September 1, 2020

Learning Years: Dealing with life's stressors takes effort and practice

Some people are natural risk-takers who are nimble and can pivot when encountering the unexpected. None of them are reading this article. For the rest of us, learning to cope with uncertainty and risk takes effort and practice. Since these two irritants will be around for a while, we should learn to adjust - if not for ourselves then for our children who are watching and learning. 

Stress tends to spread around like, well, a virus. When parents are anxious, kids feel it and may react to it with irritation, whining, clinginess, and bad behavior. This, in turn, creates more stress and turmoil, which is particularly tricky in close quarters all day, every day. Adults can lead by example, and in so doing can reduce the backlash of parental stress and provide a live example of stress management. 

Tactics for managing the emotional load of risk and uncertainty:

Be Mindful and Aware

  • Take time to be present in what you are thinking and feeling. Identify your worries and negative thoughts, write them down, and assess the real probability of the worst-case scenario coming true.
  • What are the triggers or physical cues that help you know when you are emotionally vulnerable? Identify how heightened emotions, such as stress and anger, affect you (how your body feels, sleep patterns, how you act).
  • What has helped you cope in the past; what makes you strong or resilient?
  • How has uncertainty or an unexpected turn of events led to positive things in your past?

Make a Plan for Coping

  • Focus on controlling things that will reduce risk (hand washing, house cleaning, wearing a mask, avoiding crowds).
  • Moderate your exposure to triggers like negative people, excessive news consumption, and social media. 
  • Be aware of the scientific facts as they are updated and let this guide responsible decision making.
  • Talk about your feelings with a good listener.
  • Set an attainable goal (reading more books, planting a garden, starting a new hobby).
  • Exercise more, meditate, eat a healthy diet, schedule time to relax.
  • Be willing to change default coping tactics like excessive drinking, shopping, or eating.

Change your Mindset

  • Embrace uncertainty and risk as a challenge that can lead to good things. The changes forced upon us by this pandemic may actually lead to life and career changes that are good.
  • Actively practice positive thinking, mediation, or prayer. (We will all survive this, this too shall pass, we will recover).
  • Practice thought-stopping when you start to catastrophize or ruminate on “what if?” 
  • Focus on the present.
  • Learn to talk back to anxiety and negativity.
  • Practice daily gratitude. Really! And write things down!

Positive Behavioral Responses

  • Even if you are feeling anxious and depressed, smile and appear positive.
  • Seek mental health and/or spiritual guidance if you need to. Telehealth is an option.
  • Take care of your health (don’t avoid going to the doctor or dentist).
  • Get enough rest - sleep in particular.
  • Be truly present to your children and the other people you care about. Play, listen, and tune in.

The above recommendations don't come naturally to the majority of people. However, with a will to cope positively, it is possible to grow from this experience. We can recognize our own strength and adaptability in the face of risk and uncertainty. And better yet, we can provide a model of this critical life skill to our children. 

From this point of view, our unwelcome invaders may still be a drag, but they do not have to devastate us. And while we may never develop immunity to COVID, we can learn how powerful we are when faced with adversity. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, right? 

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Dr. Pat BlackwellDr. Pat Blackwell is a licensed psychologist who has worked with families for over 30 years. See her website for more information and her blog patblackwellphd.com.

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