Welcome to the "New Abnormal!" When significant changes are going on in the world, we refer to it as the "new normal." However, this time, there is nothing normal about it. COVID-19 has changed many aspects of our daily lives, including school. This situation is temporary, and someday we will return to a state of "normal." It's okay to be stressed during these times, but it is important to learn to manage this additional stress. Read on to learn more about coping with stress from COVID-19.
What is Stress?
Stress is the general feeling we get when we are dealing with a new or difficult situation. Like starting a school year or going on vacation, even good new things can be stressful. When we get stressed, our bodies can get energized or tired, and our minds can get a little confused. Some stress is helpful when it gives us more energy and helps motivate us. But too much stress can make it harder to do the things we want to do. We also have to watch out because sometimes we don't even know we are feeling stress. It can build and build until we feel overwhelmed. Then we end up doing things we don't want to do, like getting angry with others or avoiding things we know we should be doing (like chores or homework). Stress can also feel like other bad feelings such as sadness, disappointment, frustration, or loneliness.
1. Just Breathe
Sometimes our bodies let us know we are stressed. We feel extra fidgety, get stomach and headaches, or are too tired to do anything. So, we must take care of our bodies. We need enough sleep, healthy food, and exercise to cope with stress. Another beneficial but straightforward thing to do is breathe. Yes, of course, we breathe all the time. However, a special kind of breathing where we take a deep breath in the nose and slowly release it out the mouth (and repeat as necessary) will lower the body's stress. This kind of breathing is done by all professional athletes to help them cope with stress. Watch carefully for this breathing next time you see a baseball player up at bat, a basketball player shooting a foul shot, a diver about to jump off the diving board, or a gymnast before their routine. Actors and musicians also breathe like this before a performance to help them cope with their stress.
2. Think TRUE Thoughts
Sometimes our minds let us know we are stressed by making us think things that aren't true or worse than they are. We think things like: "This will never end;" "I can't do it;" "I have no friends;" "There is nothing to do." It's weird because when we think this way, it makes us even more stressed! We have to think about what we are thinking and make sure our thoughts are true. It doesn't have to be positive, just true. For example, telling ourselves we are "the smartest person in the world" might be positive, but it's probably not true, and won't make us feel better. Even if something is negative, we need to make sure that how we think about it is true. We might think, "I hate wearing a mask," which is probably true to some degree. However, if we think, "I hate wearing a mask, but I'm doing it to keep everyone safe," this is true and might help us feel a little better about it. Or, we might think, "I can't do remote learning," which is probably an underestimation of our ability. However, if we think, "This is hard, and if I keep trying, I might be able to do it, or at least I can ask for help," is more of a truthful thought. We need to be careful not to think in extremes. Words like "never," "always," "everyone," "no one," "everything," and "nothing" are cues that we are thinking in an exaggerated way that makes us feel worse.
3. Stay in Touch with Friends
When dealing with stress from school or home changes, it is essential to remember our friends because friends can make us feel better. Unfortunately, right now, difficulty seeing our friends can make it worse too. We need to stay in contact with our friends, so we might have to get a little creative about doing this. Virtual playdates aren't the same, but it's better than nothing. When we are playing online, in addition to making sure that we are following parents' rules, it's better if we are playing with our friends. Social media is an easy way to communicate; we just need to be careful about how we do it and what we say. When we can, having a socially distanced and safe time together is the best.
4. Make a List
As we said, stress can make it hard to think and to do the things we want to do. In addition to taking deep breaths, thinking true things, and being in contact with friends, we can have a list of all the things we can do that make us feel better. It's easy to focus on the things we can't do right now, which is why the list of things we can do is important. This list can include things like going outside and shooting baskets, reading, playing with family, or gaming. It can also include new things we want to try, like cooking, learning to play a musical instrument, building something, creating art, or practicing a sport. We also need to remember that doing things we might not enjoy, like homework, will make us feel good when they're done. We need to focus on the things we have some control over and try not to focus too much on the things we can't control.
5. Creatively Problem-Solve
Finally, when dealing with stress, we can problem-solve. This involves being aware of our stress, figuring out what we want, and developing a plan to make it happen. The reason we get bad feelings is that this lets us know there is a problem. It's like falling off a bike and scraping our skin. If we didn't feel pain, we might not be aware that we are bleeding, and need to wash off the dirt and get a bandage. It's the ouch that lets us know there is a problem, and we need to do something to make it better. If we are feeling lonely, frustrated, angry, disappointed, sad, or upset, it means that we need to think about what we want and what to do. If we are lonely, we probably want to be with someone. Brainstorm all the ways we can: text a friend, play a game online, annoy a sibling, ride a bike outside and see if anyone is around, or talk to a parent. If we are disappointed because we can't have a birthday party, generate all the ways we can celebrate: have a Zoom party, have a small family party, ask for gifts, or schedule it for the spring when hopefully this will all be over.
Don't forget, stress is normal, and we can learn how to cope with stress from COVID-19. We just need to be aware of our feelings, breathe, think, be with friends, and problem-solve.
About the Author
Dr. Steven Tobias is the Director of the Center for Child & Family Development in Morristown, NJ, and the School Psychologist for Far Hills Country Day School. Dr. Tobias hosts parenting workshops and facilitates discussion groups for the Far Hills Country Day School parent community. He has over 25 years of experience working with children, parents, families, and schools.
Dr. Tobias provides treatment for a range of emotional, social, and behavioral problems:
- Difficulty with emotional regulation, such as anxiety, depression, and anger
- Behavioral difficulties including oppositional behavior and attention deficits
- Difficulty establishing peer relationships and social skills
- Family conflict and parenting
- Eating and toileting resistance related to anxiety
Dr. Tobias has coauthored several books, including Emotionally Intelligent Parenting, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Teenager, and Social Problem Solving: Interventions in the Schools. He is often a contributor to the radio station NJ 101.5 and has given lectures throughout the country on children's emotional development and parenting topics.