Dr. Joshua Eudowe is a clinical and forensic psychologist in Westport specializing in child, adolescent and adult trauma, and high-risk patients. A threat assessment and crisis consultant to schools and businesses, and a first responder for more than 30 years, he serves as clinical director of the Connecticut Critical Incident Stress Management Team, and the COVID-19 Special Response Team. He writes:
Over a month into the pandemic, and for most of us, our emotions are changing. The initial wave of anxiety is transforming into perhaps fear, anger, loneliness or sadness.
Managing these ever-changing emotions can be difficult. We spend a lot of time waiting and wondering what may come next. Protests are fueling some, while others struggle with increased fear.
While this happens, it’s natural for people to need to displace what’s building inside. For example, we may be more likely to argue with a spouse or child for something small. We may need time alone but can’t find “our” space in a house filled with others. Coping with isolation is grueling.
At the risk of sounding like every other monotonous self-help article, I’ll say it anyway. Two incredibly important aspects of managing our mood are diet and exercise. Eat healthy and exercise. Find an empty room and create your routine. When we exercise, our body releases chemicals that can ease anxiety and depression.
Of course, you already know this. So what else can be done?
It is important to know is that these feelings are normal during traumatic times. Whether you’re worried about a loved one, your family’s health, your job or business, financial instability or all of the above, those feelings are normal.
Go easy on yourself, and on others. Understand that while one person’s experience may be frightening, someone else’s may be intolerance or anger.
When trauma enters our lives our perceptions change. This can have tremendous influence over our ability to regulate our emotions.
For example, if a month ago we noticed rubber gloves on the ground, we’d shake our head and wonder why people aren’t more caring about the environment.
Today we see a pair of gloves on the ground and are filled with rage and anger. We think about the risks and the deplorable carelessness of others. The stress of these times can cause us to lash out in ways that are not normally part of our personality. This is something to be mindful of when interacting with others – especially children.
Traumatic experiences cause us to feel out of control. The more control we can create for ourselves, the more grounding it will have on our emotional state. Although it may feel as if we have little control at the moment, we do. If you’re stuck, search for ways to have more control.
As adults and parents, we frequently need to set aside our emotions and help our children cope with growing uncertainty. Interestingly enough, during this time (on the surface) children may appear calmer. The anxieties or depression once prevalent most days may appear to have dissipated. They may be less argumentative and less “teenage” (insert laugh here).
It’s highly likely that some of their symptoms have eased due to a dramatic change in their environment. Social pressures have been nearly removed; parents are less concerned about behavioral issues, and therefore less strict. Distance learning, while challenging, is also manageable, and without face to face contact with teachers, children are typically less anxious about the work. Sports are canceled, and nearly all activities rescheduled. The number of “unknowns” have been removed. Therefore, many children are able to let go of some of their anxiety.
Anxiety is caused by a lack of control. In our lives, we use boundaries to create structure. We have expectations at work, school and home. We rely on our significant others to be consistent and predictable.
All of these create invisible structure, allowing our children to freely operate with the understanding of what’s expected (consistency) and what will happen (predictability).
Over the past month, our environments have been far more consistent and predictable in our day to day lives. What’s happened? Anxiety has decreased. This is why parents may be seeing quasi-improvements in their children’s mental health.
However, don’t be fooled. When life returns to normal, so will expectations, fewer boundaries, less consistency and far less predictability. Self-esteem issues will return — and could be worse. Social anxieties could become more exaggerated, and pressure to succeed may become overwhelming.
Spend time talking to your children about this. Illustrate for them how their own feelings have changed during this time. Ask them to reflect on their anxieties as compared to several months ago.
It’s a helpful tool in building insight and self-reflection, as well as helping children recognize empathy when discussing those less fortunate during these times.
Stay safe. Stay strong. Be consistent. Be predictable.