Take Time to Invest in You

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Guest post by Kari Pendray at Brigid Collins Family Support Center

As we find ourselves well into our sixth month of living with Covid-19, many parents have one thing in common – we are all juggling multiple demands in a time that leaves us feeling more uncertain. The idea of being at home for some is isolating and for others it feels more like a safe haven. No matter which side of the aisle you are on, the role of a parent has suddenly become more demanding. That’s because stressful events, like being in the midst of a global pandemic, adds a layer of unpredictability in our lives.

Whether you are feeling stressed out, burned out, or just plain tired, you are not alone. Stress is sometimes defined as when the need to respond exceeds our capacity to respond. How can you recognize stress and burnout? Stress comes in three forms. Acute stress is healthy stress, like when you have a deadline for work or school. Episodic stress is short episodes of high stress, such as taking on too much work, then, being unable to get the stress out of your system. Finally, chronic stress is one that has been linked to chronic health conditions, such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Chronic stress is very serious and needs to be managed with care and helping professionals. Burnout is a complete feeling of exhaustion and can make you withdraw from other people. Burnout can lead to cynicism and can cause you to delay tasks.

During our Coping with Stress virtual seminars at the Parenting Academy, we talk to parents and caregivers about managing stress and building our capacity, as parents, for emotional well-being, which centers around three main strategies:

  • Awareness of unhealthy thinking
  • Shifting negative self-talk and automatic thoughts
  • Challenging unhelpful thoughts
Focus on the things that you can control, and let the other things go.

First, ask yourself, “What evidence do I have for this thought or idea?” Then, ask, “What could be another explanation?” Finally, ask yourself, “What can I do to change or shift my thinking that would lead to a positive outcome?

To prevent stress and burnout, it’s important to plan daily activities that alleviate stress, just like you would plan to get a cup of coffee at Starbucks or watch your favorite show on Netflix. It’s important to invest in yourself in ways that add years to your life.

Here are a few examples:

  1. Invest in your heart – Eating heart healthy foods such as leafy green vegetables, lean fish and meat, and minimizing sugar, can contribute to having a good nutritional balance. (See My Plate.gov or Harvard Healthy Eating Plate). You can use cooking as a way to learn math, science, experiment with food and enjoy eating new foods.
  2. Invest in your body – Pumping oxygen into your blood is not only good for your heart it is also good for your mind. Studies show that exercising can release positive “happy” hormones into your body and relieve stress. Children love to exercise with their parents. Families are taking more walks, riding bikes, playing soccer and making the most of their own backyards.
  3. Invest in your brain – Has anyone ever given you a prescription to laugh? Well, if not, consider this your first one. Laughing soothes tension, stimulates organs, re-wires new neural pathways in your brain and alleviates stress. When parents take time to play with their children, this can involve 5-10 minutes of mutual enjoyment, laughter and a break from your day. Children learn from play and play can be a great way to co-regulate.

When you invest in yourself, you will not only improve your own health, you will also be modeling health and wellness for your children; you will be more present for your child, and you will be having fun in the process. That’s a gift that will last a lifetime.

If you would like more information on the Parenting Academy or wish to register for parenting coaching or virtual seminars, please go to www.parenting-academy.org.

Resources:
www.choosemyplate.gov
www.hsph.harvard.edu
www.hhs.gov/fitness/beactive/physical-activity-guidelines-for-americans/index.html
www.parenting-academy.org


When September Ends: Keeping Up the Conversation

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Over the last decade or so, there has been a lot of effort put into decreasing the stigma around mental health disorders, depression, and anxiety. Celebrities and community leaders have shared their stories, and national and state campaigns have been developed to spread awareness about these causes. You may have been noticing a lot of messaging this past month about mental health and suicide prevention, and that is because September is National Suicide Prevention Month. From posts on social media and radio ads, to webinars and virtual trainings; there have been a lot of great opportunities to discuss the importance of our mental health.

Now, as Suicide Prevention month has officially come to a close, I am wondering about ways that my community can continue to support our collective mental health, especially now when some individuals may need it more than ever. I am thinking about the little things that each of us can do on a daily basis to help out our friends and loved ones—and stay connected—even when far apart.

I experienced a really wonderful example of this type of “small-scale” support the other day when I was visiting my doctor. Though I was there for something unrelated, the nurse began the visit by not only checking my physical vital signs, but my mental and emotional vital signs, as well. Now, this may be nothing new to anyone; clinics have been collecting these sorts of measures for some time. But the nurse extended a beautiful gesture after she completed the list of depression-screening questions: She said, “Thank you for sharing these answers with me.” And she meant it.

