27 Mar STOP. Pay attention. Listen.
Dear fellow human,
At Chrysalis, we believe in disseminating fact-based information. We want to inform our communities. Therefore, I had tasked myself with writing a blog post on helping our children during this crazy, consistently evolving and overwhelming time. But I changed my mind. I want to talk about being human.
Last week I shed a few tears of appreciation. I’ve been grateful that I have front-row seats to my patients’ shows of humanity. I watched chronically anxious people go outside to serve others. I saw bickering spouses collaborate for the benefit of their families. People stood up to their bullies and worked out their problems because, suddenly, time felt short.
Times like these tend to reboot us. Remind us what matters.
NOW—don’t get me wrong. I’ve also seen plenty of the opposite. We are human, comprised of the good, the bad and the ugly. You should read Dr. Robert Sapolsky’s book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst if you really want to learn about this. I get it. We’re capable of all kinds of behavior. I know we’ve seen others be ugly; we may even have been—or wanted to be—plenty ugly ourselves while being cooped up together, worried about health, money and whether or not we have enough toilet paper.
Times like these tend to introduce us to not just the best but also the worst of ourselves.
There are precious moments here if you can grab them. We humans are all in this together. Hopefully, we are less divided than before. We’re laying down stories that will be told to our grandkids and will go down in the history books. That’s profound. Pay attention to all the passing moments.
This is much easier said than done, of course. Dr. Jon Kabat Zin, internationally known scientist, writer and meditation teacher, and the creator of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), says of the practice of mindfulness meditation in everyday life, “While it may be simple to practice mindfulness, it is not necessarily easy. Mindfulness requires effort and discipline for the simple reason that the forces that work against our being mindful, namely, our habitual unawareness and automaticity, are exceedingly tenacious.”
Add the anxiety of a global pandemic to the tenacity of our habits, and the task becomes monumental. But hey, there’s never a perfect time to start cultivating a new skill, right?!
Be kind to others. But also, BE FOR YOURSELF, says renowned psychologist Dr. Rick Hanson, while writing with his son Forrest:
“When we treat others with respect and caring, the best in them usually comes out. Much the same would happen if we could treat ourselves the same way.”
I think that would make the passing minutes better, don’t you? And help us all be more human together?
Now, because Chrysalis strives to inform, I do also have some knowledge to impart. Here are tips for discussing and surviving coronavirus with your kids. Please know that these are also good strategies for adults. As with the proverbial airplane oxygen mask, care for yourself first so that you can better care for others.
1) Calm yourself before you speak to your children. But calm yourself anyway, for your sake. Use friends, spouses, professionals, exercise or the litany of available meditation apps and tools to quiet your mind and nervous system.
2) Use reputable sources of information (WHO, CDC, local health departments, for example). Focus on digestible chunks. For your children, this means factual, age-appropriate information. For you, this means not getting sucked into the catastrophic, 24-hour news cycle. Get good information, then turn it off.
3) Offer choices. Kids do better when they have some control. Perhaps allot maximum daily screen hours but let them choose when to use them. Make a list of household chores and allow your children to choose the ones they want. Let children decide the order of tackling online assignments or what time the school day should start. Let them decide what toothpaste to use, what clothes to put on their bodies and how to do their hair.
4) Do something. Productive activity helps anxiety. Together you can engage in activities that actively mitigate risk. Invent a “wash our hands” song, create an “enter the house zone,” make funny signs, make charts for safe behaviors. Have fun messing up. Engage your creativity. And if you need help, there are multiple online resources offering activities for children (Sesame Street, Smithsonian, PBS, etc.).
5) Structure your day. Routine helps. Don’t be rigid—have the wherewithal to switch it up when it’s not working. Let your kids weigh in on the structure of your days. Also, be flexible with yourself and your own routine. Different things might feel helpful to you on different days.
6) Acknowledge and validate bad feelings. Sentences like “Don’t worry about it” and “It’s not as bad as it seems” do not make bad feelings go away. Platitudes don’t help. We’re all scared. But strive to observe your feelings of fear and move right on through them, if you can. If you can’t, please seek help. “Shelter In Place” means we’re crowded together for the time being. Everyone will feel annoyed and irritated. Families that struggle already may hit critical mass. Get help if you need it.
7) Control catastrophic thinking. Focusing on past regrets or future projections will fuel your anxiety. You can make your best choice right now, in this minute. And if you’re paralyzed, just make a choice. Any choice will help.
8) Listen to each other. Kids feel safe and secure when their parents let them know that their words and feelings are important. Drs. Siegel and Bryson (2020) speak of helping our children “feel felt” when we pay attention to them and their internal states in ways that feel attuned, like we “get them.” It helps them feel calm.
Incidentally, knowing someone is attentively listening helps adults as well.
Slow down. Pay attention. Listen. Take the time to connect.
When things get hard, we have a chance to develop our resilience and grit. Isn’t that a great word, “grit”? It’s variably defined. To me, it’s a lot like resilience. Dr. Angela Duckworth defines grit as “the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals” (Duckworth et al., 2007). We develop this skill when we use it. It can grow. She speaks engagingly on what happens when we struggle and what we do when we fail. In hard times, we can work harder, and we can develop greater grit.
Never would I want to minimize the toll that coronavirus is taking on our families and society. Nothing hits our centers of fear like threats to our families, homes and world. Our fear and stress responses are impacted by so many, many things and can be very hard to manage. We are and will be forever changed in ways too colossal to contemplate.
But please—let’s find our moments. In our humanity, let’s be our best selves. We can work together to find connection, creativity, community and calm during these unique, stressful and ever-changing times.
Let us know if we can help.
Duckworth, A. (2016) Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. New York, NY: Scribner.
Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M.D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101.
Hanson, R., Hanson, F. (2018). Resilient, How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness. New York, NY: Harmony Books.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever You Go There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation In Everyday Life. New York, NY: Hyperion.
Sapolsky, R. M. (2017). Behave: The Biology of Humans At Our Best and Worst. New York, NY: Penguin Books
Siegel, D., Bryson, T.P. (2020). The Power of Showing Up: How Parental Presence Shapes Who Our Kids Become and How Their Brains Get Wired. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.