Strategies for caregivers to manage anxiety during the pandemic
To say that caregivers have increased worry and anxiety because of the COVID-19 pandemic is stating the obvious. What is less obvious, perhaps, is what to do, to manage and reduce this worry and anxiety.
The Canadian Association for Mental Health (CAMH) reminds us that some fear and anxiety is a normal response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a caregiver, you may be worried about your health and the health of your mom and/or dad. You may also be worried about your kids, finances, and what the future holds for everyone. This can be positive in that it can motivate us to take actions to protect ourselves and others. The key is to exercise caution, not panic.
Strategies to manage anxiety and worry
Strategies are needed to prevent shifting out of normal anxiety and into a level of distress that interferes with your ability to function normally. We need strategies because simply telling ourselves or someone else not to worry is about as effective as trying to change the weather. It is also good to have a number of different strategies to try out. You can then focus on the ones that appeal to you the most.
You will notice that some of these strategies are specific to the anxiety and worry that comes with the COVID-19 pandemic. Others are more general strategies that can also be applied to these difficult and uncertain times.
- Write it down.
Your hand is slower than your mind. Writing down your thoughts can help slow down the worry thoughts.
- Schedule worry time.
This is really about postponing worry. Instead of arguing with your mind and trying to force yourself not to worry, give yourself permission at a designated time in the future. You can even put it in your calendar. With the postponement, you create some worry-free time for yourself and people often find that the worry or the intensity of the worry has passed when it comes to the scheduled time. Postponing worry also helps to break a habit of dwelling on worries. As you develop the skill of postponing worrying, you also begin to realize that you have more control than you think.
- Counter worry thoughts with positive supportive statements. CAMH reminds us that people often overestimate how bad the situation can get but underestimate how well they will be able to cope. Worrying is a form of negative self-talk. You can replace this with positive supportive statements. Remind yourself that both you and your parents have gotten through difficult times before. Try to replace catastrophic thoughts with something like, “This is definitely a difficult time, but we will get through it together” or “Whatever happens, we will cope and get through this.” Consider trying this exercise to challenge your worried and anxious thoughts.
- Consciously work with your “what if” and worst-case scenario thoughts.
Turn them into “How will I handle or deal with such and such if that does happen?” This is a deliberate effort to turn worrying into problem-solving. If you know you can handle whatever life hands you, ‘worry’ will have less traction with you and you will be more resilient.
- Keep your virtual connections going. In fact, connect with your mom and/or dad, friends and other family members more than you usually would. Call, text, email, Skype, Facetime, or connect on Facebook. My friend taught her mom how to do Facetime, and it has done wonders to reduce both her and her mom’s anxiety.
- Search for funny stories and jokes and memes. Some of the funniest ones are about homeschooling, families coping with being quarantined and in isolation, and people working from home. Share them with family, friends, coworkers. Humour is a wonderful coping strategy.
- Help others. Offer to pick up groceries or supplies and drop them off at their front door or lobby. Offer virtual social support to others. A friend of mine drew an enormous hug and put it up on her front window. Hoaky? Maybe. A recognition that most of us could use a hug right now? Yes. Helping others can help you feel useful and give an added purpose to your life right now. It is a great buffer to feeling helpless and out of control.
- Set aside specific times you will check for news updates. Stick to credible sources, like the federal and provincial websites, the World Health Organization, SE Health. Keep informed, but also take news breaks and set limits because there is a steady stream of negativity in the news that can increase stress and anxiety and weigh heavily on you.
- Accept what is. Leave the ‘wishing it were different’ out of your story. Teacher and writer, Stephen Jenkinson describes it as being a citizen-not an inmate-of a troubled time. We make it harder on ourselves when we argue with reality by saying it shouldn’t be happening or should not have happened in the first place. It is happening. Period.
- Look for ‘silver linings’. There is the joke about the silver lining of gas being cheaper than it has been for decades, but now there is nowhere we can go. Jokes aside, there are real upsides if you set your mind to finding them. Here are a few others have shared: more time to spend with family/start new hobby/make great meals/do that painting project. Others have started a gratitude practice; reconnected with old friends on Facebook; love being home for wake up time and bedtime with the kids; are enjoying the outdoors (with the social distance of 6 feet from other people also enjoying being outside in nature!); relaxing more and not feeling so rushed.
- Be realistic about your parenting expectations. As one parenting magazine put it, these are not normal times so to go easy on yourself. Don’t worry about unrealistic homeschool schedules, daily craft activities and ongoing entertainment ideas. If you are also working from home, for example, you can’t also be a full-time homeschool teacher. Lowering your parenting bar may be just what is needed for these times. Don’t worry about doing everything perfectly. Just do what you can when you can.
- Use a self-help workbook on worry and anxiety. These may be particularly helpful during this time of quarantines and social distancing because you can use the workbook in the comfort of your home. Here are a couple of workbooks recommended by mental health professionals:
Antony, M.M., and Norton, P.J., The anti-anxiety workbook: Proven strategies to overcome worry, phobias, and obsessions, 2009.
Forsyth, J.P., and Eifert, G.H., The mindfulness and acceptance workbook for anxiety: A guide to breaking free from anxiety, phobias, and worry using acceptance and commitment therapy (2nd edition), 2016
- Distract yourself. Distractions are a healthy antidote to worry. Of course, we are talking about the healthy distractions, and not excessive alcohol or drug usage! Enjoy some moving music, or dance in your living room, or read a book or…..
- Take care of your daily self care needs. Worries can actually get worse if we aren’t taking care of ourselves. Remember- self care won’t just happen. It requires you taking responsibility for yourself and making a plan and a schedule. You can order our Is.Time,Journal to build self care into your day.
- Calm your mind and body. Worry ignites our nervous system. Choose a practice which is a good fit for you such as: guided meditation, online yoga, deep breathing exercises, body scans, guided imagery or guided relaxation exercises to relieve anxiety. There are also the basics of eating well, getting enough sleep and physical exercise.
- Practice mindfulness. Worrying is, by definition, about the future. One of the most helpful ways to learn to live in the present is to practice mindfulness. You can learn to notice your worry thoughts and not engage them. You may want to take this excellent and free 8-week online mindfulness-based stress reduction course with a certified MBSR instructor: https://palousemindfulness.com/.
- Be kind to yourself. These are obviously difficult times. You are doing the best you can. You may want to do try these self-compassion exercises.
- Access online help if you are having trouble coping. The Canadian Mental Health Association provides a free mental health coaching and online video program called BounceBack. This program is for adults and youth 15 plus, who are experiencing low mood, mild or moderate depression, anxiety, stress or worry. Another option is Anxiety Canada’s app, Mindshift, that provides Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) support for anxiety, with journals and guided meditations.
Phew! I know this is a pretty long list! It is long because there are a number of effective strategies to help to reduce and manage worry and anxiety.
Let us know which strategies work best for you.