Once again, this is no big gesture and could have easily gone unnoticed. Yet, I so appreciated that the nurse took the extra second to recognize the importance of these questions and showed respect for my courage to respond. After all, answering these types of questions with honesty can be hard, especially when you’re not used to being asked about depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation in such a matter-of-fact manner. Sometimes you may even surprise yourself with the answers that come from your mouth because, for so many of us, we were trained from a young age to “pull ourselves up by the boot straps” and power forward.

Personally, I am really lucky to have people in my life who reach out on a pretty regular basis and check in with me about my mental health. I find that talking things out with a friend or family member can help diffuse the stress that can build up when I get too lost in my own head.

I try to return the favor and reach out to people in my life, and at times it can feel a bit awkward. I absolutely understand how it can be challenging to broach this subject with a family member, friend—or even an acquaintance. However, it is necessary that we connect with those around us and engage in these potentially challenging conversations, because many times a hurting person will not reach out for help themselves.

So, in honor of the end of September and Suicide Prevention Month, I encourage each of our readers to begin a conversation with someone about mental health and wellbeing. It can be as simple as asking a person about what they are doing to cope with social distancing, or even what brings them joy each day. It can be as simple as thanking someone for their time and honesty, just like the nurse did for me.

Whatever it is that you do, it makes a difference in the lives of others. And it may make a difference for you too!

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has resources available for Spanish speakers, as well as resources specific to veterans, and options for deaf and hard of hearing individuals.

Some things to keep in mind…

Some warning signs may help you determine if a loved one is at risk for suicide, especially if the behavior is new, has increased, or seems related to a painful event, loss, or change. If you or someone you know exhibits any of these, seek help by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

  • Talking about wanting to die or to kill themselves
  • Looking for a way to kill themselves, like searching online or buying a gun
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or isolating themselves
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Extreme mood swings

Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or chat with a professional. For more information, visit https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/help-someone-else/.


Back to School: Create a Schedule that Works

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Along with Skagit school districts’ back-to-school reopening plans, each school has provided students with a schedule. While it is very important to become familiar with this academic schedule, it is also important to develop a schedule at home that will work for your student, as well as the rest of the household. Here are some ideas that may help bring a sense of clarity to your weekly routine. 

1. Compartmentalize your day

For anyone who’s been working from home the past several months, you have probably weighed the costs and benefits of compartmentalizing your day. When the work day bleeds into the work evening, then into the work weekend, it becomes really important to define your time—for your mental health, if nothing else.

The same holds true for your child! Create a routine in which your student gets up, gets dressed and has breakfast, then progresses into their school day. While it can be tempting, it is important to change out of pajamas (at least from time to time!) and put on some day-time clothing. Compartmentalize the day into natural chunks of time: morning classes, lunch, afternoon classes, and end-of-day. The late afternoon should include a period of free time to allow your child to decompress from the day and to wrap up their school work.

2. Take breaks and eat well

Along these same lines, be sure that your student takes breaks and sets aside a time to have lunch. It can be easy for kids to snack while they work, and to eat lunch at their study space. However, it is good for the mind and body to take a breather and spend some time in a different part of the house or outside.

For breaks, it may be helpful to take 15-20 minutes every few hours (or more often, for younger children). Be sure that your child knows that taking a moment to breathe, stretch, and come back to their work is extremely important (even adults need to do this!). If your child is really struggling with a project or assignment, encourage taking a quick break.

3. Get organized

It may be helpful to work with your child on reviewing their weekly academic calendar and any due dates that they may have for assignments. A planner (either paper or digital) could be a great tool for some students, while others may need something that is easily accessible and clearly visible. Just like in a school classroom, your child may find it helpful to have a whiteboard by their desk with a list of assignments, or even a large calendar with due dates clearly marked. This may also be a good thing for you, as the parent, since you can keep track of your child’s schedule from afar.

4. Get active…daily!

This is critical for your child’s physical and mental health. When the weather still permits, encourage your child to go outside to take a walk or bike ride. For younger kids, their local playground may be re-opening! Be sure to talk about keeping distance from others, even when outside, and wear a mask if in a more crowded area.

When the weather starts to turn chilly and/or rainy (or smoky), find some things to do indoors that get their blood flowing! Exercise and dance videos can be fun, and even stretching can be done in small spaces. Doing the same activities every day can get tiresome, so encourage your student to try different ways to get moving. And if you can, do it with them!

