier life.
Written for Conejo Valley Lifestyle magazine in California.