Dr. Caroline Leaf – In today’s blog and podcast, I am going to be answering some of the questions you have sent in regarding handling COVID-19 anxiety, and coping with social distancing and staying at home. I want to try to help you as much as I can, giving you tools to help you manage your mind in this crisis and stay strong, mentally and physically.
1. How do I talk to my children about the situation without scaring them, while making sure they are taking the right precautions like washing hands? I don’t believe in pussyfooting around issues with children – they are smart and can read your body language. Remember, 50% of communication is non-verbal, and your children know when you are anxious or sad. Children between the ages of 2 to 10/11 don’t really have the language to express themselves either, so if you don’t help them express and process the anxiety they have picked up from you or others, they can embed it as toxic stress in their bodies—the more traumatized you become, the more they will become.
I know that talking to them places huge responsibility on us as parents and guardians, and we definitely need to speak to them in the right way, but hey, that’s what we signed up for! So, my advice, based on 25 years of clinical practice and having four children of my own, is to be honest. Explain what is going on at the level they are at, giving them just enough information (don’t go overboard) and tell them the adults are working on this. It may be a good idea to show them pictures of the virus, giving analogies that are age-appropriate. For example, “this virus is like a dangerous animal. You keep away from those as much as possible, and with the virus we have do that by washing our hands and staying indoors till they ‘catch it.’”
2. How do we deal with and help with anxiety and angry outbursts from kids? Outbursts come from frustration, which comes from a lack of understanding and fear, so calm your children down by explaining what is going on, like I mentioned above. But it is also important to remember that we are stuck together for longer than usual and this situation is new for everyone, so it is inevitable that we will get frustrated with each other.
I recommend having different “spaces” in your home to deal with frustration and all the other emotions our children are dealing with right now—don’t be frightened or irriatted. This is actually a blessing in disguise because you have a great opportunity to teach your kids to learn how to process through the issues in their life, a skill they will carry into adulthood! Allocate an area of your kitchen, for example, where your children can express their frustration in a safe and non-judgmental space. You may not always like what you hear, but you may need to hear it to help them. Set some basic rules, like no-one is allowed to physically touch anyone else in that space, no-one hurts anyone or calls anyone bad names there. When they come out that space, and when they are ready, hug them and tell them you love them. This will calm them down and is great for the mental health.
3. What do you if you have been exposed to someone or know someone who has the virus? How do you cope, heal and manage your anxiety? Knowledge is power, so, now that you know, follow the CDC and WHO guidelines. You can also listen to my latest podcast (episode #145) and blog with an epidemiologist on what to do if you are feeling ill.
Most importantly, manage your mind! Don’t let your anxiety take over: grab that thought and reconceptualize (reimagine) it, before it takes over your thinking and puts you into toxic stress, which weakens your immune system (as I discussed on a recent podcast). Stop, tune into how you feel, listening to the physical warning signals your body is sending you, recognize how you feel and make the stress you are experiencing work for you: tell yourself this is preparing you for action! Tell yourself that your body is working to fight for you, breathe deeply, and tell yourself you got this.
My app Switch is a great tool for helping you go through the reconceptualization process. It is based on my 5-step program, which is designed to help you identify and eliminate the root of the toxic mindsets that are holding you back, and help you build a healthy new thinking habits through the mental process of reconceptualization.
4. How do I deal with the loneliness of social distancing and home quarantine? First, reconceptualize your loneliness—look at it differently. Take the time you now have on your hands to have more thinker moments, where you just switch off to the external and let your mind wander and daydream. These moments give the brain a rest and allow it to reboot and heal, which increases your clarity of mind and ability to deal with a tough situation (which we all need right now!) So, be intentional about creating “thinker” breaks throughout your day by taking a few moments every day, or when you are feeling alone, to switch off and just daydream or meditate. For more information on thinker moments and how to make them a part of your daily routine, see my book, Think, Learn, Succeed.
You can also use this time as a chance to build and repair relationships by talking on the phone rather than just texting, spending time healing from “hurry sickness”, observing the world around you again, and become a good listener—we are all going through stuff, so take the time to call someone or connect. Just listen and support them, and be there for them. A massive cure for loneliness is to get over yourself and reaching out in love. This not only helps you feel less lonely, but it also increases your chance of healing!
If you are feeling lonely and anxious, join me on Instagram for a live conversation about mental health, dealing with COVID-19 stress and finding peace in the pandemic! Follow me @drcarolineleaf to get notifications.
