IOWA CITY — A public health crisis unfolding day by day. Financial and employment insecurity. Uncertainty over the future.
Any of those things on their own can create stress. Amid the COVID-19 breakout, many people are dealing with all three of those stressors while also managing an indefinite period of isolation with partners, children and roommates with fewer outlets for stress relief.
“All of that is a breeding ground for stress,” said Jacob Priest, an assistant professor in the University of Iowa College of Education with a Ph.D. in Marriage and Family Therapy.
All relationships need togetherness, Priest said. But too much togetherness can create tension and make these difficult times even harder to navigate. Priest offered tips on how to manage the stress of social distancing with loved ones.
“I think the first thing is just giving everybody a lot of grace,” Priest said. “Know this is new for everybody — for your partners, for your kids, for your friends and relatives. Be patient and give them the benefit of the doubt. Know it’s going to be hard adjustment.”
Create space for yourself when possible
“I think it’s really important to create emotional and physical space, if possible,” he said.
Priest said it’s OK to watch a show or read a book by yourself. All activities don’t need to be done together.
Routines are good, but be flexible
“You’re going to hear a lot of advice about developing routines,” Priest said. “I think that’s important. But know the routine you set now might not work a week from now. I think it’s important to have a lot of flexibility built into your routine.”
Routines aren’t always going to go as planned, Priest said. He said that in order to avoid frustration, allow for a lot of “wiggle room” in your routine.
Reassure your kids
Priest said it’s important that children hear or see from their parents that they will be there for them and provide them emotional support during uncertain times.
“Kids, I think, during this time are going to feel a wide range of emotions — stress, anxiety, sadness, frustration for not being able to do the things they’re normally going to do,” he said. “As parents, I think the message is, ‘I’m going to be here for you.’”
Don’t try to address difficult topics in one conversation
“When topics are extremely difficult — like finances — I think it’s important to think about it not as one conversation, but an unfolding conversation that’s going to happen across weeks and months, potentially,” Priest said.
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Initial conversations about stressful topics like the loss of income can be “really stressful,” Priest said. Instead of trying to address it all at once, Priest said families should realize more information will be available over time. He said couples can come together and think of ways to address the situation or find other people who can support you. Priest recommends slowing down those conversations as much as possible and not try to solve them in the moment.
What about the college age crowd that has suddenly found themselves on an indefinite spring break and holed up with roommates. Kayla Reed Fitzke, an assistant professor in the College of Education with a Ph.D. in marriage and family therapy whose research focuses on well-being during emerging adulthood, also had tips to share.
Fitzke said it’s important to establish and maintain boundaries while balancing your needs with the needs of your roommates or friends. She said it’s important to recognize people might be experiencing more stress during the COVID-19 breakout. She also recommends not getting offended if a roommate doesn’t want to spend all day, every day with you.
“We all need some amount of individual time for ourselves,” she said. “It’s OK to spend time together while taking breaks apart.”
Have conversations before things become problematic
Fitzke said it’s important to discuss things that might be annoying you before tension builds. She said those conversations shouldn’t be an attack, but an opportunity to figure out how to address them together.
“I know we’re both dealing with a lot of stress and uncertainty,” Fitzke suggested as a way to address an issue. “Let’s figure out a way we can handle this together.”
Check in with friends
Fitzke said emerging adults have the highest rates of mood and anxiety disorders and isolation can exacerbate those disorders. Reaching out to friends can help.
“Being a source of support for your peers can make a world of difference,” Fitzke said.
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