Blog

Join our clinicians as they share their insights on mental wellness strategies, research, and current events

Calming Back to School Jitters:

 

Alyssa Hedke, MA, LLPC

As the days draw a bit shorter, the end of summer marks the beginning of a new school year. Children prepare by picking out their new backpacks and wait in anticipation for their room assignments, all while soaking up the last of the summer sun.  As parents, we want to send our children out into the new school year feeling prepared, confident, and excited. However, we enter this new school year bringing with us the experiences of managing life during a global pandemic. The changes in routines, family life, and ongoing pandemic continue to affect us all. Your child may be more nervous, anxious, fearful, or unsure compared to years past. Here are 4 ways to help with the new school year jitters.

Talk to your child:

Start by talking with your child!  I know it sounds simple – but it takes purpose and planning to set the time aside and initiate the conversation. Research has shown us that children and youth who discussed the pandemic with their parents were less likely to develop stress, depression, and anxiety symptoms. Many parents try to shelter children from current events, but we know that providing measured and purposeful information helps reduce anxiety. Additionally, children often do not talk about their concerns because of confusion or fear of worrying their loved ones.  Encourage them to verbalize their thoughts and feelings about the new school year and let their questions guide you. It’s important to remember that how we discuss COVID can increase or decrease our children’s’ fears. Don’t avoid giving them information that experts say is crucial to their well-being and staying healthy. You should answer your children truthfully and help them develop their expectations for the school year, routines (e.g., masks or no masks, seating at lunch, what will happen at their school if someone gets sick). However, leave out unnecessary details and unknown factors. It’s also ok to say, ‘I don’t know, but we will work together to figure it out.’ This is a great opportunity for modeling calm in the face of ambiguity, as well as collaborative problem solving. You can be a good listener while providing the love and reassurance your child needs.

During unpredictable times, foster a sense of control:

Before the pandemic, schools were a source of consistency in our children’s lives.  For most families, the 20/21 school year included constant changes which disrupted our daily schedules for months on end.  Keeping your child on a regular schedule provides a sense of control, calm, well-being, and predictability.  We can foster our children’s sense of control this fall by structuring schedules and expectations. First, think about your fall schedule and work with your child to make a daily or weekly calendar. Use blocks of color to represent places of activities to make it as visual as possible.  You may think this would only benefit younger children, but we find it very effective with high schoolers and even college aged ‘kids’.  You may also build concrete expectations to help your children foster a sense of control in their world.  Your children may fear getting sick, quarantining, switching to online learning, or closures.  Using language appropriate for their developmental level, describe their school’s new policies and procedures so they feel prepared for structured changes. Be clear about your household and school’s expectations regarding what your child will be doing to prevent COVID spread and infection.  Remind them about hand washing and other safety precautions – these efforts to mitigate spread might seem so simple, but they work!  Lastly, sit down together and make a list of what is in their control during their day.  When children are able to identify what they are in control of, they feel calmer and more confident!

Fight anxieties with activities:

Since the onset of the pandemic, children have increased their screen time and sedentary behaviors. They are sitting more than they ever have before! Engagement in physical activity is particularly important to help reduce anxiety during stressful periods. Research tells us that youth who regularly engage in physical activity report less stress and have an easier time regulating their moods. As kids resume in person school this fall, provide a physical outlet for their difficult feelings. It can take the form of sports teams, walks around the neighborhood, silly obstacle courses in the yard or living room, or simply tossing a ball around. It doesn’t matter how your child chooses to move, as long as they move! 

Stay vigilant and know the signs: 

Most youth will manage the transition well with the support of their family, even if they show some symptoms of anxiety.  Some youth may be at greater risk of developing mental health challenges and will need more support. If you notice your child has exhibited significant changes in behavior or any of the difficulties listed below, please reach out for more support. Research indicates that kids who receive supports earlier tend to recovery faster and have more stable gains in treatment.  Also, if you want general support in providing your child with the skills to succeed and thrive during these extraordinary times, don’t hesitate to reach out.  Emotional intelligence and regulation is one of the greatest predictors of positive child outcomes. It’s always a good idea to support mental wellness throughout a child’s development.

Clues that more support is needed:

Elementary Age Children– irritability, aggressiveness, clinginess, nightmares or other sleep disruption, school avoidance, poor concentration, stomach issues/headaches/body aches and pains, and withdrawal from activities and friends. 

Adolescents– sleep and eating disturbances, agitation or irritability, increase in conflicts, physical complaints, social withdrawal, poor concentration, and rule breaking/oppositional behavior. 

Together we can provide the skills and supports our kids and teens need to feel healthy and confident during these extraordinary times.