5. Encourage socialization

Your child might be excited to get back to school, even if it is remote and online. It may be the first time in a while that they have seen some of their friends and peers after a long COVID summer, and this re-engagement might be a seriously needed mood-booster. But don’t be surprised if by October your student is feeling burned out on online schooling. This kind of socialization might not be enough for many children, and it is okay to admit that!

When your child is feeling antsy or moody, encourage some socialization with friends. While it isn’t advised to schedule in-person meetups with large groups of friends, an occasional get-together between “besties” can be really good for your child’s mental health. Arrange a playdate outdoors for young children (being mindful of the 5-person per week limit), and for older students, maybe a study session outdoors? Take care to maintain social distancing and have your child wear a face covering. While it isn’t “school like usual” with the variety of opportunities to interact, a few social activities a month can go a long way to promote health and wellbeing.

6. Be flexible!

Expect the need to shake things up. A routine is awesome and a schedule is great, but sometimes things just don’t go as planned, and it is okay to modify it if necessary. There will be days that your student is rocking it and crossing off one assignment after another. However, there will also be days when PJs and a bubble bath are the most important thing. Both are okay. 

What we are asking of our youth right now is unprecedented, and we must always keep our children’s health at the forefront. If you ever feel like your child is struggling, connect with their teacher (or other school staff) and ask for some advice. You don’t need to take on these challenging times alone.


Healthy Community Recovery: Add Your Voice

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Skagitonians have discovered a wide range of fun and interesting ways to capture their day-to-day COVID living: creating video montages of each day using the 1 Second Everyday app, photobooks of puzzles completed, “QuaranTime capsules,” COVID plays, song parodies, and more. Cataloging these trying times in creative ways helps us process our new reality and expand our connectivity. Also, these activities will give us tangible ways to look back on these strange days when we emerge from the crisis.

The Population Health Trust (often known as the Trust) has another way for individuals and families to capture their experiences with COVID-19—a way that will help us understand the behavioral, economic, social and emotional impacts resulting from the outbreak. We are rolling out the Community Recovery-Oriented Needs Assessment (CORONA survey), which is open for responses between now and the end of September. By participating in the CORONA survey, you will add your voice to this countywide discussion.

Survey participants can opt into a prize drawing! Take the survey today!

It is the Trust’s role to pull together information from across the community, determine key health issues facing Skagitonians, and devise a strategic plan for regaining health and wellness. We need to understand the variety of ways that COVID-19 has impacted you and your family in order to prioritize the critical needs arising as a result of COVID-19. 

You can support our community’s recovery by completing the CORONA survey at wacoronasurvey.com. To take the survey by phone, call 855-530-5787; interpreters are available to assist. We rely on your experiences and needs to drive our work toward healthy community recovery. Thank you for taking the time to add your knowledge and perspective to this community conversation.


Reach Out: We Can All Do Our Part

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Social distancing has impacted us all differently. For some people, it has meant spending day-in and day-out with antsy children, while others have had way too much time on their hands. Others may be experiencing unexpected financial hardship due to COVID-19, causing an increase in stress and anxiety.

For some older adults in our community, social distancing has put a lot of new restrictions on their ability to access care and resources, as well as their ability to connect with the outside world. Thankfully, there is a lot each individual can do to support the emotional well-being of our senior population. We can all do our part!

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has a list of ideas for reaching out to our senior population during this time:

  1. Check in regularly on your older adult friends, neighbors and family members.
  2. Call or video chat with them, since texting and social media may not be the best method of connecting. (Note: You may need to help friends and loved ones with new technology!)
  3. Seek advice from them based on their experience and wisdom. People realizing they are needed can make all the difference!
  4. Ask how they are doing during this period of time, how their routines might have had to change, and what kinds of things they are doing to cope with the stress. Encourage your loved ones to stay connected with community by reaching out to your local senior center for ideas.  
  5. Encourage them to keep doing activities that are safe during COVID for their local area, and that they identify as being most helpful for them, such as daily exercise or a walk, stretching, listening to or playing music, reading, enjoying favorite or humorous shows, puzzles, games, social activities, and meditation or prayer. Here are some activity ideas from AARP, and the National Institute on Aging. (Note: While it is still required that we keep a 6-foot distance and wear masks, there are many safe activities that can be done outdoors with loved ones that follow these requirements and minimize chances of transmission.)
  6. Help them seek medical advice or care if they are experiencing symptoms of physical or mental health decline.
  7. Offer to bring them a meal, run an errand, or walk their dog. Call Skagit County Public Health at (360) 416-1500 to get information about senior nutrition assistance.
  8. Express gratitude and appreciation for any support you get from your relationship with them. Let them know what you admire about the way they conduct their life.