You can also join us on Facebook! Despite the necessity of social distancing, we believe we can still come together as a community and be supportive, loving, and caring through technology, which is why we have also created our Facebook group. This is a group for everyone-a place to post prayer requests, questions, concerns, updates, encouragement, needs and so on. We are in this together!
5. How do I “turn my brain off” at night from worrying so I can sleep? The quality and quantity of your sleep is largely affected by your state of mind, so mind management is critical if you want to sleep well at night, as I discussed in a recent blog and podcast (episode #97). Anxiety causes high beta activity, but anxiety always has a cause, so take the time to find the cause and you will help yourself switch into sleep mode at night. Embrace, process and reconceptualize your thoughts!
During the course of the day, you need to self-regulate your thinking and choosing during the course of the day. Chaotic and toxic thoughts need to be embraced, acknowledged, isolated and compartmentalized in order to be processed and reconceptualized in a healthy fashion—they should never be ignored or suppressed. You can do this proactively by getting into a regular 7-15-minute mind detox routine. Just 7-15 minutes a day of detoxing your mind can improve your sleeping patterns because you are cleaning up the mental mess in your head and getting your mind right before bed, which helps your brain and body regenerate at night. You control your mind: you can watch yourself, thinking about your thinking, and deciding not to allow a toxic thought to destroy your day. You are literally standing back and watching yourself thinking as if you were another person
Do not allow yourself to lie in bed panicking about not sleeping. Instead, get excited and embrace the fact you are awake. Think that “this is going to be a nice, quiet time, where I am not bugged by texts, emails or people needing something. I am going to get that research done, finally read that book, watch that program on the Discovery Channel, tidy that closet or work uninterrupted on a project!” This excitement lowers your cortisol levels, balances the HPA axis (the “stress axis”) and makes stress work for you and not against you, activating your resilience and changing your genes in a good way. So, when you can’t sleep, develop a positive expectation mindset that this is a special time just for you, and you will use it wisely. This will help you get your panic under control and improve your health. A negative expectation mindset, however, is just going to damage your brain and make you feel worse—it’s not worth it! See my book Think, Learn, Succeed for more on this.
My app Switch is also a great tool for helping you go through this process. It is designed to help you identify and eliminate the root of your anxiety, and help you build a healthy new thinking habits through the mental process of reconceptualization.
6. What if you have to leave your children in a childcare setting so you can work during the pandemic? What if you feel guilty for leaving your child? It is important to remember that guilt chains you, keeping you stuck in negative thinking patterns which can damage your brain and body and make you feel drained. Don’t allow the guilt to get a hold in your brain; reconceptualize this, telling yourself that this is your reality and it is only temporary. You control your mind. Your mind is more powerful than the guilt! Don’t allow your mind to go down that rabbit hole. Visualize it, grab hold of it, speak to it, acknowledge it and tell yourself that this is not a great situation but you are doing it for your family
7. I’m struggling to sleeping and to concentrate. How do I find peace while expressing my feelings? I cannot say this enough: thoughts are real things with information and emotions, and if you try to suppress them or shove them “under the rug”, they will explode, and can damage your mental and physical health—including your ability to sleep and concentrate. These thoughts will come. As I said above, you need to acknowledge how you feel and reconceptualize it: see it from another angle or perspective. You can only redesign your thoughts when you have acknowledged them!
8. How can I help my young adult children in college deal with the negative media, toxic work loads and the loss of their social life? Talk it through with them, allow them to say “it sucks”. Like you, they also need to embrace, acknowledge and reconceptualize their thinking. Let them express all their negativity and anger—make sure they feel noticed and heard. First listen, then problem-solve together. Give advice only when they ask for it, because then they will be ready to hear it! There’s no one formula for dealing with loss, so be creative; for instance, plan for a future celebration or vacation!
9. How do I handle constant change? Uncertainty and the unknown can be disorientating, but it is important to remember that change is really the only constant in life. Even your brain changes—every moment of every day! Accepting change, rather than always fighting it, helps us roll with it, making the most of change by seeing new possibilities in new situations. I call this the possibility mindset, which I discuss in my book Think, Learn, Succeed. Broaden your mind: tell yourself you are designed to cope with change, and there are a thousand things to learn and ways to adapt to any given situation. The more you practice accepting change as normal, the better you will handle change!
