With Omicron in our communities the mental strain of uncertainty and anxiety can continue to build – for both parents and their kids. But there are a few key things we can do to help both us and our families. By Kate Barber
When one of my daughters starts vomiting in the night, I go into overdrive – washing and washing some more, while waiting to see who else will get sick. I don’t mean to compare a 24-hour gastro bug to the seriousness that is Covid; just that the feelings of anticipation and anxiety are similar for me. Except that with Covid, this feeling in my head and in my gut doesn’t look like budging anytime soon.
Neuroscience educator Nathan Wallis explains that, for our brain stem to be calm, we need safety and predictability. A pandemic that threatens to sweep through our communities upsets the predictability of our lives: we hear the stories and swallow the statistics, but we don’t know when and where the next wave will hit, and how hard it will impact us personally. We wash the uniforms, pack the lunches, drop the kids at school – get on with our lives – but the uncertainty and anxiety clumps in our stomachs, prickles our skin, hammers away in our chests.
Well, that’s how anxiety feels for me.
Everyone is more stressed and anxious than usual as we wait for the waves of Covid to hit; as we worry about sickness, not being able to go to work, schools and businesses closing.
Nathan explains that our brains have a negativity bias that functions as a survival strategy. Our brains tend to catastrophise, he says. As a parent we worry about our kids and imagine worst case scenarios.
Nathan cautions us, as parents, to moderate our negative responses in front of kids. Children look to us as a reference for how they should respond to situations, and it’s important we don’t project our fears and anxieties onto them.
Of course our kids have their own temperaments, and their own feelings about Covid – irritation about wearing a mask to school, disappointment that their camp had to be cancelled, concern that they’ll get sick, for instance. While we need to acknowledge their feelings, as well as our own, we need to watch that we don’t pile our anxieties onto them.
When talking to them about their feelings, it’s important to end each statement with a proactive one, says Nathan – to give them a sense of agency rather than hopelessness. For example: “These masks are awful. I got myself a bigger one and it’s more comfortable. Shall we see what other types there are?”
Nathan says one way of coping with the current climate of uncertainty is to enhance the things in our lives that are predictable – like catching up with a friend each Monday afternoon, or taking the dog for a daily walk. Routine and structure help us, and our kids.
In terms of coping when our head feels like it might explode, Nathan says the best answer might be the simplest one. When we are anxious or stressed, our breathing gets out of control. For me, this often happens when my brain wanders off into the haunted forest of Worrydom and I am wearing a mask. My breathing becomes shallower and quicker, and I start to panic – as if I won’t be able to make my way back.
By breathing in for 6, out for 4 and then in for 6, we directly communicate with the stress relief system that we are not in danger, says Nathan. We bring our nervous system back under control.
Just as the pandemic reveals how connected we all are, for better and for worse, I take some solace in knowing that I am not alone with my thoughts and feelings, and that there are ways to relieve some of the anxiety I feel.
I can’t predict what’s going to happen. But it’s probably more helpful for me to stop reading the news on my phone and get outside for a walk.
Neuroscience educator Nathan Wallis delivers presentations across the country on children’s neurological development, as well as on coping with anxiety and stress. nathanwallis.com
For more ideas to help, check out the Ministry of Health’s mental health and wellbeing resources.