Ensure Your Own Mental Well-Being During COVID-19
The pandemic has taken a toll on the mental health of parents, but there are many things you can do to stay happy and sane.
By Dr Manpreet Kaur • 13 min read
“It’s been six months since the lockdown and everything seems to have turned upside down. It feels like nothing will ever be the same again! Our children—Aditi (8 years) and Adarsh (12 years)—have been giving me a tough time. Their constant need for attention, their growing demands and their ever-increasing academic work just exhausts me. I’m really at my wits’ end! Managing home and work is becoming too difficult for me, and I feel I am unable to do anything well,” moans Meena to her husband, Rajesh.
“Things aren’t very different for me either,” says Rajesh. “I feel so irritable, and I’m losing my temper with Adarsh quite often. I just don’t know why he doesn’t understand things when I explain them to him. Worse, when I look at his expression, I feel guilty. Working from home hasn’t been easy. And I feel so uncertain about my job … I don’t know what I’ll do if I were to lose my job.”
This kind of conversation has become commonplace in our homes, with almost everyone struggling with grief, anxiety or exhaustion. The psychological strains caused by the pandemic have affected our physical, socio-emotional and mental well-being. From loneliness and working from home to job loss and online schooling for children, the psychological impact of the COVID situation on our lives is overwhelming—and complex. Our adaptability and flexibility are being tested, with many of us experiencing sleep disturbances, mood changes and a constant sense of insecurity. In such a situation, how do you look after your mental health?
WHAT IS MENTAL WELL-BEING?
Mental well-being is a combination of emotional well-being and the ability to function effectively. Generally, when you have normal mental health, it means you experience an overall satisfaction with life.
But in unusual times like this one, it’s normal for everyone’s mental well-being to take a dip. You may develop anxiety and fear, or you may be in denial. Resistance to what’s happening won’t make the situation better. What works best is a willingness to accept the “unacceptable”—this willingness will positively impact your emotional and psychological health. A positive frame of mind, being hopeful and a focus on the enormous possibilities that lie ahead are strong life-support mechanisms that will help you tide over this crisis.
WAYS TO BOOST YOUR EMOTIONAL HEALTH
Parenting is never easy and more so during a pandemic, when we’re all juggling multiple responsibilities—work, household chores, taking care of children and family, and more. With online schooling, parents are taking on the additional role of teachers. Our children are with us practically 24 hours a day, and a large chunk of our entire day is spent taking care of their needs. This can sometimes be quite draining. You feel like you’re running on an empty cup. Hence, it’s important to first fill your own cup and re-energize before you take care of your family.
Nurturing yourself is similar to strengthening a muscle on a regular basis, which will help you deal with challenging situations. As much as you want to take care of your children, you owe this to yourself first.
Here are a few tips to help you navigate these uncertain times and strengthen your emotional well-being:
According to Dr Lori Desautels, assistant professor in the College of Education, Butler University, “it takes a calm brain to calm another brain”. Practising deep conscious breathing reduces stress and calms the mind. It increases the level of oxygen in your blood and acts upon the stress hormones circulating in your body. Allow your breath to become the anchor through which you process all your emotions. Watch your emotions rise and fall as you focus on your breath. By focusing on your breath, you’re creating a pause between an auto-reaction and a thoughtful response.
So, the next time you’re unable to calm your cranky child, breathe! Finding it difficult to put your child to sleep so that you could rest? Breathe.
Life often gets in the way of living. Dealing with uncertainty and stressing over finances, health and daily chores can be overwhelming. To reduce stress, get into the habit of planning, prioritizing and scheduling:
In the morning, set aside 15–20 minutes to reflect on your day ahead and list out all your tasks.
- Prioritize them in terms of “must do”, “can wait” and “not important”. Start with the most important activity on your list.
- Avoid distractions, such as social media, that lure you away from productive work.
- Renew yourself with breaks so that the day doesn’t wear you down.
- Take stock of the activities accomplished for the day.
While connection and time spent with your child cannot be over-emphasized, we as adults too need warm connections to thrive. With social distancing, we are unable to meet with friends who offer us solace and comfort. In the absence of such relationships, we may look to our children to provide us with the necessary emotional support, which is counterintuitive to their role. It’s important for you to stay connected with family and friends, and keep your social network intact.
Here are a few ways to create self-sustaining adult connections in your daily life:
- Talk to a friend, listen to a podcast which inspires and motivates you, join an online forum.
- Trade child-care time with your partner, and use that time to connect with your friends.
- Make time to spend with your partner. Go for walks. Cook and clean together. Or just chat over a cup of coffee when the children are asleep or busy with their own activities.
Take care of your health and nourish your body, mind and soul. Eat well, sleep well and don’t forget to exercise. Exercise releases endorphins (hormones that relieve stress) and reduces the cortisol (stress hormones) levels in the brain. It makes you feel better both physically and emotionally. This in turn reflects on your mood, attitude and behavior. Here are some tips:
- Walk for 30 minutes daily, run or join an online yoga class.
- Stand as much as possible while working, and pace while using the phone.
- Sleep has a profound impact on your health and mood. Get 7–9 hours of sleep to recharge.
- Drink plenty of water through the day and eat wholesome foods, including fruits and vegetables, to get adequate fiber, protein and carbohydrates.
Nurture yourself through the hard times with these tips:
- Put yourself on your priority list. Acknowledge your efforts, that you’re already doing the best you can.
- Delegate tasks whenever you can. Get your family to help with household chores.
