During “ordinary” times, if a loved one is feeling anxious we would normally suggest that they speak to a mental health professional. However during a pandemic, if health care workers can get overwhelmed, most likely mental health counselors are exhausted too. Hotlines may also be so jammed with calls that it gets difficult to get through.
The COVID-19 has hit us all hard, and many of us don’t really know how to navigate through these unchartered waters. Most find these changes difficult to handle both mentally and emotionally.
Each person copes with this COVID-19 pandemic differently. Some are more anxious than others. Even within the same family, each individual deals with it differently. It is not a matter of whether you are strong or weak emotionally. Anxiety is a human feature, not a flaw. It is common for you and I to get anxious from time to time. This emotion can be useful as it keeps us on the alert. However, sometimes our coping mechanism can be flawed, which can then lead our anxiety to snowball and cause overthinking.
So what can you do to support a family member who is very anxious, worried or scared about the COVID-19 pandemic?
- Understand that anxiety may manifest differently in different people. For some individuals, when they are stressed they will act out and be irritable or defensive. Others may have sleep disruptions (either sleep too much or insomnia) while some may eat excessively yet others may have no appetite. For example, when older adults are anxious, most tend to exhibit physical symptoms such as headaches and other pains, while teenagers tend to isolate themselves or be online excessively.
- Listen and empathize. So how do you listen empathetically?
- Try to be nonjudgmental – Let go of your own personal opinions. Focus on the other person’s perspective no matter how ridiculous it may seem to you. Acknowledge their emotions; you do not have to agree with them, just acknowledge that this is how they are feeling now, and that you care about them. When you listen and empathize you will discover that some people just want to vent their fears while others want to express their anger at the situation. Occasionally some may even want your help to solve their problem.
- Set time aside to talk to your loved one, remove all distractions such as phones, laptops and other devices. Create a calm setting and give them your full, undivided attention.
- Listen to both feelings and facts. Pay attention to both your loved one’s tone and body language and other clues that will give you insight into their emotions.
- Pay attention to your body language (posture and nonverbal messages). Try to display supportive body language like maintaining eye contact with them, nodding or peppering supportive words like “Yes I hear you” or “Ok, I understand” etc. By doing this you are showing them your attentiveness. This will help feel safe and open up more to you.
- Silence can be golden, do not be afraid of it. Being a counselor, one of the hardest things I have ever learnt is to be comfortable with silence Most times the person just needs to know you are there. By sitting patiently with them you are letting them know that you are there for them and if they need a few minutes to think of what to say next, that is alright. Sometimes people just need a few moments of silence to process what they have just said.
- If there is anything you are unclear of, do ask your loved one. Take time to clarify comments if you need to. Remember to keep being nonjudgmental, respectful and kind. You can also ask how you can help. If the person is open to it, you can offer them resources on how to cope with stress. Try to match your support to their preferences.
- With their permission, perhaps you can help them create a small support group for them, e.g., recruit other family members that they are close to. Take turns checking up on your loved one to make sure that their stress level and mental state are stable and not deteriorating. Keep communication lines open. Remember you can offer support but do not try to take over and manage their anxiety for them.
- Try to spot and give insight as to what you observe could be causing their anxiety. Perhaps share with them what you see them doing each time they get stressed and worried. Get their permission first before you do this.
- Giving support and help for your family member does not have to be directly focused on anxiety. For example, exercise, meditation, yoga helps with anxiety. You can offer to do a YouTube yoga or meditation session with him or her.
3. Finally, remember to take care of yourself and learn to limit the amount of time that you are spending on supporting others. Take a break if you need to. It is okay to put a limit on the support that you are giving.
Crisis counselor, psychologist and emergency responder