The state of the country, with the relentless coronavirus pandemic, political turmoil and social unrest, has left people of all ages feeling anxious, stressed and depressed.
In June, adults across the nation reported considerably elevated adverse mental health conditions associated with Covid-19, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms of anxiety and depression increased nationwide between April and June, compared with the same period the year prior. About 40 percent overall reported “at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition.”
The CDC report suggests, though, that community-level intervention and prevention efforts could help address a number of mental health conditions.
The Baldwin Council of Parent Teacher Associations, in collaboration with the Baldwin School District, hosted a Zoom webinar on Nov. 9 at which psychiatrist Dr. Caryl Oris spoke with parents about the effects of stress and anxiety on the body. The interactive Parent Academy Workshop, titled “Persevering and Moving Forward in Challenging Times,” also highlighted ways to cope.
“Tonight’s event is super-relevant with everything that all of us — all community members, all ages — are experiencing,” Baldwin Middle School Principal Andrew DiNapoli said, adding that Oris would share useful tools to help manage stress and anxiety.
“Stress really does cloud our thinking,” Oris said. “This is what many of us continue to go through, not just as a result of the pandemic, but the political, social unrest, and the persistent injustices that permeate each day of our lives . . . Food instability, financial instability, job uncertainty are contributing to the stressors we have in our homes.”
These stressors, especially as so many people have been impacted by illness, family member deaths, fear of becoming ill and the loss of a normal way of life, can inhibit a child’s ability to learn, Oris, a child and adolescent psychiatrist who consults with the district, explained. Many people these days are experiencing sleep difficulties, lack of motivation and lack of joy.
An almond-shaped portion of the brain, called the amygdala, is responsible for the “fight or flight” feeling one gets when feeling threatened, she continued. Chemicals are then sent to the brain and the rest of the body, causing adrenaline and cortisol to be released.
“Once you release this, a lot of stuff happens,” Oris said. “You start breathing quickly, your blood pressure rises, blood is shunted to the muscles of your body, so if you have to run, you can run fast.”
Then when the threat goes away, the body calms down. “But what happens when stress does not go away? This is really what we’re dealing with now in many ways — stress that does not go away.”
If high levels of cortisol and adrenaline continue to pump through your bloodstream, you can become very ill. Cortisol, Oris said, can compromise the immune system, make people more vulnerable to disease and increase our insulin levels, which often leads to weight gain. Adrenaline, on the other hand, can damage blood vessels, increase blood pressure and increase the risk of hypertension, cardiovascular disease and heart attacks.
In these ways, stress, anxiety and trauma affect not only mental health, but also physical health, too, Oris said, adding that it’s important for children to have parents or guardians who can buffer the effects of trauma.
“It’s very, very important to take very deliberate efforts in order to combat stress because if you don’t, nothing else will,” Oris said. “Nothing else will really help other than the deliberate things you, yourself, can do for yourself to help you get out of it.”
While the sympathetic nervous system revs up the body, she continued, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over when one calms down. Exhaling, for example, can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system.
“That’s why techniques of breathing that we teach our students all the time can be extraordinarily helpful in calming down their bodies, calming down their amygdalas so they’re not triggered anymore by the stress around them,” Oris said. “That’s why things like mindfulness and meditation . . . as well as breathing exercises, movement exercises . . . do work, and that’s one of the reasons why schools, more and more, are implementing those types of strategies in school.”
Oris recommended creating schedules for children to stick to, which can create feelings of certainty, and having open, honest conversations about emotions.
District parent Nicole Clay, who has two elementary-age children, said she knew her children would experience some social issues this year because of the circumstances. “I don’t think I was prepared for how different their personalities would change because of the social — or the non-socializing — with their friends,” Clay said. “How can I help them through this?”
“Definitely give them affirmation for the way they’re feeling,” Oris said. “Let them know that they are not alone, that there are so many children who are experiencing the same feelings as they are, which, in some ways, can be helpful because they know that it’s not because of them — it’s not because of something they did or they’re responsible for.”
She recommended engaging in outdoor activities or virtual collaborations, such as virtual classes being offered by museums like the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution, because children like to see and interact with other children.
District parent Brigitte McMillan, who has a child in the fourth grade and one in high school, asked how to address sibling rivalry.
“I’m a big believer in empowerment. Make them feel confident, strong and competent,” Oris said, suggesting having the children collaborate on a project, such as writing movie reviews or book reviews — anything that causes them to share a common purpose.
Oris also said it’s important to look past the mental health stigma and seek professional help if certain techniques are not helping.