This COVID-19 crisis creates a lot of extra parental stressors, whether they be from anxiety, the uncertainty of the situation, adjustments to the “new normal,” or unemployment and financial concerns. With stress running high, restricted access to regular outlets, and the loss of the six hour respite that a school day used to provide parents, the risk of child abuse or neglect increases, especially for children with disabilities or who have difficulty maintaining emotional regulation.
At times like these, the advice flight attendants give about oxygen masks is important to keep in mind: Take care of your own needs first, then tend to your child: If you don’t assure that you are okay, you can’t “be there” to be able to help your child.
Adults often deny their own anxieties and push on (this is why slogans like “Keep calm and carry on” are so popular). This may have worked very well for many people prior to COVOD-19. But muddling through on sheer will power alone just simply isn’t sustainable. And it isn’t going to serve us well during times like this because denying one’s own feelings is like driving a car with a broken gas gauge; you’ll never know when you will be caught out having exhausted your mental resources, just when you need them the most.
So amidst all the upheaval that this crisis has brought us, it has also brought us a gift: The opportunity to stop and breathe, check in with ourselves and our loved ones, and live more authentically and mindfully. This interruption from the pace of our modern living has brought an opportunity to reconnect with family, to reassess our values, and to learn healthier coping skills together.
Make “Me Time” a priority. While the kids are home with you, you can model the following healthy habits for them, which they can adopt also. This will have the added bonus of helping your children self-regulate their emotions, a skill that will serve them well throughout their lives. Some suggestions for how to cultivate healthy “Me Time”:
Take a personal inventory of worries and resentments. This practice helps one to become more mindful of the things “lurking below the surface” that can rear their ugly heads at the most unfortunate times and cause one to say or do things that they would regret or that damage relationships. It also helps to prevent anxieties from escalating into catastrophizing thinking. A personal inventory is simply a hand written list of all the things that are causing you anxiety that you may be ruminating on, and asking for them to be removed. The process of putting these things in writing engages the hippocampus (the rational part of the brain) which disengages the sympathetic nervous system (emotional part of the brain) because while one of these parts is engaged, the other cannot be. Merely speaking or thinking these things will not be as effective because the mental process of putting thoughts into words and the mechanics of handwriting are necessary steps to engage the hippocampus. View this video see an example of what a personal inventory might look like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n2lu88X5LH0&list=PL1wBaaVo3ny1BnzVVf5c-w-oObEa7v64P&index=51
Practice mindfulness meditation. This allows one to take a break from nagging, plaguing thoughts or worries by purposely focus one’s attention on the present moment and accepting it without judgement or emotional reaction. It also has the added benefits of relieving stress, lowering blood pressure, reducing chronic pain, improving sleep, alleviating gastrointestinal difficulties, and improving one’s overall happiness. By shifting your thoughts away from their usual preoccupations and developing an appreciation for the present moment you are less likely to get caught up in worries or negative thinking which allows one to be better able to form deep connections with others. To do this, simply sit quietly and focus on your natural breathing. Deliberately pay attention to any thoughts and sensations that come into you awareness, as though you are an “outside observer,” and then let them go. For example, if you are feeling hungry, notice what and where that feels like in your body. Your thinking might be: “This is hunger. It is a deep rumbling in my lower abdomen. It causes a kind of warmth and rumbling and it makes a soft gurgling sound.” Then let it go and search for the next sensation or thought. (It is okay if your next though is about what you will do to address your hunger, but it is not okay to get up and act on that thought right away. It is important to stay with the mediation for a set period of time). Pay attention to sounds, sights, thoughts, and sensations without latching on to any particular idea or emotion that would normally follow them, and instead simply witness what comes and goes in your mind and discover which mental habits produce a feeling of well- being and which ones do not.
Exercise. Whether it be yoga, gentle stretching, palates, tai chi, qui gong, or something else you prefer doing, exercise can improve your and your kid’s moods, and it is a fun way to pass the time while sheltering in place. Exercise is the most transformative thing a person can do for their brain because it changes the brain’s anatomy, physiology, and function. While aerobic exercise is important for weight loss, all forms of exercise are important because exercise releases endorphins, improves mood, improves energy levels, improves memory, and improves attention span. A single workout will have immediate effects on your brain because it increases levels of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and noradrenaline which improve mood, focus and reaction time, and these effects can last up to two hours after the workout. According to brain researcher Wendy Suzuki, cardiovascular exercise actually produces new brain cells in the Hippocampus, which improves your long term memory. One of the most common cited findings in neuroscience studies in the effects of long term exercise is improved attention function, correlated with a larger Prefrontal Cortex. These two areas of the brain are most susceptible to neuro degenerative diseases and cognitive decline in aging, so incorporating exercise three or four times a week for a minimum of thirty minutes which includes some aerobic exercise can protect your brain. There are plenty of YouTube exercise videos to choose from, so try out some new ones today because as Edward Stanleyo said, “Those who think they have no time for exercise will sooner or later have to find time for illness.”
Journalizing is another method that can help clear your mind and regulate your emotions. Simply write down your thoughts as they occur to you without doing any editing. You want the situation to be as natural and authentic as possible. Write about how you are feeling and how the feelings affect you. Journalizing can help improve your outlook on life because it cultivates self-reflection. A regular practice of journalizing keeps one emotionally well-regulated.
Indulge in your passion/hobbies. Kids naturally have a sense of play and exploration, so they know how to do this, but unfortunately we condition this natural healthy tendency out of them (and ourselves) by over programing sports and activities. The fact that all of that stuff isn’t available right now is a golden opportunity to develop new hobbies to be passionate about. YouTube has a plethora of how to videos for children and adults on hobbies that run the gantlet from learning how to paint in watercolors to how to renovate your home.
Time is the only non-renewable resource we have. This was often overlooked in the normal hustle and bustle of daily life where we let the clock govern our lives because earning a living was the main priority (which consumed the largest chunk of our time), and so our lives had to fit around that. Now, we are given this gift of time to make good on all the promises we’ve made to ourselves and our loved ones, but never seemed to have time for. The purpose of family vacations is to take a break from the pace of the normal routine and to spend time together reconnecting. They do not have to involve traveling and spending a great deal of money. Well, in a sense, we have all just been granted a prolonged family vacation in the sense that we now have plenty of time to spend together. So instead of taking the attitude that you are climbing the walls because you are trapped, choose to see this as a gift. Do you know what the one regret people who are at the end of their lives report? It is having not spent more time with their loved ones. And people are dying from this virus…none of us can take for granted that any of us will still be here when the crisis is resolved. So now is the time to love and appreciate those whom we have been blessed with sharing our lives with. When you reframe our current situation in these terms, suddenly your values shift and your dissatisfaction with the situation dissipates.
But what if you are too consumed with worry to adopt this attitude? Then this is your golden opportunity to learn the practice of getting a handle on your worry. (Reread the paragraphs above to learn how). “There isn’t enough room in your mind for both worry and hope. You must decide which one will live there.” As Dr. Wayne Dyer says, “What you think about expands,” so in order to avoid bringing the things you worry about into your life, you need to come to terms with your worry. Practicing mindfulness is the key.
Michelle M. Baughman is a late-in-life diagnosed adult on the autism spectrum, an educator, a parent of a twice-exceptional child on the spectrum, and a trauma informed AANE Certified AsperCoach. Her business Personal Evolution Life Coaching provides parental support, academic tutoring, and intensive, highly individualized life coaching to individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and related conditions. She may be contacted via phone: (860) 207-4263, email: LifeCoach.PELC@gmail.com, or her online presence: