Until this morning, I thought that I was strong and holding myself together. After all, I am supposed to be the person who is helping others become stronger and empowering them with the right skills and tools to lead a healthier and happier life. Right?
Well, I woke up to a text from my sister this morning and I immediately knew something was wrong. My siblings were worried about my dad and we feared the worst. After hours of trying to get in contact with all of them, we found out that my dad was okay for now, but that didn’t stop my spiral into tons of emotions: anxiety, fear, guilt (why hadn’t I called him back the other day?), sadness.
I knew that I had to put on a brave face for my three girls and I got to thinking about the basics of stress management. It’s important to focus on our mental health at a time like this and also be present enough to address it with our children. With schools closing and parents working remotely, now is the perfect time to develop new coping skills, practice mindfulness, and participate in healthy dialogue as a family. Below are five tips that I’m utilizing daily to help myself and my family navigate this challenging time.
Tip #1: Try breathing experiences for relaxation
It sounds simple, but many are not aware that most of us take over 23,000 breaths per day—and over 70% of us don’t do it properly. If you want to check if you are breathing properly, sit up straight in a chair or you can also stand up straight. Place your hand on your chest and take a deep breath. Was your hand lifted while breathing? The right way to breathe is through your stomach and is called diaphragmatic breathing. (The American Lung Association offers more tips on the proper way to breathe.)
The best way to lower stress is deep breathing, and once you learn how to do it properly, you will feel so much better. This is because when you breathe deeply, you send messages to your brain to calm down and relax. There is a lot of scientific research on this topic if you are interested but just know that deep breathing helps activate the calm system (aka parasympathetic system) and deactivate the stress system (aka sympathetic system). Elevated heart rate, high blood pressure, and shortness of breath can all be symptoms of stress. One way to send a message to your body to relax is through proper breathing.
You may have to try a few different breathing exercises to find one that works best for you. Here are a few that I recommend, but you can search online for more of your own! I recommend trying these on your own and encouraging your teens to do the same. It may seem silly at first, but these are lifelong coping skills with so many benefits.
Tip #2: Check-in on yourself
Be aware of your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors surrounding the coronavirus and be honest and open with yourself and with your teenagers about how you are feeling. With many people living on autopilot while exposing themselves to a deluge of stress from the outside world, it is important to pause and ask yourself how you feel. What is the storyline that you are telling yourself?
With all my patients, I always suggest writing (even if you hate writing!). Try writing one sentence a day to sum up your thoughts or mood that day. Writing down your thoughts will help alleviate your anxiety and it will also give you awareness. You and your teenagers can all do this every day.
For example, this morning, here’s what I was telling myself: “My poor dad…he suffered all his life and now he isn’t just dealing with the whole corona mess but he is also stressed about money. I should have called him to ask how he was doing…”
These thoughts, while true, made me feel very sad and guilty and added more negative feelings that could have resulted in getting into bed and continuing to feel sadness. Acknowledging these thoughts and then taking that awareness and turning it into actions that aim to take control over those thoughts is what I did instead. I know I needed to carry on with my day, work, and spend time with my girls who need me as a support system. Keep reading for more ways on how you can take control over those thoughts.
Tip #3: Connect with your teens
One of the most important and also very challenging pieces of advice that I can offer is to first normalize the anxiety and listen to your teenagers when they express their feelings as it relates to the coronavirus. One of my most favorite techniques of connecting to another human being (anyone, not just a teen) is called the Imago Dialogue.
The Imago Dialogue is a powerful method of healing hurting relationships and helping couples reattach in love, but I often use it in my work with teens to help them regulate their emotions and better connect with their parents. I also find it to be an extremely useful way for parents to connect with their teens and to validate what they are feeling. This technique was developed by Dr. Harville Hendrix, author of the best-selling book Getting the Love You Want: A Guide For Couples.
In this intentional type of dialogue, the two people involved are not discussing a specific topic but rather one person speaks about what is on his or her mind and the other listens. The dialogue has three defined steps:
The listener reflects back what he/she is hearing: this means that what is said by the other is being restated without adding comments or opinions. After you mirror what was said by your teen, ask related questions. Be curious. For instance, if your teen expresses anxiety about not being in school or the cancellation of certain events, you can ask: “What specifically are you afraid of missing out on?”
Once you confirm with your teen that you understood them by summarizing what they said, you can move to validating them. The simplest way to validate your teen is by stating what is true about what they said and saying that it makes sense. This means you explain to your teen that from their point of view this makes sense. It is important to keep in mind that validation doesn’t mean you agree with your teen, but it amplifies the empathy you give your teen, which makes them feel understood.
After you finish validating your teen, you can empathize with them by trying to put yourself in his or her shoes and think about how you would feel if the situation or concern happened to you at their age. For example, “I imagine how this makes you feel sad.” Be careful not to express a thought, for example, “I think that in the grand scheme of things this isn’t something to feel sad about.” “I don’t care” is a thought and not a feeling. Feeling words are usually one word only. for example, sad, happy, afraid, lonely, unloved, etc. To empathize use the sentence stem: “How I imagine this makes you feel is...” And then ask, “Is this accurate?”
At the conclusion of the dialogue, after you have summarized, validated, and empathized, you can give your teen an encouragement. Think about what you can do that would help. Is there something that you can do at home that would make your teen feel like they are in their normal routine? Can you find ways for them to connect with friends via phone or FaceTime?
Tip # 4: Think about others
Ask your teen what advice they would give younger kids who feel similar feelings of anxiety. I found that when teens realize they can help others, they tend to feel better and empowered.
During difficult times, research suggests that teenagers feel better when they turn their attention to supporting others. After a 2006 flood destroyed a small town in southern Poland, one study found that the teenagers who provided the highest levels of social support to fellow flood victims were the ones who went on to express the most confidence about their ability to face challenges in their own lives.
Knowing this, we can remind teenagers that we wash our hands and follow other health recommendations not only to protect ourselves, but also to help ease the strain on local medical systems. Along the same lines, adults can note that making personal sacrifices — such as postponing a vacation or staying home if we’re not feeling well — helps reduce the chance of carrying illness into our own communities. If you are stocking up on groceries in cases of being asked to self-quarantine, take the opportunity to talk to your kids about the challenges faced by people in need and consider finding ways to help others in your neighborhood.
For example, with my girls, we asked our doorman if there are any elderly people in the building that needed help buying groceries. Find ways to expand your teen’s outlook, as selfless acts do wonders for personal mental health.
Tip # 5: Encourage an alternative behavior
Your teens are bombarded by digital intrusion, and the more they are exposed to it, the more anxious they will feel. Brainstorm ways to shut off the media. Can you get outside and take a walk (with proper social distancing)? Is there a good podcast the entire family would enjoy listening to? Can you all have a dance party? Think back to basics: board games, card games, and family movie night can all serve as comforting distractions at a time like this. Maybe you can all cook dinner together as a family? Don’t just suggest shutting out the onslaught of scary information, find something soothing to replace it.
If you would like more support for yourself or your teen during these difficult times, then schedule a complimentary consultation for virtual therapy today!