Striving for Sanity During Social Distancing

It was probably a year or more ago that I listened to a podcast while I stood at my kitchen sink washing dishes. I wish I could remember more than a couple key takeaways from it. As it is I don’t remember the source of the podcast, (maybe NPR?), the name of the person interviewed, or any other information helpful enough to allow me to actually find it again. But I remember the subject of the podcast and some of the content that really struck me.

The person interviewed was a psychologist who specialized in treating people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He said a couple of interesting things that I remember. One, he told about a particular study that looked at outcomes for people who had experienced natural disasters. He said when a hurricane or something hits and then the survivors immediately get to work clearing debris, rebuilding, and doing all that physical work, they have better mental health outcomes than if they are told to just stay still for awhile. If FEMA comes in, and advises people to just wait until they can assess things and get a plan together and it prevents people from getting to work right away, (and the people have little to do but basically sit around and think and worry), they are more likely to develop PTSD as a result of the natural disaster. If they can immediately do the physical work of rebuilding their homes and communities, they tend to be much more resilient.

The second thing I remember from the interview, was the psychologist spoke about a moment of revelation he had while speaking with a client who was struggling with PTSD. The veteran was often triggered by various occurrences in life and was having trouble coping. As the psychologist was taking him through an exercise to help him realize that he is safe now and and no longer needs to worry about warzone threats, the man replied that he knows he is safe now. Intellectually, he completely realizes that driving in his car and going about his day he is pretty safe, but his body still doesn’t feel safe. The psychologist realized that his whole practice was designed to help people realize something that on an intellectual level they already knew. But simply knowing that they were safe, didn’t mean their body’s blood pressure didn’t still rise, their heart didn’t still race, or their adrenaline didn’t still skyrocket at certain moments. As a result of this new awareness, the psychologist began shifting his practice, which now includes giving his clients physical experiences of safety. He found that when the body could really experience safety while the mind practices what it knows, then his clients had great improvement in their PTSD symptoms.

So I thought of this interview again in light of the whole Covid-19 quarantines. One, we are all living in a situation of heightened stress and uncertainty, and two, unless we are healthcare workers, grocery store clerks, or a manufacturer or grower of an essential good,  most of us are being told to stay home and do nothing. So how do we keep ourselves sane?

For myself, here’s what I’m doing.

  1. I’m trying to stay informed enough to keep myself and my family safe, but I am not filling my feeds with minute by minute updates of all the misery in the world. I check in on news updates once a day, and otherwise I try to occupy my mind with what is right in front of me: my family and doing what I am able to do right now, which is spending time with them and building a safe and happy home for all of us. I’ve also had a number of coffee dates with friends via Google Hangouts. That social time has really been essential for me.
  2. I am trying to make sure I do physical work. I think doing something physical is really helpful in calming the mind. So I’m baking, cleaning, and tackling some household projects.

    Sourdough bread!
  3. I’m still limiting screen time. I get it. Sometimes you just need to turn your brain off. Fine. I just don’t want the cycle of my days to be anxiously reading all the corona updates, followed by escaping to Netflix, then repeating. So I try to break up the anxiety scrolling with some more nourishing and calming things.
  4. One criticism I have of the American culture as a whole is that we’ve been living life at an untenable pace, which we break up by using some mode of escaping, but do we really live a thriving life? And do we have real, soul-nourishing leisure? Put another way, do we, as a whole, live a life that we don’t need to escape from? So I’m making an effort to make time for leisure. I define leisure as something that is restful and also filling. I could binge-watch me some Tiger King. (I hear it’s great at getting your mind off of present worries for awhile), but if I don’t feel happier, more fulfilled after watching it, then its not leisure; it’s an escape. Real leisure is fulfilling and we leave such activities I think feeling more ready to take on the challenges of life, and our spirits feel nourished. We are living in trying, worrisome times right now, and we need to make some deposits toward our mental health whenever we can, and I think leisure is a great way to do that. For me, I’ve been dusting off my old piano music (and practicing some new music) and playing the piano daily. For you, it might be watching a quality film, reading a good book, painting, crafting, baking, building, or something else. Whatever it is, I think it should be a priority. Leisure is essential.
  5. I’m trying to do as the psychologist suggested: I’m giving my body experiences of safety. I’m baking bread that fills the house with its wonderful aroma; I’m lighting candles and listening to beautiful, calming music. I’m striving to make my home not just a landing pad, but a true sanctuary for us all.

I hope theses measures keep my family sane through all of this, help us grow as a family, and help us thrive and increase our resiliency to face whatever challenges will come. I’d love to know what mental health measures help you.

