As I walked along the Anniversary Trail on the weekend it was the sight of the playground that upset me the most. The playgrounds are once again taped up and forbidden to children. These places of joy now empty and joyless as Melbourne battens down again.
Battening down seems more difficult this time as the rest of the country is loosening restrictions and we are isolated. There is also a greater sense of urgency and anxiety as the second wave we hoped to miss appears to have descended upon us.
Back in April, Dr Lisa Damour spoke online about ‘How to Manage Stress, Anxiety and Family Life’. Listening to this presentation on Saturday I found the wisdom and clarity of her advice reassuring as life here was upended again. There is heightened anxiety as we get our heads around the scope and scale of this crisis.
Firstly, Damour gives an important reminder to breathe slowly – a technological and biological intervention that stops our fight or flight response. She uses the square breathing approach, noting the concentration required stops our minds spinning on what is causing our anxiety. It’s a simple but effective way to calm mind and body and replace the ‘chatter’ in our minds.
Damour identifies two major stresses in what may feel like an overflowing bucket of stress at the moment, and provides thoughtful advice:
- The stress of adaptation is wildly stressful even at joyful times such as bringing home your newborn baby. COVID-19 has upended lives and routines causing an ‘adaptation bonanza’. Damour reminds us to give ourselves a break and put in place routines for ourselves and our children to take away the exhaustion of decision-making, a constant drain in this state of upheaval. Additionally, research shows that rituals and routines not only help us stay grounded, but also improve performance by reducing anxiety.
- The stress of uncertainty has us worried about what COVID-19 means for our children, our health, the economy, and so much more. Damour advises us to divide problems and concerns into two categories: the things I can do something about and the things I can’t do something about. Then practise acceptance, let go of the second list and stop ruminating or fighting it by focusing on what you can control right now. She reminds us of the Serenity Prayer: ‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference’.
Our concern about the impact this crisis will have on our children is acknowledged. Damour refers us to Ann Masten’s research Ordinary Magic: Lessons from Research on Resilience in Human Development. Masten studied children who thrived against all odds when experiencing persistently stressful conditions, and found three key ingredients in their homes:
- they had a sense of control with personal routines and some personal choices
- they had a sense of purpose, something to show at the end of the day. School is part of this, but so is doing things for others, whether it be cooking, looking after pets, connecting with extended family or helping in the community
- their parents had fun with them, so these children knew they were loved and experienced joy in their lives. Damour noted this joyful relationship was an essential ingredient in their ‘Ordinary Magic’ – it is not the icing, it is the cake.
Damour believes that unless families are in devastating circumstances this experience will not dent our children or change the trajectory of their lives for the worse. It will be stressful, but with the right support it will increase their coping mechanisms, resilience and independence – skills that will serve them well for life.
As we face up to the uncertainty of the weeks to come, recognising what we can and cannot control, Damour encourages us to lower our expectations and be kind to ourselves. To seek positive coping strategies: seeking social connection, using happy distractions, practising great self-care (particularly sleeping enough and eating healthy), getting outside, staying active and caring for others. And to remember that coping is deeply personal and what works well will look different for each of us.
As Damour says, this is not the distress Olympics – there will be no winner. Everyone will miss out on something and everyone will have a reason to be sad. She reminds us of the Eleanor Roosevelt quote, ‘A woman is like a tea bag; you never know how strong it is until it's in hot water’ and encourages us to discover our own strengths in this hot water. A lot of that strength will come from the ‘Ordinary Magic’ in our own homes and in our learning. The playgrounds might be out of bounds but finding joy is definitely not.
Ruyton Girls' School