All of the above ideas can be accomplished without much direct physical interaction, which is great during a time when we must adhere to social distancing requirements. It is important to remember that there is a big difference between “social distancing” versus “physical distancing.” Just because we are keeping our physical distance does not mean that we cannot still socialize. We just need to be more mindful about the ways we do it!

When connecting with loved ones, make sure to look out for possible signs of social isolation, anxiety, or depression. It is important to reach out early and often, because mental health issues—just like physical health issues—can become very serious if left unchecked.

Signs that a person might be isolated:

  • Deep boredom, general lack of interest and withdrawal
  • Losing interest in personal hygiene
  • Poor eating and nutrition
  • Significant disrepair, clutter and hoarding in the home

Where can you find support if you recognize any of the signs above?

If someone is experiencing excess stress due to COVID-19, call Washington Listens at 833-681-0211 for support and resources.

What to do if someone is experiencing a mental health crisis?

Where can you direct local seniors if they are experiencing hardship due to quarantine or isolation?

At-risk individuals who are in quarantine or isolation and find themselves in need of assistance with getting/picking up supplies or food can call the Skagit County Resource Assistance Line at (360) 416-1892 between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. daily.


Coping with Pandemic Fatigue

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The COVID-19 pandemic has many of us stressed and worn out. We have all faced changes to our daily routines, reduced contact with friends and family, and a loss of our sense of normalcy. Many Skagitonians have been hit with financial challenges due to job loss or changes to their businesses that could not have been anticipated prior to a few months ago. Adding to the stress is that the pandemic conditions appear to be getting worse and there is not a definite end in sight.

You have probably heard of the “fight-or-flight” response. This response works well if you need to run away from a bear, but not so great for long-term stressors like the COVID pandemic.

WHO Coping with Stress during COVID19

So what can you do if you are feeling stressed and worn out?

1. Limit how often you check news or spend time on social media.

It is important to be well-informed about the pandemic. Although some people take comfort in being informed, it is easy to get worked up and anxious from watching nonstop news coverage. Have you heard of the term “doomscrolling?” It’s a newly coined word for scrolling through a never-ending doom-and-gloom on your Twitter or Facebook feed for hours and hours. Many of us do it, but we can all find better ways to spend our time.

If you want to stay informed, you should seek out COVID-19 information from local and trusted sources, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Washington State Department of Health or Skagit County Public Health. And set reasonable limits for the time you spend on social media.

2. If you feel like you are stuck in a rut, change your routine.

We are now four months into the pandemic, and most people have settled into a familiar routine. Many of us are spending more time than ever at home and are growing tired of looking at the same four walls as our days blur together. If you feel like you are stuck in the same rut day after day, you should mix up your routine.

How? If your employer allows you to work from home and is open to flexible work hours, you can try working a different schedule. Take the time to exercise before you start work, or take a longer lunch hour and go for a long walk and end your workday later.

You can also take advantage of the time cooped up in your home by focusing on a do-it-yourself project that you have been putting off. Clean your garage, touch up some peeling paint, or take on a project in your yard. In addition to keeping you busy, when you are done with the project you will get the added satisfaction from having completed a project.

3. Find healthy ways to let off some stress.

The CDC provides some great tips on coping with stress during COVID. Most are common sense tips like:

  • Take care of your body—stretch or meditate, eat healthy well-balanced meals, and exercise regularly.
  • Get plenty of sleep.
  • Avoid excessive alcohol and drug use.
  • Talk with people you trust about your concerns and how you are feeling.

4. Don’t be afraid to seek out professional help.

For some people, general stress and pandemic fatigue can become more serious. You should watch for warning signs that you’re having trouble coping, and should call your healthcare provider if stress gets in the way of your daily activities for several days in a row.

If you do not know where to turn, Skagit County is maintaining a list of behavioral health services and resources. A few key resources that are available 24 hours a day and 365 days a year are:

Don’t be afraid to reach out for help, and know that like all pandemics, this one will eventually end.


Recovering from Disasters: Common Phases and Experiences

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We’ve been hearing a lot about phases recently as Washington State rolls out its approach for reopening businesses and physical distancing measures. With Skagit County now officially in Phase 2 of the Governor’s Safe Start plan, it is exciting—and relieving—to begin seeing things get back to somewhat “normal.” At this time, it is important to be thinking about some other phases: specifically, the phases of recovery that we may be experiencing in regards to our mental and emotional health.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provides a thought-provoking graph titled, “Phases of Disaster,” which tracks a typical community’s response to a disaster. A large-scale disaster can take many forms, such as natural disasters (hurricanes or tornados) or human caused (acts of violence or terrorism). And though it may not seem like it when we are hunkered down in our living rooms, we are currently in the midst of a very different type of crisis.

