Managing Back-to-School Stress During COVID-19
Events like the pandemic that feel unpredictable, outside of our control and threatening can cause high stress. This effect may be heightened as we face important choices about school safety, Here are some ways to increase your sense of predictability and control to reduce stress.
Guest post by Gianine (Gia) Rosenblum, PhD
Licensed psychologist Gianine (Gia) Rosenblum, PhD, has served on FARE’s Outcomes Research Advisory Board and Psychosocial Issues Task Force and has been a food allergy mental health curriculum development consultant to Allergy and Asthma Network. She is active in the food allergy community and is the parent of a teenager with food allergies.
Families already coping with the demands of food allergies are now grappling with returning to school during the COVID-19 crisis. Changing policies about things like food in classrooms impact children with food allergies specifically and may generate anxiety. Importantly, not all COVID-19 changes are negative for food allergy. Social distancing, frequent handwashing, elimination of shared supplies, and heightened cleaning protocols may have benefits. Food allergy families are already used to thinking through potential safety concerns, planning, having safety supplies on hand and preparing for emergencies. Kids with food allergies and their families may also be familiar with skills to set boundaries with the people around them, like saying no when asked to share foods or other items.
Events like the pandemic that feel unpredictable, outside of our control and threatening can cause high stress. Our bodies and minds respond with anxiety, worry and physical tension. Chronic stress also impacts our brains, making us feel frazzled so that clear thinking and decision making can be difficult. As we face important choices about school safety, this effect may be heightened. Below are some ways to increase your sense of predictability and control to reduce stress:
- Rehearse your allergy action plan. Practice with your epinephrine auto-injector or other epinephrine device by using a trainer or an expired device on an orange. Review all safety procedures.
- Work with your kids to plan home and school meals. Adjust for your school’s specific policies. Reinforce hand sanitizer and hand wipe use before and after eating.
- Help kids role-play skills like asking for safe distances, declining to share food or objects, or requesting a mask. Older kids can role-play with siblings or peers, in person or via phone/video.
- Use telehealth resources. Confirm your plans with your doctor, allergist, nutritionist or counselor.
- Plan conversations about school, COVID-19, food allergies and more. Focus on what adults are doing to protect kids and what kids can do to be safe. Ask what kids think; be prepared with facts to correct misunderstandings.
While chronic stress may disrupt our minds and bodies, we can prevent a toxic state. Try practicing one of the calming strategies below:
- “Square breathing” for relaxation - quiets the mind and calms the body
- Find a quiet moment, relax your shoulders and belly.
- Exhale fully.
- Gently hold your breath, lungs empty, for a count of four.
- Inhale for a count of four.
- Gently hold your breath, lungs full, for a count of four.
- Exhale for a count of four.
- Repeat until you feel calmer.
- Exercise – Even a 10-minute walk around the block or a few minutes of stretching in the living room can help. If you are feeling highly stressed or anxious, try vigorous exercise.
- Meditation/Mindfulness – A regular meditation practice can reduce stress long-term. Want an app? Try: Headspace, Calm, UCLA Mindful, 10% Happier, or Stop, Breathe & Think.
- Visualization – Find a quiet moment. Close your eyes. Think of a place you’ve been, or a fictional or imaginary place that is very positive for you. Engage your five senses. Imagine what you see, hear, can feel, smell and taste. Visualize bringing in things or people that calm you. Imagine a force field keeping negative things out. Spend 5-10 breaths just focusing on this experience and notice your body feeling calmer. When you are finished, name this place, and remind yourself that you can return there whenever you wish.
Be consistent in your practice: 10 minutes each day helps more than an hour once a week. You will learn to look forward to this time each day when the stress level falls, the mind takes a break, and the muscles unclench.