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Conversation with Dr Dave Anderson of the Child Mind Institute

Stress management is often talked about, but it’s easy to talk about and sometimes more difficult to manage your stress. In terms of health and well-being, how important is stress management?

Dr Anderson: Stress management is hugely important and made no less important by the fact that this is a situation that none of us have encountered, or at least very, very few people across the world have truly encountered the kind of social distancing or pandemic response measures that are needed to be taken right now.

What a lot of folks don’t realise―and I think you raised two really key points―one is that knowing conceptually how to manage your stress is a lot different from doing it in practice. You know, one of the things we’re happy about as mental health professionals is that we’ve done a good job, I think, over the last maybe half-decade at getting some discussion in the general populace, about some general mental health literacy, about what’s needed for wellness and mental health. That’s out there, and that’s fantastic.

But, at the same time, humans are predictable, in the sense that, once we know something, we figure that knowing is the battle and that’s not really what happens with mental health. Mental health is more like working out, you know, you’ve got to be working the muscles every single day to ensure that, when you really need them you’re in a fairly good place to manage that particular stress.

So, I think the thing we emphasise in a lot of our materials is practical steps that people can take to practise stress management. So, it’s not just knowing that you might be more emotional, it’s monitoring those emotions and trying to figure out at what point they are the most intense and then kind of figuring out what particular behavioural coping strategies you could use, what relaxation strategies you might implement, what mindfulness strategies you might apply and trying to get people to really cultivate a practice. And I think the final piece related to stress management is that we’re really trying to help folks realise that active coping has one role, in the sense that you have a technique that you can use to cope but the major coping strategy during COVID-19 (Coronavirus) is acceptance, it’s undermining your own perfectionism, it’s knowing that there’s going to be some uncertainty that you’re just going to have to tolerate because we don’t necessarily know when life is going to change or return to some semblance of normalcy.

And so, at some level, we’re trying to help people to kind of chunk their wellness steps they’re taking into a few days and say, “OK, I’m going to do this for the next couple of days, that’s going to be my plan”, and then kind of keep on moving forward beyond that.

Listen to the full interview on the IB Voices podcast

So, keeping on with your workout analogy, which I love, if you’re in a gym, it’s pretty clear sometimes what you have to do if you’ve been going for a while, you have reps, there are different machines, how do you know how many reps of coping you need to do?

Right, so, what we start with a lot of the online resources that we create right now, and the kind of daily tips that we have on Child Mind each day, and the Facebook lives that we do twice a day, you know, what we’re starting everybody with is basic wellness strategies that everybody knows but may not have been paying as much attention to for this particular crisis. In the sense that, we want people to start with the basics of sleep, eating, exercise, you know, some level of social contact. And if we can check off some of those boxes we’re already well on our way to managing stress.

So, if we can tell somebody, look, you know, we know that COVID-19 has made all the days run together and it’s almost as if like, even in working from home you don’t know what day of the week it is, there’s nothing to mark time seemingly

What you want to do is stick to some level of structure; you’re not watching every episode of Tiger King on Tuesday night! You’re going to bed at a reasonable hour. You’re getting yourself eight or nine hours of sleep and really trying to kind of start from square one now.

Then it’s the fact that there are lots of families during COVID-19 that are experiencing food insecurity for any number of reasons or their job or financial insecurity is also contributing to worrying if they have enough money for food or essentials.

But you know, if we’re talking about a baseline that a family has enough food to feed themselves, then what we try to help people think of is that basic wellness practice involves eating regularly at a schedule that kind of resembles what would happen if your life had a little more structure―in that, if you were going to work, you’d probably have breakfast before work, you’d probably have lunch around midday, you’d probably have dinner at some point later that evening, hopefully with your family.

And, what we’re watching is that, when people lose that structure, a lot of wellness habits drift. They’re eating at off times, they’re getting more hungry and angry than they need to, they’re not sleeping in cycles that are necessarily good for their circadian rhythm and finally with exercise, I mean, many of us have had the kind of exercise we do really limited at this point. My favourite kind of exercise is playing team sports: I cannot do that right now. I have had to really think about the fact that, although I don’t like running that much, that may be the best thing that I can do right now.

And so, what I think we are tying to make sure is that, if people have those three things down, then we try to think about social relationships. We do inventories with people. We say, “Look, the people that you’re currently socially distancing with, are there aspects of their relationship that can bring you joy, can involve enjoyable activities, can involve fruitful conversations together?” And if not―because we know that many people are socially distancing with family members that they may not love socially distancing with even if they love their family―then we try to think about how they can maintain social contact outside of that through use of digital means.

If we can get those basic wellness practices in place, then we can be surgical. We can say, “OK, then, when are the worst moments?” We know you are structuring your day already, that’s when we might apply additional coping strategies.

For parents, especially in the IB Community, they’re getting a lot of exercise in terms of running around the house, making sure that their children are doing their homework, doing their class work, maybe they’re also balancing one or more jobs and also the usual stuff that happens around the house. Is there any kind of specific advice you might give to parents whose busy lives have just become even busier?

“Mental health is more like working out, you know, you’ve got to be working the muscles every single day to ensure that, when you really need them you’re in a fairly good place to manage that particular stress.”

