We are in week 3 of social isolation and school cancellations here in Ontario. I hosted a ‘google meet’ with my students in my stress management workshops yesterday. I know, along with the fear of the actual COVID-19, many of them are worried about the consequences of the world seemingly grinding to a halt. Some kids are anxious about parents who have been laid off. They worry that they may not have enough money to buy groceries or pay rent. They worry about when they will see their friends again, and about the impacts of not being at school.
As a response to these very legitimate fears, we did an exercise meant to help them examine their anxiety through a more logical lens.
First, I had them write down everything that was worrying or stressing them right now. Then I asked students to sort these things into 2 lists:
Things I control
Things I do not control
I had them choose one of the things they do not control (as they are typically more stressed about this list) and write down their worst imagined outcome. For example:
A fear I do not control; my parents can’t work right now.
Worst possible outcome:
We won’t be able to buy groceries
We won’t be able to pay rent
We will be homeless and starve
Granted, this looks pretty bleak, but it is vital to dig down and express everything scary and troubling because they are carrying it around inside regardless. Putting it into words makes it more concrete. Concrete things are easier to deal with than amorphous boogeymen.
Next, I had them write the best possible outcome; if they had a magic wand, what would they wish for?
We would win a lottery
No more money issues
The COVID-19 virus would disappear
After this, we went through each bullet point and challenged its likelihood (which is more comfortable when it is on paper rather than lurking in the heart/mind).
How likely is this to occur? Why, why not?
This can be difficult for young people to do all on their own, so having a little help in the form of devil’s advocate may be needed. They can poke holes in their fantasies pretty quickly (and that is a place we sometimes hide from our fears). Poking holes in their concerns is more complicated. In this scenario, it is essential to point out that in Canada, the government is aware of the economic strain that many families are under. This isn’t because they are simply kind-hearted people, but because they are in charge of making sure the country and its economy continue to function. Politicians risk losing their jobs if they don’t put some measures into place to protect people and the economy. They are pursuing solutions such as proposed rent relief, reduced wait times and increased payments for unemployment insurance, subsidies, etc..
The final step involves finding a middle ground between fantasy and worst fear. This is a likely outcome. It is also a bit easier to live with and a good thing for students to come back to when the fear grips them again. Having it written down on paper can serve as a visual reminder that even fear is subject to logic. Reality is more complicated than merely being bleak and that we are all interconnected. Funny, it always comes back to connection, doesn’t it?