“Phases of Disaster” Adapted from Zunin & Myers as cited in DeWolfe, D. J., 2000. Training manual for mental health and human service workers in major disasters

According to the graph, it is normal (and even expected) that an individual or community may feel the effects of a disaster for quite some time—a year or more in some cases. There are six phases of recovery written into this model. This is how the phases are defined:

Phase 1: Pre-Disaster
This is the period of time before a disaster takes place and is “characterized by fear and uncertainty.” In the case of COVID-19 and Washington State, this would have been prior to the State’s first confirmed case back in March, when we were reading news about the spread in other countries. 

Phase 2: Impact

This is when the disaster takes place and is “characterized by a range of intense emotional reactions … [and] can range from shock to overt panic.” For many, this phase of the pandemic began when the state reported its first positive case or when schools and businesses began to shut down in late March. We can all recall feeling unnerved during this time as we began to see our daily routines changed suddenly.

Phase 3: Heroic
People come together during disasters. Skagit County witnessed so many amazing acts of heroism, from health care staff and first responders on the front lines, to people volunteering as Meals on Wheels drivers, to  large amounts of donations to non-profits helping those in greatest need. And we continue to hear new stories of compassion. While it comes as no surprise that our County would step up to a challenge, it is also amazing to see how these selfless actions are tracked on this graph.

Phase 4: Honeymoon

The opening of our drive-thru testing site in mid-April is a perfect example of the Honeymoon Phase, when disaster assistance becomes readily available. This time is “characterized by a dramatic shift in emotion,” when “community bonding occurs.” It is also when optimism peaks and people believe everything will return to normal quickly.

Phase 5: Disillusionment

For some, it may feel like we are in this phase now. This is when “optimism turns to discouragement and stress continues to take a toll.” It might also be a time when “negative reactions, such as physical exhaustion or substance use, may begin to surface.” Constant media bombardment, reporting an increase of new cases after a few days of low numbers, and other triggering events in the news can all greatly impact our ability to recover. This phase can last for months, and it is normal to experience periods of emotional highs and lows throughout. If you are feeling disillusioned, please know that this is a very human reaction, and that there is help available.

Phase 6: Reconstruction

Reconstruction is possible when “individuals and communities begin to assume responsibility for rebuilding their lives, and people adjust to a new normal.” Even still, it is typical to grieve over losses during this phase. While our County is well on its way toward Reconstruction, it is important to give ourselves some grace as we continue on our collective road toward recovery.

SAMHSA lists the following suggestions for coping with a disaster:

1. Talk with others who understand and accept how you feel. Reach out to a trusted friend, family member, or faith-based leader to explore what meaning the event may have for you.

2. Body movement helps to get rid of the buildup of extra stress hormones. Exercise once daily or in smaller amounts throughout the day.

3. Take deep breaths. Most people can benefit from taking several deep breaths often throughout the day. Deep breathing can move stress out of your body and help you to calm yourself. It can even help stop a panic attack.

4. Listen to music. Music is a way to help your body relax naturally. Play music timed to the breath or to your heartbeat. Create a relaxing playlist for yourself and listen to it often.

5. Pay attention to your physical self. Make sure to get enough sleep and rest each day. Eat healthy meals and snacks and make sure to drink plenty of water. Avoid caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol – especially in large amounts. Their effects are multiplied under stress and can be harmful, just making things worse.

6. Use known coping skills. How did you handle past traumatic events like a car crash or the death of a loved one? What helped then (such as more time with family, going to a support group meeting)? Try using those coping skills now.

The impact on our collective, and individual, mental and emotional health cannot be understated or ignored at this time. For some people, recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic will be quick and relatively painless. For others, recovery may need to take place on several levels: emotional, social, economic, and even physical. And while we all must deal with the impacts of the pandemic on our own terms, we must also carry the impact as a community, and learn to rebuild, readjust, and move forward with patience and understanding.

If you are feeling stressed or anxious, depressed or lonely, please know that these are all common reactions to a crisis. The Disaster Distress Helpline is dedicated to providing immediate crisis counseling for people who are experiencing emotional distress related to any natural or human-caused disaster. This service is toll-free, multilingual and confidential. Call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746 to connect with a trained crisis counselor. For more resources click here.

So remember, wherever you may be at on your road to recovery, please know that your feelings are valid—and even backed by science!