As we head into a new year with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging and restrictions remaining in place in the Bay Area, many families feellike they can’t take much more– with kids frustrated by remote learning, parents frazzled by continuing to juggle work and home responsibilities, everyone missing their friends and fed up with being cooped up at home together. While the start of vaccine distribution provides a light at the end of the tunnel, it feels like it can’t come soon enough.
“People have been bombarded with bad news for so long, they’re literally at the end of their tether,” says Margaret Cochran, Ph.D., a San Jose psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker with more than 30 years’ experience. But Cochran says there is hope, and she offers tips on how we can make it through the long winter months before life begins to return to some level of normalcy. Learn more at drcochran.com.
1. Re-embrace healthy behaviors.
“People are overwhelmed,” Cochran says. “They’re in hyper-alert all the time. Their bodies are flooded with adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol,” meaning even small transgressions like spilled juice can trigger a parent’s yelling. In addition, many people are having trouble sleeping, are eating or drinking to self soothe, or have given up healthy habits like exercise that they embraced earlier in the pandemic.
“No matter how much we exercise, the pandemic isn’t going away. No matter how much we meditate, the pandemic isn’t going away,” she says. But “as annoying as it may sound, getting back to exercise will really help. I promise it will.”
Cochran recommends two types of exercise for parents: doing it alone and getting a break from your kids, and doing it as a family activity.
“Kids will protest and say, ‘I don’t want to do this. This is boring. This is awful.’ I hear this in my office all the time: ‘My mom or dad made us take this vacation or nature walk and I didn’t want to do it, but I had the best time. It’s one of my favorite memories.’”
“Being in nature is very, very soothing. We have lots of studies to show it’s calming and lowers blood pressure, adrenaline and cortisol,” she adds.
In addition, Cochran advocates a practice called EFT (emotional freedom technique) or “tapping,” which she likens to “acupuncture without the needles.” She offers instruction on that and simple meditation practices on her YouTube channel, Wisdom, Love and Magic. (youtube.com/channel/UCQmA9IGTBtDITZx3jJkeW-g)
2. Adopt an attitude of gratitude.
“The most important of all the options for self-care, besides eating well and sleep, is our attitude,” Cochran says. “What begins to happen over time when we’re shocked and shocked, you start to think: ‘This is bad. This won’t work.’ It’s like a thought virus. When we repeat them over and over again, they become our new reality.”
“The key is an attitude of gratitude … to rewire that cascade. Begin or end the day by writing down or saying everything you’re grateful for. Say a phrase like: ‘I’m so happy and grateful that I have wonderful children. I’m so happy and grateful that I have a roof over my head.’ It sounds so simple, but it has a cumulative effect and it helps build a firewall against the negativity that’s bombarding us right now,” she says. Model it for your children around the dinner table or another time.
3. Block negativity.
“Another thing that’s important is limiting your access to negativity,” including friends and family who may lean on you for a “negativity dump,” Cochran adds.
“Say to that person: ‘I’m sorry to hear you’re struggling and in pain. Please get in touch with a professional so you can process this stuff better. I love you, and I have to go now.’ If you get sucked in, it never ends.”
“Not only does it hurt you, it hurts the person doing the dump because they’re not processing in a positive way. They’re just repeating and creating negative thought viruses,” she says.
4. Encourage conversation.
“As adults, we’re often telling kids stuff instead of asking what they think. That’s really important right now,” Cochran advises.
“If your kid says, ‘I hate online school. There’s nothing good about it,’ ask ‘If you were the principal, what would you do?’ We can get some excellent advice from our kids that we can pass along to teachers and administrators to make changes.”
You can also ask, “What are your wins? What are things that have gone well? What are you feeling good about? What have you done for yourself lately?” she says.
Cochran also says you can try this in online conversations with your children and their friends, since many kids are missing genuine interactions with adults other than their parents. In addition, “a big piece of dealing with all of this is humor. Jokes, goofy movies, funny books. Laughter really is the best medicine.”
And, when it’s allowed, she encourages parents to find ways to let children see friends in person while following safety guidelines, since so many are craving in-person interactions.
5. Think positive, and give yourself a break.
“It’s important right now to cut ourselves some slack,” Cochran says. “This is a highly imperfect situation. The cool part about that is that situations that are highly irregular or unpleasant are opportunities for us to innovate and be creative and express something called neuroplasticity, which is basically intellectual and emotional flexibility.”
“If we are able to express that, we survive. If we get rigid and think about how things used to be or get stuck in the past, we really suffer. It increases our levels of anxiety and frustration.”
Of course, Cochran says, if parents are really struggling, or suspect that their children are, they should seek professional help.
“I spend 11 to 12 hours a day sometimes with patients all over the world who are troubled and frustrated. Everyone is feeling it,” Cochran says. “When you’re working on your last nerve, take a deep breath and remind yourself it isn’t forever…. Every day, you’re that much closer to the end.”
“Remember the important phrase `I am enough.’ When you’re exhausted, you feel so inadequate. But you are enough. You can do this. Maybe take a sticky note and post it on your mirror. Remind yourself: `I am enough. I am enough energy, love, courage, everything I need to be. I’m going to be okay, and it’s going to be okay.’ And it is. Shrink’s honor. I promise.”