Of course. I think the first thing is … well, it’s funny because I think all parents would say is that, what you just described, that kind of running around between online schooling, their own work and trying to manage the responsibilities of the household―it’s like living in a foreign country almost for the last month. It’s brain exhaustion but not exercise itself.

We’re hearing a lot about mental-physical exhaustion due to that cycle and we’ve got to be able to plan ahead for that in order to prevent burnout. So, some of the things that we’re saying to parents at the moment is. First, we’re trying to get any parent balancing all those things to realise that the world is a more compassionate place right now than they think. Like, many parents are telling us that their workplace―at some level―is trying to adapt to this with them as a partner, trying to figure out, what’s reasonable, how they can still produce quality work while at the same time balancing what’s going on. So, there’s that, there’s also the fact that this is a new world for school teachers and educators. So, in that sense, sometimes we’ll hear from parents “I can’t believe the school is sending this! I can’t believe that this is what they require!” And we say, “Look, reach out to the school.” They’re in a new world too. It’s not as if there’s so many habits that are defined right now, that they’re going to be that rigid or inflexible. See what you can work with them on in terms of making life easier a little bit.

Then, when we’ve reached out to everybody we can, then it’s back to trying to undermine people’s incredibly high expectations that they have for themselves or sense of perfectionism. We tell parents, if, at the end of the day, you’ve had a few blow ups and you give yourself a B minus, it’s a good COVID-19 day.

When we see parents’ to-do lists and they say, “I want to do these six things for my kids, I want to do these six things for work and I want to do these six things round the house today”, our answer is “Great. Pick one from each list.  You get three, and you get two bonuses, but you don’t get 18.

During COVID-19, we have to forgive ourselves the fact that we are just not as productive, not as efficient. Everything takes longer. There are more things pulling on our attention and on our time.

In many ways we’re just trying to get parents at the end of the day to a place of tolerating the uncertainty, being gentle with themselves and being compassionate with the moments that they felt they failed because they just don’t have all their tools at their disposal and trying to just think for each day, “What’s my priority?” If you’ve got a really tough work day when you’ve got to meet some deadlines or something like that, that means that maybe the kids aren’t going to have the most successful day of online schooling because you weren’t meant to be their teacher. Or, vice versa. And similarly, if those are the two things that you’re juggling right now, and the dishes don’t get done till the morning or you have to yell at your teenager to get them to do it, well, you know, life could be worse.

So, we’re just trying to get people to forgive themselves as much as they can as they kind of round the edges of this crisis.

For parents who do find themselves in that educator role, do you have any tips for specifically supervising home-learning? Especially if it’s their first time.

“We’re just trying to get parents at the end of the day to a place of tolerating the uncertainty, being gentle with themselves and being compassionate with the moments that they felt they failed because they just don’t have all their tools at their disposal”

Some of the things that we’ve talked a lot to parents about in our clinical sessions at this stage are developmental stages of scaffolding.

If they’ve got a child in the younger grades of elementary school, it’s very likely that that person needs someone sitting next to them pretty much the entire day to be able to focus. Now you can get into rhythms, in the sense that you might be able to do your work from home while that child is say engaged in a Zoom class or doing some level of work, but it requires some kind of scaffolding and that’s something that we really have to kind of relax into.

With kids in the middle grades it can depend, I mean, we’re seeing a lot more parents of children who have learning disorders or ADHD related to the level of support that they can provide now that those kids are bereft of the school support services that they would normally have.

And then with many high schoolers, we’re seeing parents just saying “Well, how can I actually monitor the amount of work that they are getting done cause they’re trying to push me out and only do their work in a space where they’re somewhat isolated”.

I think the other thing we’re talking to parents about, related to the school work, is the idea that schools have no interest, at the moment, in taking kids who would have passed the grade if COVID-19 hadn’t happened and now putting them at some risk of promotion or passing because we’re all trying to adapt to a new world of online education.

So, at some level, we’re just trying to get kids to be able to engage at some level with their work, to produce their best effort during whatever ours of the day you’re trying to reserve for their home-schooling. And to really think about, not so much whether they’re doing the best work they would have done pre-COVID-19, but rather, are you guys getting through it without too many big fights,  are they able to produce at some level what their teachers are expecting, and are you then able to take certain portions of the day and make it not school time, in the sense that, even if you have an unsuccessful day at home-schooling, pre-COVID-19 every kid could come home from school and then hopefully have some independent time during the day where perhaps their teacher is not going back over exactly what happened during the school day or what sins they committed, and that’s really important to have some kind of divide like that. So that, as you’re getting to afternoon time, you put some money in the bank in terms of bonding and work completion the next day if you can put school work aside, focus on family relationships and doing something together that is enjoyable and making it so that they kid doesn’t see you only as the teacher-task master at this stage but rather as still being in the role of their supportive parent.

Regardless, and even with all of that said, it is still massively difficult.

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This interview was conducted by Zachary Fernebok, Product Marketing Manager for the Diploma Programme and Career-related Programme at the International Baccalaureate, and one of the hosts of IB Voices. Listen to more stories from students, schools, educators and more on the IB Voices podcast.

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