“Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” goes the old saying. So what do you do during a global pandemic, when everyone’s around, all the time?
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“Families are going to get on each other’s nerves. That’s the reality,” says clinical psychologist Adam Borland, PsyD. “And you may not be able to change your spouse’s or sibling’s behavior. But you can focus on changing your own.”
In this Q&A, Dr. Borland gives advice on surviving and thriving with family during the COVID-19 crisis.
Q. Is there such a thing as too much time with family?
A. The short answer is yes. But saying you’re spending too much time with family is not the healthiest way to approach it. I’ve been working on reframing this idea with my patients. None of us wants to be in this situation, but it’s the hand we’ve been dealt. So how do we manage this unexpected time together?
As much as we love spending time with our family, we all need a little space, pandemic or not. Rising COVID-19 numbers and the idea of being cooped up for the next five or six months only add fear and anxiety. And on top of all that, many people have seasonal depression this time of year.
Q. What are some ways to deal with family burnout during the COVID-19 pandemic?
A. Be transparent about what you need. While it’s wonderful to have family karaoke nights, it’s also important to get space when you need it. And that’s where communication comes in.
I recommend people use “I” statements when telling others how they feel: “I am feeling frustrated.” “I am worried about this.” Often, communicating your feelings can come across like finger-pointing: “You are getting on my nerves.” “You are not giving me the space that I need.” But with “I” statements, you take ownership of your feelings. And hopefully, the other person will be more willing to listen to that message.
If they’re not, you can still take the opportunity to listen to them as they share their concerns and frustrations. You want to clear the air as best you can because you’re living in tight quarters. And again, we’re dealing with something that’s still foreign to all of us.
Q. What behaviors should I be concerned about?
A. We need to pay attention if family members are showing signs of depression and anxiety. It’s easy to feel zapped of energy and restless when the days are shorter. You may even occasionally feel like crawling back into bed. But monitor those types of behaviors. Look out for red flags such as weight or appetite changes or a lack of interest in any activity.
Anxiety rates have spiked with children as they return to school as well. And social distancing has been difficult for them. There are so many things that can contribute to stress, anxiety and low mood. And this year, COVID-19 has intensified those symptoms.
Communication is critical. So if you or a family member is having trouble managing these things, reach out to family, friends or a mental health professional for help and support. If you already have a therapist or psychiatrist, you may want to discuss readdressing medications as well.
Q. What can we do as a family during quarantine?
A. Here are some more ideas for fun family time:
- Movie night.
- Cooking project.
- Card and board games.
You can even take a mundane activity and make it an event, such as eating dinner by candlelight.
It’s also about balancing self-care — minus the guilt — and doing for others. That’s something I’ve been working on with a lot of my patients, especially parents. Make sure you’re prioritizing self-care in addition to family time.
Q. What are some ways I can practice self-care at home?
A. Some great self-care habits:
- Practice meditation and deep breathing.
- Use a light therapy box.
- Have a consistent sleep schedule and daily routine.
- Eat healthy and reduce sugar intake (“During the winter months, we tend to want to carb load more than usual.”)
- Enjoy stress-relieving hobbies, such as painting, cooking or anything where you work with your hands.
Setting small, realistic goals is also helpful. For instance, you may want to use your extra time to tackle cleaning the basement. But then you get down there, and it’s just so overwhelming. Instead of giving up, tackle one corner or shelf. Achieving your goal will give you a sense of accomplishment.
We all have things that just hang over our heads. And during these months when we’re stuck inside, that list may grow. But with small goals, you can focus on positives instead of negatives.