As the pandemic wears on and the vaccine rollout feels agonizingly slow, some are running low on hope. Adults are struggling with anxiety and depression at alarming rates. For example, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found a tripling of anxiety symptoms and a quadrupling of depression among adults compared with a 2019 sample.

Kids’ mental health has also suffered during COVID-19 lockdowns. Since March, 2020, at least 14% of parents report worsening behavioral health for their children, and children are experiencing more negative daily moods than they were before.

Studies have found significantly higher rates of suicide-related behaviors corresponding to COVID-19 stressors and community responses (e.g. stay-at-home orders and school closures). Extreme isolation, loss of normalcy, and severe stressors (such as job loss or illness) are taking a toll.

While feeling low, anxious, or depressed may be common during this challenging time, research points to some ways to build hope, or, more specifically, a “hope mindset.” Hope can be described as “the desire for, expectation for, or trust in a valued future.”

Here are 3 practical, research-based ways to build hope during this challenging time:

1. Spend time anticipating.

Research suggests that people derive value from anticipation, and that value tends to be greater for experiential activities than material purchases. On Sunday night, answer the question, “What are you looking forward to this week?” with a few concrete activities. Identify experiences that you will savor, whether ice skating, zooming with Grandma, walking around a nearby town, watching your favorite feel-good movie or sports game, going for a run, or baking something new. Put at least three positive activities on your calendar or list (make a visual).

2. Spend time being grateful.

Researchers have found that gratitude predicts both hope and happiness. At dinner, have each person describe something they are thankful for. Write things you’re thankful for in a journal with your child before going to sleep. Do something kind for the “helpers,” or people who have served during the pandemic. Model gratitude by thanking others often (Thanks for checking out my groceries.” “Thanks for bringing out my library books.” “Thanks for making this coffee.”)

3. Spend time with optimistic people.

It is often said that “optimism is half of hope.” Surround yourself with optimistic people, because studies on “social contagion” suggest that happiness, (including optimism and hope), are contagious.  One fascinating study shows that clusters of happy and unhappy people are visible in a network. People who are surrounded by many happy people and those central to the network are more likely to become happy in the future. Longitudinal statistical models suggest that clusters of happiness result from the spread of happiness and not just a tendency for people to associate with similar individuals.

As the pandemic continues, simple, doable steps (like the ones listed above) can help fuel a shift to a more positive state of mind.

Parts of this blog post have been excerpted from the book Joy Fixes for Weary Parents, by Erin Leyba, LCSW, PhD.

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