The winter break is almost upon us. A time to get away to see family members, have some adventures, and take a rest from work and school. But - well, there's COVID. Still.
Many of my patients' families are traveling this winter break for the first time since pre-COVID. They are flying, taking trains, and going on road trips - often to meet up with other family members for the holidays. But this is causing kids (and their parents) a lot of anxiety. Despite the availability of vaccines for kids ages five and up, and booster for those ages 16 and up, many of my patients are expressing concern about getting COVID and/or transmitting it to vulnerable relatives over the winter break. And, I am also hearing worries about flying, being away from home, and being separated from parents (for example, when parents go out to a holiday party and leave kids home with a babysitter).
Here are some tips -
Remember that we are out of practice - All of my patients understand the importance of regular exposure to feared situations, whether it be flying, being in public places where there might be germs, or being away from parents or away from home. In the past almost two years, we have not had regular exposure to these situations. Our brains need to be reminded that these situations are safe! So, expect some anxiety -- but know that it will decrease as you practice. For example, flights home are often easier than flights to our destination. And, if parents have two holiday parties in a week, kids will likely have an easier time coping the second time after they see that they coped beautifully the first time.
Remember the science - The Omicron variant, right at the holidays, has thrown everyone for a bit of a loop! It has given many people the feeling that they should cancel plans and retreat back into isolation. But, think about where you are right now compared to this time last year or compared to March 2020 when COVID first hit. Get vaccinated, get your booster if eligible, continue to don those masks (maybe get some fun holiday ones?), socially distance where possible, and try as often as possible to only go to crowded places where vaccines and masks are mandatory for all attendees or where the activity is outside. Find some of the at-home COVID tests and give yourself a check before seeing grandparents. Is there risk? Yes. There is. But, with these precautions in place, the risk is significantly lessened.
Balance COVID rules with rules dictated by anxiety - There is no doubt that masks and hand washing are important to ward off COVID. But, for people prone to anxiety, that worry voice in your head can sneak in and start telling you to do EXTRA. A patient this week told me that she is washing her hands anytime they feel dirty and germy. This means she is listening to her anxiety, not to COVID rules. It probably makes sense right now to wash our hands before eating and once we get home from being out in the world - but extra hand washing is not advisable and will only feed your anxiety.
Put pleasure and fun back in your life - As I mentioned earlier, life is not without risk right now. But, almost two years into this pandemic, it is essential to think about how we can all live a life of meaning and value despite COVID. Have you missed seeing dear relatives or friends? Find a way to have a safe visit. Do you miss going to the movies or concerts? Find events that require masks and vaccines and go have some fun! Have you not been on a date night since March 2020? Plan one - even if it involves putting the kids to bed and having a late dinner with wine and candlelight and nice music. This pandemic has been so hard on mental health and now is the time to start injecting some happiness back into our lives.
I am a licensed psychologist working with kids, teens, and adults with anxiety disorders.