Guest Blog: Ginger Aldridge, MA, LPC, LCAS on the Pandemic's Effects on FamiliesFeb 02, 2021 03:42PM ● By Ginger Aldridge
Pandemic-Stressed Relationships: Is Your Family Experiencing a Pandemic Stress Response?
Interpersonal relationships within the family system are complex and challenging. With the emergence of a global pandemic, therapists are observing a significant increase in relationship conflict. As a therapist working with individuals, couples, families and addiction, I fields calls daily about how to manage the emotional rollercoaster of a pandemic stress response showing up in all age groups and family systems.
“We are all familiar with PTSD, but the pandemic and all of the ripple effects are very much in the ‘present’ and producing both acute and chronic stress while PTSD is actually what we refer to as post-traumatic stress. The difference is significant. PTSD is a response ‘after’ the stressor has occurred. Pandemic stress encompasses all of the social challenges impacted by the virus and thus far hasn’t released its grip on the terror it produces under the radar. It isn’t exclusive to gender, age or economics. A pandemic stress response can show up physically, emotionally, spiritually and psychologically. Once upon the individual, the symptoms then appear in relationships.
How to know if your relationship issues are pandemic responses?
If you are sensing more tension in your family, especially when other stressors were already present, you aren’t alone. There are multiple factors that take an added toll on the relationship as well as the family at large. This new ‘abnormal’ normal of existing in daily uncertainty creates underlying instability. This emotional instability then produces anxiety and we often project or displace anxiety in negative or ‘defensive’ ways. Family members are unknowingly reinfecting each other and just passing this anxiety displacement back and forth. Stress displaced shows up as increased family conflict. It isn’t that family members love each other less. It’s simply that the human mind doesn’t do a great job of processing an overload of incoming challenges from so many directions. We then get a lot of ambiguous family conflict that would not have existed pre-pandemic.
Let’s look at the different ways a Pandemic Stress Response present in different age groups. Young children naturally seek out adults to calm fears and reduce anxiety. They also use play and fantasy as a means of coping. In the current chaos of pandemic related environmental conditions, they lose their way because the adult in the child’s life is now coping with added stress and distractions. Not only do they sense that change, their previous outlets of playtime and socialization have shifted leaving them fewer ways to ward off the normal tension of existence. What we are seeing is more irritability and discontentment in the young. This adds more stress to older siblings and to the over-stressed parent or caregiver.
There is a pendulum swing of passing stress back and forth because what upsets the parent, upsets the child and what upsets the child is upsetting to the parent. In families with children ages 12-18 years of age, even greater tension exists. These youngsters have verbal skills, seek to control their environment, have been typically connected to too much social media for distraction. This age group is going through what Eric Ericson refers to as a stage of development called ‘identity development’. In other words, they are in a complex neuroadaptive metamorphosis. And subjective to a very active limbic system dominance. In other words, they are already unstable and the pandemic and related social challenges disrupts their ability to regulate emotion. According to statistics, the CDC reports up to 11% are diagnosed with ADHD, over 7% have a diagnosis of anxiety, and let’s not forget the alarming rising statistic for substance use disorders. Lastly (but should be the headline), middle school aged children watching porn is rapidly growing and is estimated to account for 22 percent of porn consumption by those less than 18 years of age. Click here for full article.
When we have a population of 7th graders admitting they feel addicted to porn, we have to admit to a pre-pandemic crisis. The good news is even with the most severe case of young adult issues; science, research and strategies exist to guide and navigate towards better outcomes - even for the 11 year old addicted to porn. The trending negative coping skills of this age group needed a course correction. While they are now suffering in mass from homebound limitations, it is quite possibly a much-needed reset. They are acting out, complaining and difficult to tame, but in some ways the pandemic stress they are enduring may actually be a blessing where they are introduced to the intimacy of connection. In some ways, this negative connection is still a connection. Pre-pandemic isolation was a growing trend in this age group leaving them more vulnerable for substance use disorders, sexual abuse, and failure to navigate the developmental challenge of identity formation.
Those 18 and older are experiencing challenges for intimacy connection. Social connections have all but disappeared and this family member is experiencing depression and anxiety related to how they see their future. Job, career, travel, essentially anything they had on their life agenda has now been reset to pause. This family member is now feeling confused, frozen and often shutting down or in some cases dissociating. They have difficulty focusing on tasks and others will see them as ‘lazy’ or ‘unmotivated’.