Keeping Your Kids Calm During a Crisis

Keeping Kids Calm During a Crisis

It just so happens that I have been re-reading one of my favorite parenting books in preparation for a talk I was scheduled to give at my alma mater next month. I don’t know if the talk will actually proceed as scheduled now, but the book, fortunately enough and so fresh in my mind, has so much excellent advice to parents on what and how much to share with your children about Covid-19.

The excellent book is titled Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids by Kim John Payne. He has been a school counselor, researcher, and educator, and a family counselor. In the book, he discusses how he had worked with children living in refugee camps in war-torn countries who, with little surprise, exhibited many signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. After this time, he then spent some time in a school with children in London, and began to see some surprisingly familiar behaviors.  Payne writes:

I had been trained to associate PTSD with very large wartime events, with life-changing traumas that leave their victims shaken in no small measure. My work over the last twenty years has taken me to many war-torn areas: Africa, Israel, and Northern Ireland, as well as to Russia and Hungary during and just after perestroika. I didn’t expect to find “War-torn” children in this relatively affluent area in England, but sure enough, that’s what I was finding. What struck me first were the similarities in the problematic behaviors adopted by these seemingly disparate groups of children. After so many instances of clinical deja vu, I couldn’t ignore my instincts. Certain of the symptoms and behaviors, I was becoming more and more convinced of the cause. And as I looked more closely at their lives, I realized that for both groups the sanctity of childhood had been breached. Adult life was flooding in unchecked. Privy to their parents’ fears, drives, ambitions, and the very fast pace of their lives, the children were busy  trying  to construct their own boundaries, their own level of safety in behaviors that weren’t ultimately helpful. The children were suffering form a different kind of war: the undeclared war on childhood. (8)

Payne goes on to explain that the first-world children, though never having experienced the horrors of the refugee children, nevertheless, experienced such a consistent threshold of small stresses, and rarely dissipating, that they developed a form of PTSD, that Payne coined, Cumulative Stress Reaction, or CSR for short.

Nadia in tree (1)

The cause of CSR was too much. Children’s lives are often led at the same pace as adult life with too much information, too many possessions, too-filled schedules, and too few grounding rhythms. The rest of the book is dedicated to explaining how many families have been able to reduce or entirely alleviate their children’s behavior problems by implementing a program of simplification.

Although I recommend the whole book, the one aspect I’d like to discuss in this post is Payne’s advice to protect our children (and their childhoods) by being careful of how much information is presented to them. Payne describes how one couple was so proud of their “citizen of the world son” who was incredibly well-informed about the issue of climate change and seemed to be on his way toward becoming a little activist. Payne writes, “James’s understanding of global warming seemed to rival Al Gore’s. That much was apparent. James was also, clearly, becoming a very anxious little fellow.” (4) Payne advocates treating childhood as a sacred time to be safeguarded and protected which allows for the slow development of identity, well-being, and resiliency.

One aspect of children is that they exist so effortlessly fully immersed in the present moment. The younger the child, the more “in the moment” they are. However, not having lived life long enough, children don’t have the perspective of adulthood that comes with time. We may have learned that there are times in life that can be really challenging, but the difficulty doesn’t last forever and things can get better. Children may not know the human history of survival. They may not know of past generations surviving war, threat of starvation, plague, natural disasters, and all the other things anyone’s ancestors are sure to have experienced. For children, when the “now” is scary and uncertain, it can be so much more stressful than for an adult.

Mateo and cake

The solution then, is to protect childhood. Don’t give your kids all the information. Tell them what they really need to know. Obviously probably nearly every child in our country has been affected by the pandemic, there is a certain amount of information they need to know. Don’t lie to them, but don’t make them privy to too much information. They don’t need to hear about the coffins piling up in Italy, the numbers of people dying around the world. They don’t need minute-by-minute updates from the constantly-on news channel on how fast the virus is spreading and if its getting ever closer and closer to you or spreading there. Tell them the necessary information, but strive to make your home a safe place, safe from Covid but also safe from the stress of too much information.

In this time when so many adults must be feeling enormous stress and many must be facing the real possibility of losing their livelihoods, protect your children from these fears and burdens until they need to become informed of them. Confide your fears, worries, and stresses in other adults, and protect your children’s childhoods. Of course children will experience some stress—it is part of life—but by safeguarding childhood from the constantly encroaching adult world, we are actually wiring them for resiliency.

 

Work Cited:

Payne, Kim John. Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids. (New York: Ballantine Books, 2009)