Stress Management 101

 

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Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA, LBA.    6.24.20

It just keeps building up, the stress of 2020.  It’s hard to look at social media or the news without sensing an instant rise in your stress level, with fresh new things to worry about every day.  You can, in some cases, take action to deal with things going on in the world, whether it is contributing to a cause, getting involved in politics, or staying up-to-date with needed precautions against Covid-19,  But even when you are able to take action, there is still a feeling of powerlessness, of hopelessness, when everything seems to be bad news.

For those who have been home with children for the past few months, trying to balance their own work with becoming surrogate teachers, this stress can be even worse because there is already a level of exhaustion that has set in every day.  People who work in health care and other impacted industries may also be experiencing stress levels that are higher and different from others.  During these seemingly unprecedented difficult times, it is important to remember 2 things: Perspective and Self-Care.

Perspective.  Yes, it feels like the world is on fire.  It feels like things will never be the same regarding illness, germs and feeling safe in public settings.  It feels like there are more difficult questions than there are good and useful answers.  But despite the fact that many of us have not experienced this level of turmoil in the world all at once, this is certainly not the first time that there has been extreme social unrest or pandemic disease.  Remember that we often learn best from history.  We have the advantage of being able to look back at past events and view them through the lens of what went well and what didn’t go so well.  For example, a lot of health experts have been reflecting on the 1918 flu pandemic, with a sharp eye on which communities fared the best and which ones had worse outcomes.  By looking at choices those communities made, we can have more informed decisions about how to manage transmission rates now, 100 years later.  Health experts are also using history to drive clinical decision making.  With a brand new virus, hard facts have been sparse.  But by looking at other similar germs, outbreaks, treatments, and vaccines, health professionals and scientists are best able to make informed decisions as they work hard to get this under control.

When it comes to social unrest and politics, we also have history to lean on for guidance. As human beings living in societies around the world, many people are better off than their ancestors.  This is largely due to social and political changes over time.  Some of these needed changes happened peacefully while others came with the cost of human suffering and many lives lost.  Looking at history, let the past be our guide about how to promote necessary social changes in our world in the most peaceful manner possible. And to keep things in perspective, use history to realize that our best chance to move forward is to recognize each others’ humanity, and to do this without prejudice to promote positive change.  Do what you are able and willing to do – for some this may mean organizing events or putting up signs, for others it may mean writing to your government representatives and leaders, and for others it may just mean having conversations with your own children.

Self-Care.  How can you even begin to manage your stress these days?  We’re home with restless kids.  The rules about going out keep changing.  We still don’t know enough about this illness to feel safe but we are so sick of being restricted.  Summer plans have had to change.  The world outside our doors is falling apart.  Political discourse is at an extreme low.  Nothing feels right.  Although it is hard to imagine, this is actually a recipe for us to prioritize self-care.  Without managing your stress, you risk getting yourself into a mind space where you just can’t see past the negatives. So what are some things you can do?

  1.  Stop looking at the news and your social media so much.  Allow yourself a small amount of time each day to catch up on developments with Covid-19, with politics, with world events, with local news.  After that set amount of time, turn it off and live your own life for the rest of that day.  A good balance might be 15-20 minutes in the morning and 15-20 minutes at night.  Or, even better, just once a day.
  2. Pick one thing you enjoy and carve out time to do it each day, even if only for a short time.  Work on a puzzle, read a book, watch a show, do some yoga.  Any of these things can be done for a short or a longer period of time, so you can tailor it to your own needs and your own schedule.
  3. Move your body.  There is overwhelming evidence for the positive effect of exercise on stress.  Even moderate activity makes a difference.  Take a walk, a bike ride, or do an exercise class online. Just like the activity you enjoy above, these can all be done according to your own time frame and schedule.
  4. Breathe.  When you start to notice your stress level rising for any reason at all, stop and breathe.  Slow, deep breaths can do wonders for your immediate stress level.  And it only takes a minute.
  5. Talk.  By engaging in conversation, you can reduce your stress in a few ways.  If you are able to talk to people about your stress, you may find compassion and shared concerns, which can be helpful.  If you talk to people about other things, this can be a nice distraction from your stress.  Finally, if you talk to people for feedback, you might get some good ideas for problem-solving and coping.
  6. Rest.  Try to develop good sleep routines.  If you have been having a hard time sleeping, take a good look at your routine.  Are you doing or thinking about something stressful right before bed?  Are you using a laptop, tablet or phone right before bed, which can affect sleep? Are you going to bed around the same time every night?  All of these things can affect your sleep, and your sleep can affect your stress.
  7. Use structure at home to build a sense of stability.  Summer days can be chaotic with kids, and maybe even more so in places where activities are still limited. Try to develop some routines and structures in your home to help you and your family cope with this unique and unusual summer we’re having.
  8. Remember what they tell you on the airplane. Put on your own oxygen mask before helping others with theirs.  When you neglect your own basic needs and self-care, you are less able to make a difference to others.

