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  • Loretta Gallo-Lopez

Strategies for Dealing with Stress & Anxiety

My focus for today’s post is stress and anxiety and ways to support young people; children, teens and young adults, specifically those with developmental and cognitive disabilities, who are experiencing anxiety in response to the COVID -19 pandemic. But in gathering my thoughts and ideas on this topic, I realized that zeroing in on coping strategies or stress management interventions specifically for this population of young people may not be the most effective approach. Whether you are a young person with a cognitive or

developmental disability, or the parent or family member of a young person with a cognitive or developmental disability, the teacher or friend of someone with a cognitive or developmental disability, or even someone with no connection to anyone with a developmental or cognitive disability – chances are you are feeling pretty stressed and anxious right now. And, as in any situation, each individual’s stress and anxiety is impacted by the stress and anxiety of those around them. It seems much more impactful to address anxiety from a somewhat broader perspective.

It’s helpful to bring to mind the airplane oxygen mask analogy here: “In case of an an emergency, put on your own mask first, before assisting others.” As parents we have to be able to help ourselves first, to be able to manage our own stress and anxiety, before we can help our children. We can’t help someone else to regulate if we’re feeling unregulated ourselves. Children and teens react, at least in part, to what they see and perceive in the adults around them. When parents and caregivers deal with stressors calmly and confidently, they are more capable of supporting their children.


Helping our children to self-regulate via co-regulation strategies is an important concept that we’ll discuss further below.

Luckily, the things that impact the level of stress and anxiety we feel, both negatively and positively, are pretty similar no matter who we are. And although right now we may be experiencing and exhibiting it differently, the bottom line is: we are all stressed.

Let’s start by talking about stress and anxiety. One of the many things we know to be true about stress and anxiety for all human beings is that these feelings increase significantly as a result of stressful situations that are unpredictable, uncontrollable and chronic or ongoing. Obviously all three criteria are present in our current worldwide situation. So not only are we all stressed, but we’re also likely anxious and a bit scared.


It’s extremely important, however, to keep in mind that stress and anxiety are reasonable and rational responses to our current situation, reasonable and rational responses to being besieged by a danger that is hard to predict, difficult to control and where there is no obvious end in sight. There is no way to completely free ourselves or our children of worry and anxiety in relation to the current pandemic. And to be honest, being completely worry free would not necessarily be a good thing right now, as fear and anxiety help to keep us safe in times of danger. Fear and anxiety signal us to take notice, to be aware, to stay safe. So on some level, not only is anxiety reasonable and rational, but when managed effectively, it can also be helpful. On the other hand, too much fear, anxiety and stress can lead to feeling overwhelmed and frozen, resulting in inaction or overreaction. Finding that all important balance, as always, is key.

Use Proactive Strategies

So how do we learn to embrace, or at least tolerate and manage, our anxiety so that it works for us and not against us? First we need to accept that we will all feel some level of anxiety and stress throughout our lives. It will look and feel different for each of us but it’s there. Next is to understand that although we may not be able to control all that is going on in the world around us, we can learn to better control what is going on within our own small piece of this world and to better control what is going on inside of us.


For this we turn to proactive strategies. Proactive strategies are things we do proactively – to help manage a potential situation, in this case anxiety – rather than waiting for the anxiety to be out of control and then using “reactive” strategies to attempt to get it under control. Proactive strategies require preplanning and forethought and some upfront energy, but they hopefully lead to long term and ongoing results.


Here are some proactive strategies you can try to help keep your child’s anxiety form exploding out of control.

Normalize Change and Support Flexibility

Like most of us, young people with developmental and cognitive disabilities feel an increased sense of safety and security when there is structure and predictability in their lives and at least to some extent, in their daily routines. But right now almost everything is different. No matter how much we try to provide predictability, familiarity and structure for our children, almost every part of their day is different than it used to be. Normalize discomfort with things that are new and different. Remind kids what great problem solvers they are. Say things to them like: “Remember when _______ was new and so hard for you? But you kept working at it, and you got used to it, and today it’s not hard at all.”


Ask your kids to share about other times that they solved a big problem. Share similar experiences about yourself. Children and teens react, at least in part, to what they see and perceive in the adults around them. Anxiety is contagious. We all know that to be true. That’s why toilet paper has become such an unexpectedly hot commodity! Overly anxious adults convey to their children that the world is a dangerous place. And although to some extent that is true, perhaps more today then ever before in most of our lifetimes, our homes, our own small piece of this world, must be the safe refuge that we can all rely on.


Problem Solving

Help your child or teen to develop their problem solving skills. Problem solve with, not for, your child. Resist the impulse to jump in and fix everything. Remember that anything your child can do for themselves, they must do for themselves. When we do for our child we are communicating that we believe they are not competent. We are telling our children that we don’t believe them to be capable and we are reinforcing their sense of fear and self doubt. Instead allow your child to make a mistake and find the right answer on their own. Model effective problem solving in the way you respond to difficult situations.


Media

Limit the amount of news and social media that you allow to bombard your home and your child’s world. Children and teens may misinterpret what they hear and can be frightened about something they do not understand. If your child is on social media with friends it’s especially important right now to be monitoring things like texts, video chats, video game play, etc. Be sure that your child is communicating with peers and others in a safe and appropriate way. Many young people experience a great deal of stress and anxiety related to online media conversations with peers. Also be aware of who your child is communicating with and make sure that they are all individuals known to you and your child.


When watching movies or TV shows try to watch things that are uplifting or funny. If you enjoy drama, adventure, horror etc., try to avoid movies or TV shows that depict pandemics or end of the world scenarios. Nothing good will come of that.


Sometimes crying and pushing our limits emotionally can be cathartic. If you need that experience watch a more typical tear jerker, preferably with a happy ending.


Establish media-free times for everyone. For example no screens during meals, after a certain time in the evening and most importantly at night in bedrooms.


Self Supports

Help your child to create self supports. These are tool kits that they can go to when they need to self calm. Again do this with, not for, your child. Help your child to create a calming box or list. Brainstorm together and come up with things that are soothing, distracting, comforting in some way and list them or load them into a box or basket where they’ll be immediately available when needed. Why not make one for yourself as well?


Likewise, help your child to create a “calming” or “feel good” play list. Have your child choose 4-5 songs that immediately calm them or make them feel good. Create one for yourself as well. Music is magical in that way. Think of those songs that immediately calm you or bring about feelings of joy. Your choices will likely be quite different from your child’s, which is as it should be.


Social Connection

We continue to hear the term “social distancing” all over the news. I prefer the term “physical distancing” which refers specifically to the amount of physical distance we have to keep between ourselves and others. We can socially connect without physically connecting. Regular virtual social connection helps us combat loneliness and the sense of sadness related to social isolation. Establish ways for you and your child to continue to communicate with friends and family. Be social virtually. Talk to friends via phone and text. Connect via Skype, FaceTime, Zoom, etc., as seeing those we love and care about helps us to feel connected. Schedule times to celebrate special occasions, play games or watch a movie or TV show with friends or family on-line.


Play Together

Do something fun with your child every day. Play, laugh, dance, sing, stretch, run, jump, have conversations, organize old photos while you reminisce. Indoors or out, find new ways to experience joy or bring back some old ways. Stay busy with meaningful activities. Board games, puzzles, crafts, home repairs, and gardening are all ways to keep close and stay connected.

Sleep