Family stress and wellbeing during the pandemic

It’s okay to feel worried and frustrated by the pandemic – those feelings are part of the normal stress response to this situation. The stress response is designed to protect us from things that might hurt us. It’s the same system that would tell us to run from a bear or to feel excited on a rollercoaster! But when we feel stressed for long periods of time, it can drain our physical and emotional batteries. Many families are finding it particularly difficult to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are some resources for understanding your and your child’s stress and some tips for recharging your batteries. The Guelph Family Health Study team can’t wait until it’s safe enough to see you again in person and you can tell us about all the new things you tried!

wellbeing and stress infograph

If you would like to reach out to experts for help, here are some resources for you and your family:

  • Homewood Health Centre: call 1-844-309-3629 for immediate help
  • Here 24/7: call 1-844-HERE-247 (437-3247) or 519-821-3582 for immediate help
  • 24/7 support for kids available from Kids Help Phone: call 1-800-668-6868 from a phone or computer, or Text CONNECT to 686868 for immediate help

What is stress, and why do I feel this way?

The stress response acts like a fire alarm to alert your body to the potential of danger and to prepare you to overcome the threat. A cascade of hormones is sent throughout the body to improve “fight or flight” performance, and it can take a while for the body to reset to normal. Problems develop when our stress response is activated too often and the body has trouble resetting to normal.

During times of chronic stress, you may experience several behavioural and physical symptoms. Some common signs include feeling overwhelmed, trouble sleeping, low energy, headaches, irritability, upset stomach, and changes in appetite. Over time, chronic stress can contribute to anxiety, depression, and chronic diseases. To avoid or better manage these symptoms, it is important to develop skills to calm the stress system and support your body’s physical needs.

  • Guelph Family Health Team virtual workshop webinars on stress, calming strategies, sleeping better, parenting during COVID-19 – and more!
  • BounceBack®: a free cognitive-behavioural therapy-based skill-building program managed by the Canadian Mental Health Association designed to help adults and youth 15+ manage low mood, mild to moderate depression and anxiety, stress or worry. Delivered over the phone with a coach and through online videos, you will get access to tools that will support you on your path to mental wellness.
  • More resources from the Canadian Mental Health Association listed here, including some specific to parents with young kids
  • This Conversation article: Science-based strategies to cope with coronavirus anxiety

How can I help my child develop stress management skills?

Signs and symptoms of stress in your child may not be easy to recognize. Some kids may show behavioural signs like mood swings, acting out, change sleep patterns, and may even wet the bed. Young children may also develop new habits like thumb sucking, hair twirling, or nose picking. Physical signs include stomach aches and headaches. A stressed child may overreact to small problems, have nightmares, want to be left alone, demand more attention, or have difficulties with schoolwork.

Here are some resources to help you and your child manage these feelings together:

What strategies can I incorporate into my everyday life to recharge my batteries?

Look after you! It’s difficult to support others without first taking care of yourself; just like in an airplane, make sure your oxygen mask is on first before you can help others. Devote some time to addressing your own feelings and supporting your whole-body wellness. Small actions like going for a walk, getting enough sleep, and choosing healthful snacks can add up to big impacts on your wellbeing. Set realistic expectations by focusing on the high priority items on your to-do list and be easy on yourself about the rest. Like all things, this pandemic shall eventually pass.

Keep to regular routines as much as possible, or create new routines that include time for learning, playing, and relaxing. Coping with unpredictable periods of time can feel more manageable when we have some structured routines and everyone knows what is expected of them. Routines are also linked with improved sleep quality! Get your children involved in establishing your family routines and provide reasons for rules to help children understand their importance and increase their effectiveness. Allow room for children to make their own choices when possible, such as which chores from a list they would prefer to do. For parents working from home, here are some additional tips to minimize stress. 

Have fun where you can! Routines are important, but there are still lots of ways to mix things up and make a day special with minimal effort and no cost. Try “backwards day” with your family by having dinner for breakfast and breakfast for dinner! Or, break out the Halloween costumes or fancy outfits for an extra special dinner! Find a zoo’s exhibit livestream and have a tea party with your favourite animals!

Stay connected to your support networks. Physical distancing may change what activities we are used to doing with our friends and family, but it is important to maintain connections with the people who help you feel supported, listened to, and loved. Phone calls, virtual coffee hours or virtual playdates, and online parenting groups are great ways to stay connected.

Try unplugging! It’s important to be aware of current events and updates from Public Health, but spending too much time watching the news or on social media can wear you out. During the stress response, the brain has a heightened drive to seek out new information to better understand and overcome the challenge at hand; social media and the news can add fuel to this fire and worsen feelings of anxiety. Try to limit your media exposure to 20 minutes or so, once or twice a day, and only from trusted sources. Consider turning off nonessential notifications.

Keep moving! Physical activity is especially good for stressed bodies because movement releases endorphins, a group of hormones that promote happiness and relaxation. Any intensity of activity is good, and there are many free home workout guides available online to help you get started.

Check-in with yourself. Use the GFHS wellness worksheet or another self-care worksheet to take inventory of your feelings and identify strategies to build into your daily routines to promote whole-body wellness. Little acts of self-care add up!