Over the last 24 hours, this pandemic has caught up to me. I’d been doing pretty well, navigating cyber school with my kids last year along with work adjustments and managing my mental health through it all. But this back to school season has officially taken its toll, as I register my kids in their previous public school and I feel like the ground is shaking underneath me.
Last year was stressful, but it felt like we were all pretty much on a level playing field: mandatory masking, virtual or hybrid if necessary, all to keep our kids as safe as possible. Done.
But this year is waaaaay different. I’ve got friends (and even family members) who refuse to get the COVID-19 vaccination. Others are getting it themselves, but not vaccinating their age-eligible kids. And there are, what feels like, a lot of parents around me who don’t feel like our kids should mask, even though the CDC and AAP and pretty much all medical professionals who know about such things are like “kids need to mask in school.”
A couple of days ago, I felt ill from the stress. My stomach was in my chest, my head hurt, and all I wanted to do was get in bed and watch TV shows. But we parents know, we need to carry on. We have to care for ourselves so we can care for our kids, and I refuse to let this bring me down.
So I reached out to my dear friend, Tina Montagna-Tate, LPC, MA, ATR-BC (a licensed counselor and board-certified art therapist) for some tangible things parents can do right now to manage stress levels and make it through these next few weeks and months (though hey, with the Pfizer FDA-approval and perhaps an approved version for 5-11 year olds, maybe it won’t be that long). I have to be honest: As she was talking to me about these strategies, I felt instantly better.
I hope they work for you as well as they did for me. And here’s hoping we all get some respite soon.
Stop the doom scrolling
The constant input of news and information can have grave effects on our well-being, so you may want to consider cutting back or even going on a complete news fast. Even if it’s temporary, a complete and total news fast can help greatly with your stress levels and serve to give your system a much-needed pause to regroup and heal. And anything big enough that you absolutely need to know, you’ll find out. Montagna-Tate points out, “There’s nothing major that’s happened when I’m on a news fast that I haven’t found out about.”
A good way to determine if this is working for you or not is to consider a mood tracker. Just jot down on a scale of 1 (terrible) to 10 (amazing) how you’re feeling at the end of each day and compare it with or without the news.
Focus on self care
According to Montagna-Tate, “we need to look at self care as health care.” Self care means ensuring that you’re eating well, sleeping enough, hydrating, and exercising, not just treating yourself to a mani-pedi (nothing wrong with that, but that’s not necessarily what we’re talking about here).
Side note: exercise is one of the best things you can do. Even just 30 minutes of brisk walking to get your heart rate up a few times a week can be highly effective in changing mood. Considering your physical health can have a huge impact on your mental health.
Self-compassion is also important, particularly because when people who aren’t doing well, they’re often very self critical which can create a spiral. Give yourself grace and be kind!
Watch where your brain goes.
Mindfulness has been in the zeitgeist for awhile now, which in some ways has downplayed its positive psychological effects because people see it as “trendy.” But, it really can work. Simply looking at where your brain goes, tracking what you’re thinking about, and learning to let those negative things go can make big changes in your overall functioning level. Montagna-Tate compares it to watching a train go by that you don’t get on. Or, “like holding a helium balloon. Identify that negative feeling or thought, and then let it go.” It’s really forcing your brain to let go of the stress, and focus on the task at hand, which can help build up your mindfulness muscle, making it easier to do in the future.
Mantras can also be extremely helpful to keep you from jumping on train. Things like “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it” or “It’s too soon to tell” can also be a barrier to keep yourself from crossing into a stressful, unhealthy space. Say them over and over again if necessary.
Gratitude can also be a helpful practice. Keep in mind, gratitude isn’t really about looking at the bright side, but rather, giving yourself a perspective shift. Gratitude journaling or simply finding things that are positive can actually actively shift your brain and change the way you look at things.
Increase your connections with others.
Everything from hugging your pets to increasing your communication with friends is important right now (with safety in mind, of course). Just make sure you’re focusing on your relationship and having fun; don’t go have coffee with a friend and just talk about COVID and back to school. Or go on a date night with your partner and just complain about work. Set boundaries about your time together and watch a movie or do an activity that allows you to bask in that connection.
Don’t let your worry boss you around.
This is what I tell my kids, but really, adults need to hear this too. When people are stressed, they often have distorted thinking around the things that are causing issues in their life. A thought checker app, like Moodkit, can be super helpful, by allowing you to jot down your thoughts, and then go back and actually reframe them later on.
When we don’t push back and check our thoughts, it can actually become easier to think that way, which is not good for your mental health. There are techniques you can use to restructure your thoughts, like this one: If you have a what if thought, ask yourself “what if it doesn’t happen?” It’s not an immediate cure, but it’s a small step towards restructuring thinking that can cause stress and anxiety.