Your Relationship & The Pandemic: Map a Course for Change

Courtney Zullo, MA, LLP

If you are struggling in your relationship, you aren’t alone! During the pandemic, while we have simultaneously been changing roles at home and work, and dealing with constant transitions, stress has come at us from all directions. For many, this stress and disruption has brought to light markers of change they wish to make in their relationships. These markers create a map, guiding movement forward toward a happier, healthier, and more resilient relationship. If we are able to construct, read, and follow this map, it can lead us to a place in our relationship of greater connection, stability, and intimacy.

Map Marker 1: Acceptance

For many, managing life during the pandemic has meant a sharp increase in stress, job change or loss, and never ending changes at work, school and home. Any one of these added stressors to our lives would affect our relationship, let alone all of these at once! So, the first marker we must see on our map to relationship change is acceptance. We must accept that some degree of disruption, conflict, and unmet needs in our relationship is reasonable right now.  When we feel that conflict, distance or disruption is not reasonable, given our circumstances, we attribute the difficulties to our relationship (e.g., “Maybe we just aren’t meant for each other”, “We can’t get through this”). Or, we personalize the difficulties (e.g., “S/He/They Don’t love me anymore,” “S/He/They are such a negative person”, “S/He/They need way more than I can give”). Instead, we must say to ourselves and our partner, “It’s ok that we are fighting, feeling distant, irritable, or angry right now. This is reasonable, so much has happened this year.”   But, we don’t want to rest in acceptance as our only marker on our map to relationship growth and change. We must continue to move forward to gain true relationship connection and peace. We must also know we have the insight and power to change in response to these needs.

Map Marker 2: Shifting Roles

One marker on our map to relationship change may point to our need to investigate how roles have shifted during this pandemic.  Most Americans report shifting roles at work, at home, or in the family in the last 18 months. As our roles in life shift, so do our relationship needs and dynamics. It is important to account for these shifts, and ensure our relationship is shifting to support these new roles. In your new role, or additional role you’ve taken on, what else do you need from your partner? What else can you be giving your partner? The ship always rocks when encountering new waves, but you can find the balance with insight and communication.

Map Marker 3: Old Patterns Emerge

Many couples are realizing that their less helpful or less-than-healthy relationship patterns have been amplified during the pandemic. Many markers on our map of relationship change may actually direct us to recognize and develop insight around relationship patterns that were not serving us before the pandemic, but have unfortunately been pressurized and brought to the forefront. As we feel stressed and overwhelmed, as most have during the pandemic, we fall back on old patterns of reacting, thinking, relating and communicating. We do this quite automatically, often not recognizing the havoc it wreaks on our relationships.  However, we have the power to develop insight around these patterns and get what we want and what we need from our relationship in much more healthy, adaptive, and long-lasting ways. To start the journey of insight, go ahead and fill in the blanks; “When _______ happens, I tend to react by _________, which is actually me trying to get _________ need met. But I don’t think it’s working for me.” From here we can rethink our patterns of relating, communicating, engaging in conflict, sharing emotion, receiving and/or expressing affection.

Map Marker 4: Retell Your Love Story

When I’m first working with a couple, I like to sit down and and ask the couple to share their love story. What brought you both together? What makes you still love your partner today? What I have found is that regardless of why couples enter counseling, every couple has a unique love story worth hearing. Some couples are stuck, some couples are lost, and some couples have been so unhappy for so long that happiness seems unreachable. When stuck in the midst of the storm it seems impossible to see the sun. That’s where exploration and open and honest communication comes into play. This is even more important in our current circumstances, in which stress due to the pandemic has overshadowed our daily lives. Indeed, many of daily reminders of love we often provide have been overwritten by the burdens of the last 18 months.  Perhaps a marker on your relationship change map is to revisit your own love story. Remember and openly discuss what made you fall in love and why. Being in a relationship is a choice each and every day. Openly and honestly discuss what can help you feel love toward your partner, even in small ways, each and every day.

Map Marker 5: Additional Support & Guidance

And finally, there might be a marker on your map of relationship change that leads you right into my office. The pressures and changes of this past year may feel overwhelming to address on your own, and that’s alright.  Seeking couples therapy shows dedication to your relationship. It is a non-judgmental space so you can work to make your marriage or relationship exactly what you want and need it to be; a stronger foundation from which you may build amazing things in your life. After all, the map markers mentioned above are really just a starting place for your journey. With help and support, you can set a course on your map of relationship change that will help you and your partner get exactly where you want to be in life.