- Cultivate more self-compassion. Follow the advice you would give your loved ones who may be experiencing the same feelings as you. It’s important that we allow ourselves to process difficult emotions and meet our needs.
- Get creative: draw, paint, sing, dance, cook, solve puzzles, learn a new skill, etc.
- Express your thoughts and feelings in a journal. This is a good way to build resilience and ensure well-being.
- Have a bedtime routine—read, listen to soothing music and turn off phones and screens.
- Take the time to relax and pamper yourself: a cup of tea, a massage, just being bored or a nap.
- Meditate. Prayer and meditation can go a long way in calming the mind and building hope and positive energy.
Priya*, a parent of a 4½-year-old, says, “After doing my work and managing the online classes, there’s hardly any ‘alone time’ left. But when I get time, I chat with friends, watch videos and read a lot.”
A GOOD-ENOUGH PARENT
A child doesn’t need a perfect home, he needs a happy home. When we try to be perfect parents and expect to find perfectionism around us, we tend to self-blame or blame our partners and children. In the words of Amy Makice, a licensed clinical social worker and the founder of Bloomington Center for Connection, the biggest allowance we can give ourselves as parents right now is “to be human”. However hard you try, there will always be moments of struggle and conflict with your children. In such situations we experience:
- Guilt. This is a common feeling among parents during this pandemic. We feel guilty when we think we are responsible for doing something wrong, or for doing something against our value system. For example, losing your temper on your child, or feeling the pressure to be productive all the time. Recognizing the guilt and its influence on your behavior can help resolve your guilt feelings and improve your relationship with your child. Label the feeling and decide whether your guilt is justified.
- Anger, sadness, frustration. Allow yourself to feel all the emotions and accept them just as they are. This is a first step toward overcoming them. If you’re not generous to yourself emotionally, you cannot be generous with your child. Accept that your feelings are a normal reaction to a not-so-normal situation.
And when you lose your temper:
- Repair. Don’t be hard on yourself if you do lose your temper and take it out on your child. When you both have calmed down (even if it’s a few days later), apologise to your child, “I was upset and got angry with you. I’m sorry.” This helps you reconnect with your child and lets her know you too have feelings. Also, your child learns from you how to repair relationships.
Chandana, mother to a 7½-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son, says: “It’s been a learning process for me. I stopped working now. The only child-free time I had was when I was at work. With both children at home, I started putting an increased pressure on the elder one and micromanaging her, as she’s a little difficult to manage. This only made us irritable. But then came a point when I decided to focus on myself. I joined an online meditation course. The timings were perfect, as my children would be asleep by the time the class got over. Within a month, I saw a significant change. I learnt ‘to let go’. For example, I told myself if my daughter makes mistakes, she will learn. Also, I am using this time to focus on my relationship with my husband. We follow a diet and work together as a team—we watch movies in the weekend, play badminton, run in the evenings, cook together. But yes, we still have a long way to go …”
There are several benefits to being grateful. Gratitude acts as a buffer against negativity. It makes us see the bigger picture and helps us develop a sense of calm and strength. Crises, such as the pandemic, remind us to be grateful for our family, friends and how fortunate we’re to be alive. Some of the ways in which you can cultivate gratitude are:
- Make it a habit to express your thanks to people around you—a partner, child, parent, sibling, friend or neighbor.
- Be grateful to someone in your life who has a listening ear.
- List out all the things that are wonderful in your life—be it your health, your loving family, lovely home, or just the little loving hugs from your children.
Hear what Nina*, a professor and a mother of two, has to say:
“My job is too demanding. However, I do get to do the things I love—cooking, painting and listening to music. Recently, I started gardening, walking and decorating the home with plants. Just being in the midst of nature or going to the terrace where we have a green grass carpet helps. During family prayers, we sing hymns and read the Bible. We have a Sunday school. I have a video call with my parents and the church choir, and we all sing together. Spirituality keeps me anchored. I also feel a lot depends on our perception. When I think there’s a lot of work, I feel more stressed out. But if I start thinking that even though I am burdened, I am grateful for my family and the time I get to spend with them, I feel better. Moreover, making to-do lists and finishing them make me feel good.”
Seek Professional Help
Stay attuned to your body and mind. Several people are experiencing burnout, anger outbursts, fatigue and unusual body and muscle pains. This is your body’s way of telling you something is wrong. If you find yourself experiencing these health symptoms and are unable to take care of yourself and your family, it’s time to seek professional help. Do not wait for a crisis to happen. Instead, seek help as soon as you find yourself slipping. Letting your loved ones and children know you are struggling will also help you deal with the issues at hand.
Self-care has a new meaning today. It involves taking care of yourself so you can support your family. Your mental well-being is the key to your family’s mental well-being. Take care of yourself, spoil yourself occasionally and take the time to relax. You are worth it!
In a Nutshell
- Mental well-being and self-care have never been more important
- Parents need to take care of themselves as well as their children
- Choose being a “good-enough parent” over being a “perfect parent”
What you could do right away
- Regularly practise deep breathing
- Start your day listing out tasks and prioritizing them. Think of at least one thing that you can look forward to that day
- Make time for yourself every day—at least 15–30 minutes to do the things you like, or to just relax
- End your day by being thankful for at least one thing
*Names changed on request.
About the expert:
Written by Manpreet Kaur, PhD, on 23 September 2020
Dr. Manpreet Kaur is a clinical psychologist from the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), Bangalore. She is currently working as Senior Associate in the Special Projects Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle.
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