I have spent the weekend at home, in social isolation, knowing that, as a doctor responsible for a Youth Psychiatry Program, I will need to stay healthy and avoid becoming ill with COVID-19. During this time, however, since I am near a phone all the time, I have also been speaking or answering emails from parents worried about how to manage their own and their children’s anxiety about the pandemic.
Containing the spread of the novel coronavirus must be our top concern, but have you noticed that, at the end of every public health announcement, public health doctors remind listeners not to get anxious, or to panic. But with hand sanitizer and other supplies flying off grocery store shelves, it is evident that not everyone is managing their anxiety sensibly. For those who need it, I have developed a list of activities everyone can do to reduce their own levels of anxiety as well as the anxiety of youth.
First, and most importantly, REST. If you are feeling especially anxious or have an anxiety disorder, evidence shows that you should spend 40% of your day resting. What does that mean? What is resting?
Resting includes sleeping and teens need at least 8 hours of sleep daily. That’s about one third of the day. Other resting activities include exercise, reading, listening to music, napping, knitting or other hobbies, chatting at a safe social distance – any activity that helps you to smile or have fun. I remind the teens in my practice that video games are not necessarily restful and screens on their own can often be more exciting than calming. For example, I like watching documentaries and movies but I make sure not to watch upsetting shows. The Silence of the Lambs is not my idea of a restful movie.
The next best thing to do if you’re anxious – an activity that counts as restful, in fact – is exercise. The teens in my inpatient practice complain sometimes if I suggest we go for a walk, but I remind them that that we’re doing is actively working against the hormones that cause stress. The research shows that this works more effectively if you can be outdoors, so go outdoors. Use fresh air to combat anxiety!
Another thing to do is to eat nourishing food. Since you’re going to be around home anyway while you’re socially isolating, why not make your own bread or soup? There is time for oatmeal in the morning and you probably now have more than twenty minutes to think about supper, so make something special.
For anxiety related to COVID – 19 directly, it’s important to remind people of all ages that there are things that we can all do to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus and we MUST be doing them. It will help lower our anxiety levels if we are doing whatever we can. The most important thing we can do is wash our hands and young children may be better at this than teenagers. Young children are reminded all the time to wash their hands and that it prevents disease – have you not gotten a reminder yourself from your grade school child to wash your hands before a meal? We also need to stay at home and avoid spreading the virus through contact with other people. In speaking about this, you can remind your child that this is one of the reasons they stay home when they have other contagious illnesses such as colds. You can show your child the distance that is recommended. This image from the San Diego County News Center shows how 6 feet or 2 metres of distance helps you to avoid germs.
Finally, some parents will have to speak with their child because they are worried about COVID-19 deaths and want to understand better what is happening. Several years ago, The Scientific Parent designed this graphic of advice I provided about talking to kids about tragedy. It will provide some useful tips in discussing COVID-19 deaths as well. I hope we don’t need these kinds of tools for long.
Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to continue with my own anxiety-decreasing strategy and have a nap!