During “ordinary” times, if a loved one is feeling anxious, you would normally suggest they speak to a mental health professional.
However during a pandemic, if healthcare workers can get overwhelmed, most likely mental health counsellors are exhausted too. Hotlines may also be so jammed with calls that it’s difficult to get through.
The coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) has hit everyone hard and many 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 the Covid-19 pandemic differently. Some are more anxious than others. Even within the same family, individuals deal 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 to get anxious from time to time. This emotion can be useful as it keeps you on the alert. However, sometimes a coping mechanism can be flawed which can cause your anxiety to snowball causing overthinking.
How to support an anxious, worried or scared family member
1. Understand that anxiety manifests itself differently in different people
Some individuals act out, are irritable or defensive. Others have sleep disruptions (either sleep too much or insomnia) while others may eat excessively. Some will 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 go online excessively.
2. Listen and empathise
- Try to be non-judgmental. Let go of your 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 empathise 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 them feel safe and open up more to you.
- Silence can be golden, so do not be afraid of it. Being a counsellor, one of the hardest things 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.
3. If there’s something you’re unclear about, ask
Take time to clarify comments if you need to. Remember to stay non-judgmental, 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.
4. Help create a small support group for them
With their permission perhaps you can help them create a small support group. For example, recruit other family members that they are close to. Take turns checking up on your loved one to make sure that their stress levels 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.
5. Try to find the root cause of their anxiety
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.
6. Suggest an activity to help alleviate the stress
Giving support and helping your family member does not have to be directly focused on anxiety. For example, exercise, meditation and yoga helps with anxiety. You can offer to do YouTube yoga or meditation sessions with them.
Finally, remember to take care of yourself and learn to limit the amount of time you spend on supporting others. Take a break if you need to. It is ok to put a limit on the support you give.
Lean Ong is a crisis counsellor, psychologist and emergency responder.