Dear Dr. Debbie,
I’m exhausted. No one is rushing off for school, work, sports, or meetings of any kind, and consequently, my wife and I have eager helpers for cooking and other household tasks.
I haven’t really had to do much “work” work, since my company’s timelines have been completely relaxed. (I’m somewhat concerned about continued employment but have a contract through this current project.) If I put a little time in on my laptop, I end up wandering around the internet getting the latest on the COVID-19 pandemic. There are several home improvement projects I’ve neglected for years that I could be spending time on, yet when the kids are quietly watching a movie I find myself curling up into a nap.
What Day is It?
Normal family patterns have jumped the track for sure. On a psychophysiological level you have been thrown into overdrive to make adjustments to how you think, behave, and feel. Marcelo Campos, M.D. of Harvard Medical School, explains that stress overworks the adrenal glands and revs up the consumption of glucose (sugar) required for mental functions. This explains why prolonged stress causes “brain fog, low energy, depressive mood, salt and sweet cravings, lightheadedness, and other vague symptoms.”
Your mental energy has been taxed with dealing with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on your family, and perhaps the world. Some effects are immediate, such as being more or less confined to the house with restrictions on social interactions with anyone who doesn’t live there. You have to figure out how to make the best of spending 24-7 with each other, for a month or more. You are also thinking of the yet unknown risks that this virus may portend for your family’s health and finances. You have probably calculated periods of incubation and contagion for each family member based on when they may have been exposed. And you’re contemplating personal financial repercussions.
Your brain has been hyper-alert for new information and corrections to old information. The term “unprecedented” has been used repeatedly since the novel coronavirus is well, novel. In some ways it acts like the common cold but because it only first appeared December 1, 2019, new information about how it spreads and how to treat it is still being learned. Local information changes daily – first two weeks off, then three more, with no assurance that children can return to school at all this year. There are still a lot of unknowns about this unfolding disaster and its aftermath.
This “unprecedented” situation has reframed such ordinary tasks as shaking hands, grocery shopping, and keeping an appointment to have your teeth cleaned. Mostly, habits help you do things efficiently without having to stop and think about them. Now you have to stop to think – and do things very differently, until new behaviors become habitual. (Do you have your 20-second song for hand washing?)
The biggest adjustment for parents with school-aged children is probably the abrupt end to their going off to school each day. Behaviors such as packing dinner leftovers for their lunches, getting them to bed on time, making sure everyone is appropriately and promptly dressed in the morning, and even getting homework done before it’s due, are no longer important. On the other hand, social media and screen time have gained importance for meeting children’s social needs and their needs for intellectual stimulation. As this emergency continues, parents will be expected to facilitate Distance Learning (also known as online learning and elearning) to maintain their children’s educational progress.
You naturally worry about your family and other people who are close to you. Your circle of friends and extended family may include some who are more medically vulnerable, more financially precarious, and or more directly involved in the care of people infected with the disease. In the media you see experts and authorities scrambling to address urgent needs and giving (sometimes changing) recommendations and mandates. Then when you dare to run an errand at the post office, you agonize about all the objects and surfaces that may be contaminated, or worse, fear that you may be unwittingly spreading the virus to others.
It is natural to grieve the loss of normalcy which is the overarching loss at this challenging time. You have lost daily family routines, the sense of purpose and the pride of achievement that come from work, and your usual social interactions. Then there’s the emotional energy needed to process why you are doing all this. When the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global health emergency on January 31, it wasn’t to make you feel guilty about not doing more to stop a far-reaching human tragedy.
You’ve never had to live like this before. It is exhausting.
In order to relieve your mental fatigue, get the information you are missing to take care of your family. Use reliable sources for information including about your financial future. Check in on friends and family to see if you can make a positive difference for them, even if just to show that you are concerned and that you and your family are doing okay. Limit your updates on global death rates and dire economic predictions. Once or twice a day is enough to find out what you can’t do anything about anyway.
Your days will feel more “normal” if you set a rhythm for sleeping, eating, work time (for you and the children), and fun projects. One of those lingering home improvement projects might be a good family activity! Put time to exercise and to relax into every day, too. Routines are also key to adapting to such new behaviors as waving, instead of shaking hands, when you recognize an acquaintance (six feet ahead of you) in line at the post office and thoroughly washing your hands when you come home. Practice will make your new habits more perfect.
Manage your emotional fatigue by sharing your sadness, anger, frustration, confusion, helplessness, fear, and anxiety with your wife, your brother, a good friend or a mental health professional. Most counselors are taking advantage of technology to “see” clients remotely.
Choose a happy memory or something to look forward to and post it on your laptop. Joy and hope can help get you back on track.
Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist with degrees in Early Childhood Education, Counseling, and Human Development. Workshops for parents, teachers, and childcare professionals can be found at: drdebbiewood.com.
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What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]chesapeakefamily.com