This month, kids and parents will be tested. This test won’t be graded, or held in a classroom, but will play out in our homes day after day as COVID-19 restrictions continue. The pandemic is stress test: It tests how well we handle isolation, schooling from home, and all the other changes to our jobs, lives and livelihoods.
Dr. Arie Zakaryan, staff psychologist at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, urges us to give ourselves grace right now. We all need to understand that we’re doing the best we can through what he calls a chronic trauma — one with no clear, foreseeable end.
Here are his nine tips for better mental health in the midst of a pandemic:
➊ Validate your child’s feelings and your own. Don’t downplay the situation by telling a child “Just be happy you’re healthy,” Zakaryan says. COVID-19 has meant losses — if not people we love, then important milestones or ways of life. Teens didn’t go to the prom or homecoming. Adults are maybe dealing with grief over their careers or their professional identities. Everyone is missing friends or family members. Grief and anger are part of trauma. Zakaryan says we’re healthier when we are able to talk about and label our feelings, then talk about what we can and can’t control going forward.
➋ Embrace a routine. A predictable routine with structure and consistency is helpful to anyone who is experiencing trauma. As the new school year kicks off, mostly with distance learning from home this month, Zakaryan suggests having set schedules for everything from getting dressed and having breakfast to breaks for recess and exercise. Even consistent sleep schedules that ensure enough rest are important!
➌ Use technology to stay connected. Rather than indulging in mindless screen time or too much social media, Zakaryan suggests making the most of interactive online tools to stay connected with family and friends. Video chats and apps such as Netflix Party, a Chrome extension that lets you and your friends watch movies or shows together remotely and chat in real time, can help us feel closer to one another. Regular human interaction with others, even virtually, is important.
➍ Reward yourself. Pandemic burnout is real — for caregivers, essential workers, first responders, parents and everyone. It’s important during tough times to reward ourselves for a few minutes a day. “What’s something small that you can do for a five-minute recharge?” Zakaryan asks. Maybe that’s indulging in a special meal or dessert you’re craving, listening to music you love or getting your heartbeat up with a dance party.
➎ Get outside. Nature can work wonders for mental health. It’s still hot in Arizona, but that doesn’t mean you can’t study the stars at night or take an early-morning hike or neighborhood walk. Zakaryan says he’s started eating meals on his patio just to get outdoors.
➏ Recognize warning signs. It’s normal for pandemic conditions to cause periodic behavioral changes including sadness or tantrums in kids who are missing friends or finding out yet another fun event was canceled. Zakaryan says to watch for signs of longer-term changed behavior, such as prolonged periods of being withdrawn, significant changes in personality, outbursts with no provocation, or ongoing nightmares. Those are all signs your family could use help from a psychologist or mental health professional. “Of course, if there are any comments or actions that are about harming themselves or others, we want to be sure to really take those kinds of comments seriously,” and get help immediately, he adds.
➐ Share your gratitude. As you’re able, start to note things you’re grateful for. Just remembering to say thank you to those who help make our lives better in small and big ways is an important way to model gratitude to our kids and to help put us in a better mindset. And writing in a gratitude journal before bed can be a good way to wind down for a more restful sleep.
➑ Take a mental survey. To cope with things outside of our control, Zakaryan says it’s important to be mindful of our humanness. He learned six questions to ask oneself that have proven helpful during this pandemic: What am I grateful for? Who am I connecting with today? What expectations of normal am I letting go of? Am I getting outside? How am I taking care of my body? What beauty am I creating or cultivating today? All these questions/actions can help put us on a path toward better mental health.
➒ Be kind — to yourself! Zakaryan urges everyone to give themselves a break. Now is not the time for cataloging our flaws or failures or expecting perfection. Acknowledge you’re doing the best you can in a tough situation.