This is hard. Like, really hard. Parents across the country are home with their children, attempting to work and homeschool and keep everyone fed and bathed and happy, all while we manage fears about our health, money, and what the future holds. In the best of times, motherhood is incredibly emotionally challenging, which is why I wrote Strong as a Mother: How to Stay Healthy, Happy, and (Most Importantly) Sane from Pregnancy to Parenthood. And the coronavirus pandemic means we are mothering in one of the most stressful moments of our modern era.
I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling it. Shortly after I finished my expert interviews for this piece, I had a panic attack. And I had to ask my editor for an extension on it. We can follow (or come up with) all of the advice in the world about what to do to keep things normal and calm and we can still lose it — maybe multiple times a day. I know I have.
When I do, I go easy on myself, I give myself a break, and then I return to the practices that help me recover and keep going. I’m sharing them with you in case they help you find balance and calm during this time — as best you can.
Non-Negotiables For Minimizing Meltdowns, Panic Attacks & Anxiety
Sleep. Getting enough sleep is one of the most important things you can do for your mental health. Aim for seven to eight hours. That’s the recommended amount for adults. Getting it can mean the difference between a great day and a miserable day or between a hard day and an unbearably hard day.
How to do it. Give yourself a bedtime and set yourself up to follow it. “Get ready for bed when your kids go to bed,” recommends Carla Naumburg, Ph.D., author of How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t with Your Kids. “Get in your pajamas, brush your teeth, and wash your face.” Then you can give yourself the downtime you’re craving and pop back up when it’s time for bed. “Most of us, by the time our kids are in bed, we’re so tired that the thought of getting off your couch and doing all that makes it harder.” When I really need to lock in those eight hours, I transition straight from the kids' bedtime to reading on my own in bed (to minimize the chance I’ll end up falling asleep on the couch watching Succession and eating granola).
Movement. “Exercise is one of the most effective ways to metabolize stress hormones,” says Sarah Best, LCSW, a psychotherapist who specializes in maternal mental health in Manhattan. Aim for at least 20 minutes and get your heart rate up.
How to do it. It can be as simple as putting on your favorite podcast and climbing up and down your stairs or walking outside for 20 minutes. Or check out one of the many free workouts that are being offered during COVID-19. Be like Nike and Just. Do. It.
Hydrate and eat well. You know how your kids lose it when they are hungry and dehydrated? Guess what? We can too! Staying hydrated and eating regular, balanced meals will keep you on a much more even keel and keep things from feeling harder than they already are.
How to do it. Fill (and refill) your water bottle and keep it with you all day. Focus on whole foods eaten at regular intervals. Minimize mindless snacking on processed foods.
Best Practices For Emotional Strength During The Pandemic
Before you read on, remember that all of these are suggestions. Some will work for some of us and others won’t. Pick ones that sound like they will be helpful to you, try them, and stick with them if they work. Skip ones that don’t. Ain’t nobody got time for unnecessary to-dos.
Keep to your usual schedule. “The more we can still have what feels like a healthy rhythm to our day, the less marooned we feel,” says Best. “Observe your usual wake and bed times. Take a shower and get dressed. Change your children out of their pajamas.” I put my gym clothes on every day so it’s one less thing that stands between me and my daily workout.
Be mindful of your drinking. This is a sensitive subject, but it’s worth talking about. Alcohol may seem like one of the few escapes we have right now, but it can also work against you. “In the short term, it may seem to alleviate your anxiety,” says Naumburg. “But it also messes with your sleep and is a depressant. So, over the long term, it’s going to increase your anxiety and depression.” If you drink, pay attention to how it makes you feel the next day and whether it interrupts your sleep. If it’s working against you, cut back or take a break.
Ease up on news consumption. “Find a source you trust that is least triggering for you — radio, podcast, TV, internet, news apps — and check it once or twice a day,” recommends Naumburg. If the news is really triggering for you, Best recommends choosing a person who can let you know if any major things unfold. “That way you know what you need to know, but aren’t bombarded with information,” says Best.
Single-task when possible. I know. Telling a mother to single-task is like asking a squirrel to sit still. But, the research does show that multitasking increases our stress levels. So, where you can, try to do one thing at a time. If you’re working from home, set your kids up with something to do while you work; when you’re done, do something with the kids and focus on them. It will lower your stress levels and give your kids the kind of connection that will lower theirs.
