The coronavirus (COVID-19), a new viral strain marked by symptoms like fever, cough and shortness of breath, was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). COVID-19 understandably has people worried, and I’m one of them — but not entirely in the way you might think.
As a mental health advocate, I’m most alarmed about the contagiousness of anxiety and panic rampant in both adults and children, rather than the actual risk of getting the disease. I say this even with a resident of our little town being diagnosed with coronavirus over the weekend.
It is no surprise there is widespread panic. Around 18% of adults and around 30% of adolescents in the U.S. live with anxiety. The outbreak is casting light on our society’s intolerance and fear of uncertainty, the need for control and inability to sit with the discomfort of the feelings that arise.
Our liability culture is a big driver in our response and actions taken. We expect schools, businesses and governments to know, and prepare for, all potential risks. So, in order to mitigate their risk of lawsuit, they must prepare for the worst, no matter how unlikely. We are now inundated with emails from businesses and schools (often with all-caps wording) on how they are handling the virus threat and how they are protecting us.
Another glaring reason is how connected we are to a 24/7 news cycle. We have the TV on nonstop, we receive news alerts on our phone or check the news countless times a day. Every few minutes, it feels like there is breaking news threatening our safety or giving us tips on how to best secure it.
We are more frequently encountering triggers on a personal level. The scramble to buy supplies and the empty shelves at Walmart, CVS and Costco affect you. Even if you weren’t panicked, you will start to think you should be, that you are being irresponsible for not doing more.
Kids talk at school and share misinformation on deaths; they hear of other schools shutting down to train teachers on how to teach online if needed; they hear of families in panic, canceling travel plans, worry about their grandparents, worry about parents traveling for work; they overhear adults discussing; they see people wearing masks and are inundated with their very own news alerts on their devices. Last week, my fifth grader told me about new coronavirus games at recess: “corona tag” and “corona touch” (formerly known as “cheese” touch).
The scary news puts our (already often triggered) amygdala on high alert and activates the fight, flight or freeze response. Cortisol, the stress hormone, surges through our bodies and we are constantly on alert.
If we continue to constantly “hit the panic button” in our brains, we increase the risk for disruption in our day-to-day living. Too much stress can weaken and suppress your body’s immune system, the exact opposite of what we want right now. Many of us already live with chronic high levels of stress, which increases our susceptibility to getting sick. We need to take a breath and engage our prefrontal cortex.
We already know that around 30% of adolescents in the U.S. live with anxiety, and around 1.2% of U.S. adults struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD can cause parents and children to be prisoners of their fear of contamination. To ease contamination fears, adults and children may compulsively wash their hands until they’re sore and chapped.
Looking at the world as a dangerous place to be avoided is extremely risky as we are setting the stage for anxiety disorders and OCD to thrive. Both of these disorders can cause havoc not only in the lives of children, but in their entire family and daily functioning. As panic about coronavirus spreads and increases, so will the anxiety of our population and especially in our kids.
Our kids already live with heightened worry — pressure to achieve, social comparison, lockdown drills and active shooter drills. Let’s not add to their burden. As adults, we need to do what we can to make sure we do not fast lane their levels of anxiety.
There is risk in living. However, when we panic and let fear guide us and try to eliminate our risks, we end up eliminating what gives life meaning — what it means to live with joy.
So, how do we reel it back and help ourselves — and our children — not get sucked into the panic vortex? We focus on that which is in our control.
Prepare like any other disruptive event — like a snowstorm — but not the apocalypse.
2. Wash hands with soap and water.
That said, pay attention to washing that results in raw and chapped skin, and seek guidance from a mental health professional).
3. Boost your immune system.
Get plenty of sleep, eat lots of veggies and fruit — don’t stress eat sugars — and exercise to reduce stress (since stress weakens your immune system).
Have you been meaning to try meditation? Now is a good time to start. There are lots of apps out there (such as Calm, Headspace or my personal favorite, Insight Timer) to help you find peace and bring your – and your children’s — cortisol (stress hormone) levels down.
If you or your child starts to feel overwhelmed, dizzy and heading in crisis mode, focus on the breath. Try breathing in for four, hold for seven and exhale for eight. After a few rounds, you will feel a difference in body and mind.
6. Avoid “future-tripping.”
Stay in the reality of now. Avoid the slippery slope of what-ifs and what might happen.
The news has a massive impact on our distress. Try these ideas to reduce it.
1. Limit media.
Again, for ourselves and for our children. Turn off the TV, especially when the kids are home.
2. Turn off all news notifications and set screen time news limits.
Many children who have access to digital devices receive news alerts. Turn them off. For those who go looking for the news, you can select how many minutes or hours the news app can be accessed in a day.
As adults, we know the media profits from grabbing and keeping our attention, but many kids aren’t aware of this. The constant barrage of headlines can be overwhelming and can cause anxiety and even panic.
4. Don’t go down the rabbit hole online.
We also get seduced into thinking that if we keep reading, we just might find the one thing that can make a difference. Unfortunately, constant news, stories and information is not helpful — it just puts us in high alarm and overwhelms us.
5. Vary your media sources.
6. Little pitchers have big ears.
As parents, we need to be aware of what we discuss with other adults in front of our kids.
Despite our deepest desires (and our very best efforts), we cannot control everything. This is a high-profile illustration of the inherent risk of living that we have to get comfortable with. Yes, we are smart and mitigate risk when we can, but we keep our heads. What we can control is our ability to accept and more importantly to strengthen our ability to sit with that discomfort, and help our children learn this too.
As adults, we are the front line on reducing anxiety. Many of our children are too young to remember all the other panics that we have faced — Ebola, SARS, AIDS, bird flu, swine flu, Zika virus and even terrorism. It may give us comfort to remind ourselves and teach our children that this is not the first time something new and scary has hit the world and the vast majority of us have been OK.
Remember the oxygen mask. We, as adults and parents, need to start with ourselves. Kids are smart. If we tell them all is OK but we are freaking out, they will see through that and it will alarm them even more.
We have no idea what the next few weeks will be like. Let’s not exhaust ourselves already. And, as always, what are we role modeling?