managing emotions: a primer for caregivers
By: Amanda Beeman, PsyD
Many parents and caregivers are being asked to step in to new and unexpected roles as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact so many aspects of life. Increased responsibility + tremendous change + uncertain times can breed new feelings of anxiety or exacerbate pre-existing mood-related struggles.
While everyone has been affected by COVID-19, health care providers are often found juggling not only intense and stressful work environments where their skills are essential with home life with including children, schooling and an increased number of demands.
While our long list of to-dos makes it easy to relegate our mental/physical health to the very bottom, we know from many years of research that how we manage our own stress can greatly impact how our children manage theirs.
So where do you start? Here are a few ideas:
Name your emotion without judging its presence. It’s hard to manage emotions that we have not yet named. When we ignore feelings of distress, they often build. Simply stating how we feel can decrease the intensity of the feeling. Anxiety, grief, anger, uncertainty, overwhelmed, sadness could all be words that come to mind. Saying how you feel may come naturally to many of you, but for others, even putting a name to an emotion can be very challenging.
If you aren’t sure how to understand your own feelings, you may start by observing what you are doing (behaviorally) or what is happening in your body (physiologically). Are you sick to your stomach and you don’t know why? That could be anxiety. Are you slamming the cabinets in your kitchen as you prep breakfast? Maybe you’re angry about something.
And without judgment? That’s a critical part of this step. When we tell ourselves we “should” or “shouldn’t” be feeling a certain way, we can exacerbate the feeling and move ourselves further away from managing it effectively.
Get it out. Find a way to get your feelings out of your body/mind in a healthy way. Jot down your worries and your hopes. Find a song that fits with your mood and sing along to it. Talk about how you feel and what is on your mind to your partner, friend, or other supportive figure.
A little side note: While it is very important to limit how much we share about our feelings and specific concerns with our children, they are also great lie detectors. If what you say and how you act don’t match up, this will probably add to your child’s confusion. For example, if you’re crying, it’s okay to say, “I’m sad,” rather than pretending that you are not. Keep it short, normalize big feelings (cue Daniel Tiger’s, “It’s okay to feel sad sometimes...”), and let your child know how you plan to cope (“Sometimes changes are hard for me too and getting my tears out helps me move on.”).
Go back to the basics. Eat well. Exercise. Practice good sleep hygiene. We feel the impact of stress on our bodies, so keeping our bodies healthy is one of the most important ways we can set ourselves up to successfully manage our mood.
Set limits. While we may know that limiting our child’s exposure to anxiety provoking information is important, we often forget to set limits for our own ears and eyes. It is challenging to walk the line between too much or too little information. Think critically about what information is helpful for you to provide good care for your family, and what information fuels anxiety. Is social media tempting you to compare yourself to others? Are too many ideas flooding your inbox? Do you need to turn your notifications off on your phone? Setting these types of limits on your time and attention can give you some reprieve from feeling overwhelmed.
Fight to stay in the moment. Mindfulness is the idea that we can train our brain to stay where we are, focused on what we are doing. If you notice that your mind is too distracted by the future or things that are beyond your control, try consciously shifting your thoughts to your immediate surroundings. If you’re working, speak your work aloud. If you’re playing with your children, describe what they are doing in their play. Talk to yourself about how the clouds are moving, the birds are flying, the trees are swaying. You can also fight against worry thoughts a variety of other ways. Find some additional ideas here.
Find a therapist. For some of us, especially those of us with pre-existing mental health concerns, these steps may feel too hard to put into practice on your own. Many providers are starting to offer mental health services via telehealth. You can search for a local provider here. Also, you can find additional resources from our Ohio Department of Health here.