Courtney Zullo, MA, LLP

 

Managing Back to Work Anxiety

Dr. Julie Braciszewski PhD, LP

Michiganders are headed back to in-person work this week, and while some are feeling a renewed sense of freedom, others are facing significant anxiety. ‘Back to Work Anxiety’, as some are calling it, is part of the larger experience of ‘Re-Entry Anxiety’. We have been expressly avoiding many situations, interactions, and contexts for over a year to keep ourselves, and others, safe.  However, when we avoid a feared situation, our perception of danger increases, as does our bodily response to this fear. So now, as we venture out into the world, it is reasonable to feel a little wary, or even downright intense anxiety. The closeness of others, enclosed spaces, people touching things… it might all be a bit overwhelming. It’s imperative to highlight what we can do to manage back to work anxiety and make this transition a bit easier.

Evaluate What Has & Has Not Been Working For You

Over the past year we have adjusted to working at home by developing new routines and patterns of life.  Inevitably, some of these changes have brought additional stress. We can make a list of what new routines, situations, or responsibilities are causing more stress, reducing work engagement or satisfaction, and target these for change.  For instance, most people feel like ‘Zoom Zombies’ after a couple of hours of video conferencing. As you go back  to in-person work, specify a time threshold for video conference meetings and work toward shifting to more in-person meetings. However, for some the ability to take a break from work and do household tasks or errands has been a very positive shift while working from home. Additionally, people with families are reporting engaging in more meals together. Perhaps these are things you want to hold on to? Just as importantly as working to address added stressors, make a list of what is bringing more connection, relaxation, balance, and satisfaction and fight to keep those routines in place.

Communicate

This might seem like a no-brainer, but many struggle to really communicate what they need and what they want.  When we are stressed, our ability to communicate often declines further.  This makes the transition back to in-person work a potential black hole for communication.  About 60% of people report already feeling burned out, and are thus less likely to communicate their needs.  Once you’ve sat down and clarified what is working and what is not, translate this into actionable steps. Formulate assertive statements around what you want, why you want it, and how it will actually benefit your team, the business, or your work quality. Communication during this transition will pay off long-term for you and your employer.

Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries

For many, as work moved into their homes, it became difficult to separate work life, home life, and all our other responsibilities/roles in life. Our separate roles no longer fit neatly into their contexts and have compounded stress as we try to meet these intersecting demands. For instance, many people are simultaneously working, facilitating their children’s schooling at home or in a hybrid model, and providing support or care for other family or community members. It’s all a bit much, isn’t it?!? As we shift back to in-person work it’s important to think about boundaries between work and home, and reassess how to be sure you get time to relax, connect, and recharge. When will you NOT be available for work. If you return to in person work, practice putting down your phone, ipad, laptop, ect., and unplugging from work once you are home. If you are returning to a hybrid work model, you might have to work even harder to set your boundaries. Reclaim your home as your sanctuary, reclaim your family and friendship connections without the constant distraction and pull from work, and reclaim your balance.

Get Clear Answers

Returning to work in person is going to result in a lot of ambiguity at first. This will take a lot of planning on employers’ parts and at first, it might be hard to get answers to your questions. However, now is the time to speak up and ask important questions around expectations, policies, flexibility, and work roles. Do you have a firm sense of what the policies are around office safety and sanitizing? Do you have questions around flexibility of work schedules? It’s important you give your employer the opportunity to grapple with these questions at the outset, so that you, in turn, have the opportunity to get what you want and what you need.

Support Your Mental Wellness

The pandemic has caused a mental health crisis of the likes we have never before seen. Usually 15 – 20% of people are experiencing mental health challenges at any given time. But right now, about 40-60% of people are struggling with their mental health, before even contending with back to work anxiety! The importance of this increase in mental health difficulties cannot be overstated. The majority of individuals returning to in-person work are already feeling anxious, depressed, stressed, and burned out. We can not really switch into a ‘full steam ahead’ attitude at work. Instead, we must make room for how mental health is impacting our well-being. Identify what you need to prioritize your mental well-being during this transition. Many are asking to start back in stages, so that they can adjust their household needs, such as childcare, and get used to their new schedule. Should you ask to take walks on your break or lunch? Do you need to shift your work day to address sleep disruption? Can you seek out additional communities out of your office? Groups like recreational sports teams, moms groups, religious meetings, crafting group, sober living group, super-niche-car-guy group, provide connection and positive sense of identity. We can be purposeful in creating our own mental wellness. If you need support, don’t hesitate to reach out to us.

It’s OK To Not Be OK

Be aware that you will have a stress response to this transition. Because mental health IS medical health, you will feel back to work anxiety in your body as well. This may present in the form of headaches, gastro-intestinal distress, body aches, sleep changes and fatigue. Be attentive to this reaction. If your stress reaction, anxiety or mood difficulties are worsening, or have not gone away in a couple of weeks, give yourself the gift of professional support. You deserve it!