Place pandemic stress in context for self, others

COVID-19 has introduced new levels of stress into the lives of everyone. When considering the wellbeing of others or ourselves, it is important to understand that how deeply that stress is felt depends on many factors, explained one Western researcher.

“Other than the fundamental weirdness of empty streets and stores and the need to distance from others, the pandemic is also a pretty unique event in terms of stressors,” Psychology professor Elizabeth Hayden said.

“It will be incredibly challenging for many people. Many families’ day-to-day lives have already radically changed. For some people, the impact is still subtle and going to be much more nuanced.”

Take isolating from home.

Some people are working from home for the first time; others have been doing so for years and notice no change. Some people are experiencing unemployment for the first time; others were struggling before the pandemic. Some people are balancing work and children at home; others are bragging about new-found novel-reading time. Introverts are embracing the opportunity; extroverts are climbing the walls.

“Like all stressful life events, context is important to understanding how COVID-19 and its sequalae impact parents, their kids, and the family as a whole,” Hayden said.

“Right now, most people are experiencing negative emotions such as worry and sadness. These are normal, potentially adaptive emotional responses if they serve to increase healthy behaviours that prevent exposure, like social distancing.”

Hayden emphasizes that negative emotions do not necessarily mean someone needs treatment.

“Certainly, COVID-19, like other stressors, increases the likelihood of experiencing psychological problems like depression and anxiety. However, unless you have a history of major depression or anxiety simply being sad or scared doesn’t mean you require professional attention,” she said.

“I’ve heard it said that there will be an epidemic of depression and anxiety. That is an over-simplification. When traumatic things happen, most people feel anxious or upset, but people are resilient. There is a risk of pathologizing normal human responses.”

It is important for parents, in particular, to understand kids may be more scared or anxious than they normal; this is to be expected.

In most cases, there will be tremendous mental-health value associated with activities that do not require help from a professional. Use strategies such as getting out in the sun when safe to do so, keeping physically active, developing a daily schedule to fill the structural void left by workplace and school closures, maintaining a regular sleep rhythm, and reaching out to friends using technology to maintain social connections.

This is not to say that some people may need more intensive help, Hayden said. Parents should consult with their family doctor or paediatrician if a child is persistently distressed or otherwise shows a marked, troublesome change in typical behaviour.

“Getting back into a normal routine will be quite challenging for some people,” said Hayden, who recommended evidence-based websites like Anxiety Canada, Moodlifters, Mayo Clinic or CAMH for no-cost to low-cost resources.

“There’s a large literature indicating that returning to school after summer breaks and illness can be quite hard for children with anxiety. What this means is that there will be the potential for additional adjustment problems even when life gets back to what we think of as normal.”

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