 

Coping with the information, one day at a time.

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Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA, LBA.     5.15.20

We’ve been isolating ourselves as much as possible for a bit over 2 full months now.  At the beginning, there was so much information coming in from sources around the world that it was hard to keep up with everything. Now, it may be a little less of on onslaught, but there is still a lot to process.  One of the big questions now is re-entry.  How do we gradually move back to life as we knew at? Can we do this in the near future?

For many people, there is an overarching sense of anxiety now.  What is going to happen in the world?  What is going to happen with the economy?  What about the food chain? What if we go back out and people start getting the virus in large numbers?  What if my parents or kids get sick?  What if I get sick?  The questions still overwhelm the answers  in many respects.  And if you are a parent with kids at home, it can be challenging to answer questions about what’s next.  If you have kids at home on the autism spectrum, your challenge is further increased because there is little sense of long-term predictability, which can be a problem.

Reflecting back on these past few weeks and the ever-changing information along with fears and worries that come with the unknown, something that has been helpful is to focus on what I do know, and what I can control.  What is that right now?

  • My daily routine.
  • My weekly list of tasks.
  • My level of (remote) social engagement.
  • My sanity activities (getting outside, doing yoga or meditation, reading, watching a good movie).
  • Who I spend time with in-person and how to do that safely.
  • How much I go out and how I prepare for that.
  • How much I look at the media.

What can I not control?

  • Medical progress with the virus.
  • Changing information about the virus.
  • The behavior of other people when it comes to safety and distancing.
  • The decisions of leaders in government at every level.
  • The decisions of businesses starting to re-open with different rules everywhere.
  • The media (but remember, you can control what you read).

It takes some thought to put together your list of what you can and can’t control right now.  If you have kids at home (with or without special needs) who are feeling tired of being home or showing signs of anxiety about the situation,  this is a good time to teach them about what we have the power to control.  This is much easier if you start with the smallest picture, which is today.  What can we do today to make it the best day possible?  How much structure do we want today?  For some kids, it will be helpful to have a good plan every day, while others will manage well with looser structures and routines.  One of the most important things will be to focus on what can and should be done today and this week, instead of spending too much time thinking about what may or may not happen in 2 weeks, 2 months, or even a year.  This is especially true right now, because we just don’t know how things will look in our town, our state, our country or even our world.   Is it possible that schools in your area won’t start again in September?  Yes, it is possible.  But mostly we don’t know.  Letting yourself or your kids spend a lot of time and energy worrying about this will only prevent happiness and productivity right now.

Take another look at the list I made of what I can control right now.  Do any of those concepts apply to you?  Do any of those translate to action for your kids at home? How can you wrap your arms around the things that are in your control to help yourself and your family move forward in the midst of endless information but not a lot of concrete answers?  Focus on here.  Focus on now.  Don’t worry to much about re-inventing yourself or your family, just do the best you can with what you know and what you have in front of you, today.

So ask yourself, and ask your kids, what can we control right now?  What can we do with the things that are in our control to make the absolute best of each day?  What can we do to try not to put a lot of our energy into predicting or worrying about the future?  Make lists, make visuals, and celebrate the things that go well every day.

Information overload

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Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA, LBA.   3.19.20

How quickly things can change.  Within the past week we have gone from being on alert for potential changes in our country while watching other countries struggle with this pandemic, to being in full-scale crisis mode.  This is especially true in certain areas of our country that are particularly hard-hit by COVID-19 and are scrambling to contain the situation.  The amount of information out there is completely overwhelming and ever-changing.

Resources are popping up everywhere to give people help and support during this challenging time.  I have seen great ideas being shared about how to help parents suddenly needing to have their kids at home and do their schooling from home, and in some cases including online schooling.  There are resources for how to work remotely, how to social distance, how to stay healthy, how to prepare your home for a period of isolation, how much you need to isolate to protect others and yourself.  Some are posting ideas on self care and finding peace in the midst of turmoil.  It is wonderful to see so many minds sharing ideas on how to cope with this surreal situation.

But it is also just overwhelming.

So, this post is not going to link you to a thousand great resources.  It is not going to tell you what to watch and what to read and what to ignore.  Instead, this post will give you my own take on what to do now.  For yourself, for your family, and for your community.

 

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For Yourself.