10. How do I deal with the “I wish I would have taken care of my finances and relationships better before we got to this” feeling? First, let me say I used to be the “if only” queen! It constantly stole my joy, leading me backwards and making me lose clarity and the ability to move on. One thing that helped me overcome this is telling myself that “it’s not what you did but what you are going to do” and thinking of ways to take action. If this is you, think of ways you can act now. For example, listen to financial advice from experts, such as my recent podcast (episode #142) and blog with financial expert Chris Hogan, with a “planning for the future and learn from the past” mentality. Make the necessary changes, so that in the future you will be better prepared.
11. I am young adult suffering from anxiety. There is no reason for me to be afraid, knowing my immune system would probably be able to fight the virus out if I do get it. But how do I manage my fear? As I discussed in a recent podcast(episode #138), fear impacts our immunity, so don’t let that thought run rampant in the brain! Grab the thought, as I mentioned above, depersonalize it and talk to it. Give it advice regarding the current crisis—talk to it as if a professional or epidemiologist were talking to you. For more on Covid-19, check out my latest podcast(episode #145) and blog with epidemiologist Dr. Will Bulsiewicz.
12. I just want to know how I can stop these thoughts in my head and prevent myself from getting to the point that I start breaking down, which makes my insomnia worse. Remember, you control your mind, so take charge! The mind is like an infant it needs to be fed. After 90 seconds, if you are still thinking about something, you have chosen to stay there. But this can change! As I keep saying, acknowledge how you feel, then process and reconceptualize it; continuing to worry will only make it worse. Grab the worry and re-channel that toxic energy into something constructive, like thinking about helping others during this time or what steps you can take to protect yourself.
13. I’m stuck by my mom’s house, and it’s in a small town. I have had to deal with rude neighbors. What can I do to feel less stressed? Always try be polite when you see them, which, over time, can neutralize rudeness and improve your neuroendocrine function! Remember, we all need grace during this time!
14. Because of past trauma and chronic stress my body recently was triggered into uncontrollable shaking for 3 hours.How do I manage my body’s severe emotions and fight/flight mode? As I keep saying, your mind controls your brain, so work on regulating your thoughts and reconceptualize past traumas. Acknowledge and process the root of your trauma, and reimagine it. Embrace bodily reactions as warning signals, telling you that you need to change your thinking! My app Switch is also a great tool for helping you go through this process. It is designed to help you identify and eliminate the root of your trauma, and help you build a healthy new thinking habits through the mental process of reconceptualization.
15. How do I deal with panic attacks? See my free panic attack guide podcast (episode #140)!
16. How do we deal with the uncertainty since so much is unknown and the institutions we are supposed to trust don’t seem to have answers? As I mentioned in my recent podcast (episode #122) on uncertainty, when we are going through a tough time, it’s natural to want to find the easiest route out of it. We want to eliminate ambiguity and uncertainty. We want to know what works up front– a formula that tells us what to do and guarantees that if we do this, we will succeed.
However, any kind of successful “doing” has to be supported by facing the uncertainty in all its scariness, ambiguity and messiness. Uncertainty stimulates us to rise to the challenge. It compels us to look inward, accepting and embracing the discomfort of not knowing—it forces us to examine, wonder, ask, answer, discuss. Walking into uncertainty can be a very illuminating process because it helps facilitate the reconceptualization process.
You can also join us for our free ZOOM webinar next Wednesday (April 8th) at 5pm CT to discuss uncertainty, mental health and the COVID-19 crisis. Our lives and routines have been shaken and we are all facing a time of extreme change. We can’t escape it, and we can’t fight it. Our “fight or flight” natural instincts are being hindered, which may be causing heightened levels of anxiety, stress, worry or depression. So, what do we do now? How do we learn to become comfortable with the uncomfortableness of uncertainty? How do we learn to feel secure in a time of insecurity? How do we find peace during this pandemic?
In this live ZOOM webinar I am going to tell you about the science of why we avoid uncertainty, and what happens in our brains when we encounter insecurity and “scary” situations. I am then going to give you practical tips and strategies to help you navigate this difficult time, help your children, and find calm in the crisis. I’ll also be answering viewer’s questions and concerns during the live recording!
17. How do we deal with the lack of control, which is causing a lot of fear? As I said above, embrace the uncertainty of the situation, because there are answers there, and the one thing you always have control over is how you use your mind. You can choose how you will respond in the next moment to the unknown. Inner peace comes when we reconceptualize our sense of control.
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