Parents, like their children, have nowhere to turn for perceived safety. The onset of Covid-19 and subsequent outcomes of shutdowns and social chaos combine to form a vague sense of foreboding. Parents who were pre-pandemic healthy, now have new challenges to keep the overloaded system going. Parents, who had fractures in the marriage, now feel an even larger gap how to cope with offspring that are showing increased signs of distress. The big question that exists for most of us is will the world, adults, business, politics, life be normal ever again? The evidence of inconsistency at every turn is a new norm that doesn’t come with directions. Therefore, couples, parents and kids are left with their own sense of uncertainty. About essentially everything.
The unmarried, single individual equally suffers from isolation and any clear path of how to engage with others in a meaningful way. His or her lack of relationship is even more enhanced as dating and socializing norms are skewed. What’s left, and what was emerging prior to the pandemic, are unhealthy dating sites, glam filters, hookups, matches and manic swipes longing for connection only to result in a 20-minute naked exchange of unentangled sex. A very far cry for the longed intimacy of love and authentic connection!
In short, 2021 comes in with a bitch slap of reality and broken promises leaving many of us filled with zombie-like hopelessness. Add in large doses of political upheaval, red versus blue, racial unrest, cities under siege, disrupted work schedules, conspiracy theories, aliens, kids at home, Covid fears, Covid exposures or just downright Covid symptoms and we don’t exactly come out looking sane.
We are thrown back into our homes with our partners and or family members, feeling awkward, scared and completely lacking in verbal skills of ‘I statements’ and boundaries. We come in hot expecting others to ‘fix’, soothe or say the right thing because we are not ok. When that doesn’t happen, our lack of coping skills glisten like light reflecting off a serpent’s fang. We strike with swift actions, in fight or flight often resulting in even more fatigue and depression and wounds left untreated.
This new enhanced Pandemic Stress Response often causes ‘catastrophic thinking’. Our brain overloads with incoming thoughts and feelings that cause an added level of stress responding neurotransmitters to be released into the body. The human body comes equipped for reasonable stress found within the sympathetic nervous system. It manages the emergency systems in our body in order to engage in circumstances that may be perceived as a threat. It is a primal survival mechanism keeping us alert to danger. The body will experience an activation when it becomes alarmed, startled, or in a situation where there may be a threat. What then happens in the body is a shut-down of digestion, increased heart rate, and heightened senses. Some can feel what is considered a ‘rush’ or flush. Some may experience extreme anxiety or a panic attack and may require medication to bring about a change in body function. Left untreated, anxiety, fear, and panic can result in abnormal changes in our immune system. Ulcers, headache, acid reflux, or even greater system breakdowns resulting in heart attack or strokes are often correlated to unmanaged stress. When we don’t ‘think’ good we don’t ‘feel’ good. And when we don’t ‘feel’ good, we aren’t able to discern what we need. Our bodies weren’t designed for such high performance stress endurance that we are faced with today.
Often a simple therapeutic session can help the average individual identify stressors and put a stress response plan in place. In many cases, the Pandemic Stress Response is a gift revealing the deficits in your relationships. Consider using this time to settle in and as uncomfortable as it may sound, allow yourself to sit in your fear. Don’t budge. Don’t move and don’t fight the fear. Let it come in and then calmly, firmly listen. Ask your fear what message it carries. Therapists often ‘hold the space’ for this overload of incoming data and help families benefit, not run, from conflict.
We have to be realistic in where we can actually exert control. We can’t cure Covid or the stock market or address every inaccuracy or action of injustice going on around us. We have to pick and choose. We have a limited reserve of energy and time. What we can do is manage the communication within our family and people we love.
No doubt this is a time that will go down in history. A time headlines will be remembered and stories will be passed to our grandchildren. Together, embracing chaos, we can develop a new roadmap of connection. The good news is that there are going to be beautiful outcomes, every bit as much as a forest fire yields saplings. Let’s embrace the opportunity to course correct. Let’s embrace the ever-pressing reality we were at the brink of losing everything. Today you can choose to embrace the opportunity to manage your own stress response to a global pandemic because you intend to do so.
This pandemic gave us fears unlike any felt before. But it can also give us evidence of our resiliency. And evidence that love, connection and family are at the core of our lives. Respond boldly and confidently to this Pandemic Stress Response and trust there is a silver lining to bringing your family through the storm.
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