See how social media makes you feel. Social media is one of our only ways to connect with others right now. But it is also full of content that can be triggering. Look at that mom’s amazing homeschool schedule. San Francisco’s on lockdown?! My friend’s brother’s mother just came down with a fever? This article is telling me to single-task! If going on social media makes you feel tense, anxious or less than, unfollow folks and give yourself breaks from your computer and phone.
Minimize clutter. Your home is going to be messier than usual if the whole family is home 24/7 (#facts). If you can, try to tackle the mess a little bit each day. “Just taking a few minutes on the regular to put things back in order can help us feel more ordered,” says Best. I’ve mandated a family cleanup at the end of the night before dinner. Each family member is responsible for a zone.
Make a regular online hangout. People are finding all kinds of ways to stay connected right now, and it really helps. My husband set up a regular hearts game with his dad and siblings. Book clubs, happy hours, knitting circles, and girls’ nights are happening over Zoom. Whatever you normally like to do with friends and family, you can also do remotely, "and it can make a big difference,” says Best.
Consider meditation. In times of extreme stress, “it’s natural for our sympathetic nervous system — our fight or flight response — to get ramped up,” says Stephanie Swann, Ph.D., LCSW, owner of the Atlanta Mindfulness Institute. “This is our brain’s way of alerting us to the need to pay attention to what is happening.” But since we are being asked to stay home and be less active than usual, that kind of alertness only makes us more anxious. “Practicing mindfulness meditation is an excellent way to reduce the activity of our sympathetic nervous system to find calm and manage the demands of this crisis,” Swann recommends.
But a crisis is also a hard time to learn a new skill. If you’re new to meditation, consider trying an app like 10% Happier that offers short courses and guided meditations (some are even free right now). Or try Swann’s three-step guide to starting a breathing practice.
- Sit down, relax the body, and bring awareness to the whole breath cycle. Pause here for a moment.
- Notice the in-breath and then the out-breath separate from each other, continuing to relax and let the breathing be just what it is.
- Emphasize the awareness of the out-breath, allowing it to be as long as possible and continuing to relax the body throughout the entire experience.
- Repeat these three steps 10 times.
How To Manage Anxiety During Coronavirus
Feel your feelings. Trying to suppress or ignore what you’re feeling doesn’t work, and it can actually make it worse. “That anxiety is going to show up someplace else like snapping at our kids,” says Best. Or drowning your feelings in wine or other substances. So, let yourself experience all of the inevitable emotions of this unprecedented moment. Think about the emotionally validating things you would say to a kid having a tantrum, and then say them to yourself. “Yeah, this is crazy.” “Yes, it does suck.” “No, it’s not fair.”
Play out your worst-case scenario. “The best antidote to fear is to reassure yourself that if the worst happens, you can deal with it,” says Laura Markham, Ph.D., founding editor of Aha! Parenting. Best will often walk clients through the worst-case scenarios they are imagining and have them brainstorm how they would cope. “What is most protective of your mental health is having mental flexibility,” Best says. That means feeling “like a lot of things could happen, and I could manage them.”
Give yourself a time and space to worry. “Set a timer for 10 minutes and write down all the things you are worrying about in a stream of consciousness,” recommends Elizabeth O’Brien, LPC, the immediate past president of the Georgia chapter of Postpartum Support International. “You don’t have to reread it or spell check it or anything. After 10 minutes, you close the book.” This accomplishes two things. It helps you express — rather than suppress — your fears and it gives you a dedicated time to feel them, so that you can ease up on worries the rest of the day. “If you begin to worry at other times, you can say to yourself, 'Not now, that’s for four o’clock when I have my worry time,’” says O’Brien.
Embrace the phrase “right now.” “The fact that there is no break from your kids can be very overwhelming for a lot of moms,” says O’Brien. She encourages her clients to use the phrase “right now” to relieve some of that. As in, “Right now, I am going to sort through the Legos with them,” or “Right now, I am feeling really worried,” or “Right now, I’m just going to make dinner.”
This is not going to be easy, but there are small — and big — things we can all do to make it less hard.
If you or someone you know is experiencing depression or anxiety during pregnancy, or in the postpartum period, contact the Postpartum Health Alliance warmline at 1-888-724-7240, or Postpartum Support International at 1-800-944-4773. If you are thinking of harming yourself or your baby, get help right away by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or dialing 911. For more resources, you can visit Postpartum Support International.
If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all of Romper’s parents + coronavirus coverage here, and Bustle’s constantly updated, general “what to know about coronavirus” here.