Coping in Times of COVID-19

Dr. Marie Thompson of Vivamus explains how we can hold on to calm – as a person and a parent – in times of crisis.

Curate Your Safe Space

It’s very easy to get caught up in the whirl of social media and quickly form the view that ‘the world is a dangerous place’. When you have that view, it will affect your ability to create a protective shield for your children and will increase your own anxiety. While the world has indeed changed in recent weeks, it is not only and completely dangerous. Focusing on the aspects of our relative safety is key here. Focus on alternative views – not all illnesses are COVID; the vast majority of people recover; you’re taking measures to keep yourself and your family safe; this will pass. Focus on your immediate environment and remind yourself of what it is about your home and neighbourhood that is safe, even in the current context. 

In line with this, make sure you’re following WHO and DHA guidelines regarding social distancing and hand hygiene. These measures are proving successful and are directly contributing a shared sense of safety. And it’s been said many times, but it’s so important: be careful who you follow on social media, and take a social media break if you need to.

Promote a Sense of Calm

When we perceive a threat, our sympathetic nervous system is activated. This keeps us alert and makes us more likely to seek advice and take action, so it’s not all bad. But we’re in this for the long haul, and sustained activation of the sympathetic nervous system starts to impact negatively on our emotional and physical state (and ironically our immune system). So it’s essential to activate the body’s calming device – i.e: the parasympathetic nervous system. 

Some fast and effective ways to do this are:

  • Breathe! Deep diaphragm breathing for three minutes slows the heart rate down sufficiently to allow the soothing mechanism to take over. Start every day like this and use it throughout the day at times of stress.
  • Yoga
  • Try the Headspace app if you haven’t yet. It’s free and quick.
  • Tone and vocabulary. When you’re talking to yourself and others, be careful with the words you use and how you say it. Using alarmist words sends a threat signal to your brain. Avoid words such as “apocalypse” and instead stick to factual words such as “virus”, “pandemic”, “social distancing”. And try not to shout these words or use them loudly when thinking to yourself. Pay attention to the tone and volume with which you say them. This is important because talking in a calm tone and using factual words has a calming effect on the brain when compared to alarmist vocabulary and tones, which spark the stress reaction.
Self Efficacy and Collective Efficacy

One of the strongest predictors of faring well psychologically in the face of adversity is the belief in one’s ability to cope with the challenge faced. You are coping with this; we are all coping with this. We may not like aspects of social distancing and we’re facing many challenges, but we can cope. Think about the worst case scenario – and then think of how you would cope with that if it were to happen. And remember you don’t have to cope alone – you can bring in resources in the form of people and agencies to assist if necessary. 

It’s important to let our children know that we are coping and that we will continue to cope one way or another, even if the worst case scenario presents itself. It’s important that they know their protective figures have ‘got this’.

Self-efficacy cannot exist in a vacuum, it takes collaboration, joining together and collectively solving the problems we face. This is hard but by no means impossible to achieve when socially distancing ourselves from one another. Tackling the distance learning challenge is a good example of something that feels overwhelming when trying to work this out alone, but much more doable when you connect with other parents of children the same age and see how you can work together to achieve this.

Stay Connected

There is a large amount of scientific evidence to show that staying connected significantly reduces the stress response. Social support and sustained attachment to loved ones are key here. Being connected allows for practical information to be shared (e.g. which is the closest pharmacy stocking hand sanitiser? How are you structuring your day to incorporate distance learning?). It also promotes a shared understanding: normalisation of emotional experiences and unusual experiences. 

Being connected is key for children too. Older children will benefit from connecting with friends online, and perhaps you may wish to bend the rules you’ve had in place around time spent on devices so that children and adolescents can connect with others. If anyone can teach us how to connect meaningfully online, it’s the teenagers amongst us!

Younger children are likely to benefit from increased connection with parents and trusted caregivers. Young children might enjoy building a fort or preparing a song to then photograph / record and send to friends and cousins for (constructive!) feedback.

Written by Dr. Marie Thompson, Clinical Psychologist and Clinical Director, Vivamus. For more information on Vivamus, visit www.vivamus.me