August 22: Coping with Concerns About the Delta Variant
For many families, summer has provided a respite from some of the stressors of the past 18 months. However, over the last couple of weeks, as concerns about the Delta variant have been on the rise, I have observed an increase in anxiety, wariness, frustration, and mental exhaustion amongst some parents in my practice. As families prepare for back-to-school, I thought I would share some useful strategies for coping with concerns about safety and virus transmission.
Children often look to adults to know how to feel in a new situation: they take their cues from their parents and other adults in their lives. While it is certainly understandable if you are worried about your child’s health and safety, I recommend that rather than talking to your child about all of your worries you identify another adult with whom you can share your concerns regarding the Delta variant, back-to-school, etc. In conversation with a partner, other family member, or close friend, you can share your fears and play out worst-case scenarios if you need to, so that by the time you discuss these topics with your child you can speak in a calm voice and focus on your child’s questions.
Many parents I have spoken with recently are finding that as they anticipate the start of school they are overwhelmed by pessimistic thoughts and are continually trying to guess what the future will hold. I think it can be useful to begin by acknowledging that it is easy to slip into patterns of catastrophizing (assuming the worst possible thing will happen) and fortune telling (trying to predict the future) at a time of increased anxiety and uncertainty. If you have a heightened awareness that you may be vulnerable to these ‘thinking traps’ at the present time it can help you to be more successful at recognizing when you are falling into these patterns – “Yikes, I’m catastrophizing. This isn’t helping – I need to shift my focus to something else.”
Once you recognize that you are trying to predict the future or are assuming the worst possible thing will happen, find a strategy to pull yourself back to the present moment. This might mean taking some slow, deep breaths; meditating for a couple of minutes; engaging in a short burst of exercise; or playing one of your favorite songs and singing along. One of my favorite simple exercises for focusing on the present is as follow: slow your body down, pause, and notice 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and then find 1 thing to do to help yourself feel better.
Another tool for coping with diffuse worries about the future is to focus on small, manageable chunks of time rather than thinking too far ahead. As much as is practical, try to focus on what you need to do this week rather than thinking too much about the weeks and months ahead. I realize that parents need to spend some amount of time planning and thinking ahead: that is part of the work of running a household. So be gentle with yourself and see if you can strike a balance between engaging in necessary planning for your family and staying focused on the here and now.
If stress about the future feels overwhelming, you might want to think of a script to repeat to yourself such as, “My family is safe, we are all ok” or, “Instead of worrying about the future, I’m going to focus on being present for my children.”
If your children have questions about whether or not they will be safe at school, begin by listening and asking questions so that you can engage in a conversation that centers around your child’s questions and concerns which may be quite different than your concerns.