Breathe.  Every day you will wake up with some sense of unrest.  What will be in the news today?  What is the status in my own community? Am I healthy?  Are my loved ones healthy?  The potential for overarching fear and anxiety is through the roof.  So, remember to breathe.  I am not talking about just a deep breath here and there, I am talking about intentionally taking moments throughout your day to stop and take at least 5 focused, quiet deep breaths.  Stop thinking for a few minutes and focus on the air you are breathing in and the air you are breathing out.  Breathe in slowly through your nose and out slowly through your mouth.  Let some of the anxiety go out with your breath each time.

Make a list.  What are all the things you wanted to have time to do, but never made the time?  Being stuck at home, this is a good time to look at some of those projects, and spend some time with those.  How you do this is up to you.  Maybe you say, I am going to spend one hour per day working on project x, or catching up on miscellaneous tasks.  Or maybe you jump in wholeheartedly to one big project that you have been putting off for a long time.  Whatever you do is up to you and will depend on your own schedule and circumstances.  But many people in the United States and around the world are finding themselves with a bit more downtime right now.

Share enjoyment.  Can’t get out to socialize as much as you want?  Set something up online.  Of course it is not the same as person-to-person contact, but it is better than not seeing people you like.  You can use any number of technologies, from FaceTime to Facebook video to Google Hangouts or Zoom.  I have seen posts for musicians doing virtual living room concerts you can livestream and hear good music.  You can also use Netflix, who has set up a way to watch movies with friends.

Get some fresh air.  If you live somewhere where you can get outside without being near a lot of people, a daily walk is refreshing and good for your health.  If you can’t leave your building without rubbing elbows with people on the elevator, open your window and let in some fresh air.

Workout from home.  You do not need a home gym to work out from home.  Not only are there loads of resources for using bodyweight exercises to get full body workouts, some gyms are now posting exercise classes online for you to livestream or view.  They are doing this with the understanding that people do not have equipment at home, so you can do the classes from your own place.

Stay the course.  If everyone does their part to flatten the curve and keep this pandemic in check, we will be back to normal sooner.  Remember that this feels awful right now, but we will get through it and we will be back to normal.

For your family

Implement structure now.  If you have kids or teenagers at home, start out by setting up a structure for the days.  Most kids still have school work, and college students are finishing up their courses online.  Have your family set up times for work and leisure every day.  Implementing and maintaining structure can reduce stress.

Schedule family time.  More time with family always sounds great, it feels like the right thing to wish for, but in reality being cooped up with your family for weeks can be a bit difficult.  So make sure individual family members are getting their own space as much as possible, but also set aside time regularly, even daily, to do something fun as a family. Movies, games, puzzles, making video journals of your time in isolation, cooking and baking are all good ideas.  All you need to do to get ideas is search online for things to do in quarantine and you will find a lot of recent posts and articles.

Stay positive.  By taking good care of your own needs, as noted above, you will be able to stay more positive for your family members.  And remember, this will pass.  We can do this.

For your community.

Stop the spread!  This is my most important advice right now.  Not to get too much on a soap box about this, but we all have to do our part to stop this now. The horses are already out of the barn, so to speak, but it is up to us now to slow them down.  Because our testing is way behind in this country, the advice from experts is to assume that everyone has it.  That’s right.  Assume that everyone has it.  Including yourself.  So this means you are isolating yourself as much as possible.  Staying in your home, working from home, socializing only remotely, OR only with people you know are also being very strict about their interactions.  When you do go out you are distancing from everyone.  You are washing your hands much more than usual.  If you think you may have been exposed, even if you don’t have symptoms, stay home.  **If you are a young adult or you know a young adult, tell them to stop attending social events and gatherings!**  Because they often don’t show symptoms but are contagious anyway, they are super-vectors for this disease.  And even if they are lucky enough to not get really ill, they could easily give it to someone who isn’t so lucky.  All you have to do is read about Europe right now to see that if we don’t slow down now it will soon be mandated, but not before lots of vulnerable people get really, really sick.  Stop doing things.  Just stop.

Help local service organizations.  There are a lot of people who shouldn’t be going out at all.  Community organizations everywhere are setting up delivery services for vulnerable people take them food, groceries, medications, and household needs.  If you are healthy – and if you can follow all the precautions to protect others – contact local groups to see how you can help.

Donate to food pantries.  Food pantries are going to see a growing need for supplies as people lose hours at work and need more help.  If you are able, drop off food and necessities (toilet paper for example!) at a local food pantry.  Every bit helps and they will need it.

Donate to charities.  If you are financially secure  through this crisis, consider directing some of your charitable contributions to organizations who are going to struggle.  This would include shelters, soup kitchens, churches, and volunteer agencies who help those in need.  Also consider helping community businesses who may struggle during this time.

This is a time when we need to reflect as individuals and as a society who we really are.  Let’s take care of ourselves and each other, and let’s try to breathe through this and remember that only with each others’ support will we come out on the other side of this as whole and as together as possible.