How parents can ease back into mindfulness after many months of intense pandemic anxiety.
The COVID-19 pandemic has tested all of us — from the young to the old, to the sick and the healthy — no one has been un-impacted by the implications of our current global health crisis. And while we have all learned to cope and deal with the lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, mask mandates, travel restrictions, workplace changes and new responsibilities, it has — to put it lightly — not been easy.
One cohort that has been specifically impacted by COVID-19 is new parents. Under normal life circumstances, parenting is difficult enough. After all, caring for newborns and young children is a full-time job. Combined with the unpredictability of the pandemic, many parents have felt overwhelmed, overworked and overtired.
To cope with these feelings, some mothers and fathers have fallen into a state of over-productive anxiety in order to meet the many needs of their families. Unfortunately, while anxiety can be momentarily effective at helping us complete tasks in a timely and efficient manner, long-term anxiety and racing thoughts can be incredibly detrimental to fostering mindfulness and inner peace as a parent.
This is especially concerning considering developing mindfulness as a parent is one of the most effective ways to raise healthy, well-intentioned children. So, how can parents who have developed cognitive distortions as a result of the pandemic return to a state of relaxation and mindfulness post-COVID-19?
A Definition of Cognitive Restructuring
What is cognitive reframing? Simply put, it is a psychological tactic used to help uncover and replace unwanted and untrue thoughts with more realistic, grounded beliefs that encourage mindfulness. In this way, cognitive reframing (also called cognitive restructuring) acts as a tool to combat pandemic-induced distortions — such as magnification, minimization, overgeneralization or polarized thinking.
You may not know the clinical names for these thought patterns, but you have probably engaged with them before. For instance, if you experience magnification, you tend to expand problems in your head and make them out to be more severe than they really are. And while those problems — such as taking care of children during a pandemic — may feel like insurmountable issues to you, the truth is that they are not.
Cognitive reframing can help you break out of destructive thought patterns such as these and look toward a brighter, more peaceful future.
The following are two techniques you can use right now to unlearn your pandemic-related cognitive distortions. The first is a mindset-reframing technique, and the second is a hands-on practice that will help you use cognitive reframing in your everyday life.
Cognitive Reframing Exercise No 1: De-Catastrophizing
If you are a parent experiencing lingering pandemic anxiety, you are probably worried about the many changes that will happen as a result of loosening governmental restrictions and a return to normalcy.
For instance, you might worry that your child will be bullied upon their return to school or maybe you are frightened that they will suffer in class because you are no longer at their side to help them with their schoolwork.
De-catastrophizing is a simple tactic that can help you move past these feelings. How? Simply ask yourself the following question the next time a catastrophic thought enters your mind: “What is the worst thing that can happen?” In doing so, you will come to appreciate that even the worst things — such as your child failing a test in class — are manageable.
Once you understand this, then ask yourself: “What is likely to happen?” Is it even likely that your child will fail that test? You might remember that your child did not fail tests before the pandemic, so it is probably no more likely that they will suffer after the pandemic. In all likelihood, rather than failing, your child is probably more likely to flourish as a result of resuming in-person education.
Asking these questions of yourself is a great way to both prepare for managing a worst-case scenario, as well as reassuring you that the worst-case scenario is not likely to even occur.
Cognitive Reframing Exercise No. 2: Theory A and Theory B
Our next cognitive restructuring technique involves a little homework — get out your pen and paper for this one! Once you have paper and something to write with, list a problem you are facing at the top of the page. It can be about your children, about parenting, or anything else. Now, conduct the following exercise:
- Split the paper into two columns: Theory A on the left and Theory B on the right.
- Once you have done this, use the Theory A section to talk about your problem as if it is a fact. At the bottom of the column, answer the following question: “What must I do if this theory is true?” Write out a list of things you would have to do to complete this problem if it were a fact-based issue.
- Now, use the Theory B section to talk about your problem as a worry instead of the truth. Once again, you should provide evidence that points to the fact that this is a worry-based problem. And, once again, answer the same question at the bottom: “What must I do if this theory is true?” Write out your list once more.
Lastly, compare your two lists. The second is hopefully much more manageable than the first. By reframing the problem as a worry-based issue instead of as fact, it becomes much easier to tackle that problem from the ground up. This is just one way to take problems you are experiencing as a result of the pandemic and make them more manageable by reframing them as easily reducible worries.
The above exercises are designed for anyone to use. With patience and effort, they can easily be transformed into powerful parenting tools that can help you manage the process of rearing children in new and effective ways.
Anthony Cupo is a trained mindfulness facilitator (TMF) from the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. He is a co-owner of Stepping Forward Counseling Center, LLC and has been meditating for over 30 years.