Health Anxiety in a Season of Sickness

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In this era, we can’t go a week without hearing about COVID, and those of us parents with younger kids can’t seem to go that long without malady getting into our home.

In this season of seemingly ceaseless sickness, how can we, as parents, keep our children healthy? How can we keep ourselves healthy when our children are constantly picking up some new contagion? And how can we avoid anxiety and germaphobia in ourselves and children while raising them in a historical pandemic?  

Our first child was born right at the beginning of the pandemic, and raising her in these unexpected and unfamiliar circumstances has us feeling angry, lost, confused, bitter, and afraid. Nothing has looked how we expected. She was originally supposed to begin daycare at the beginning of March 2020, but after hearing about SARS-CoV-2 in China, we delayed and delayed and delayed, at the expense of our mental health.

When it finally became clear that this pandemic wasn’t going away, we started her in school. We had to. We spent that first week feeling perpetually afraid and guilty. Did we make the right choice? Our daycare did great, of course, with no recorded cases of COVID spread even through now (August 2021), but even the most careful places are not germ-free bubbles. 

Fast forward a little, and we have entered our daughter’s first flu season. We managed to avoid the flu, but she began bringing home various colds and sniffles regularly. Planning and replanning childcare around this was a full-time job and took up all our free mental and emotional capacity.

My daughter’s first ear infection came not too long after, and the night of her 104° fever traumatized me as a mother. Her fearful cry in the dark woke me, and I instantly knew something was off. When I picked her up and pressed her hot skin to mine, my heart fell from my chest. The mental image of her sweaty forehead, red cheeks, and sad eyes is burned into my brain. Now any little fever sends me into a spiral.  

When she picked up Hand Foot and Mouth disease from another child, we had to quarantine for a week with no childcare and many work deadlines. My mental health sank that week. I remember having my daughter off-and-on and off-and-on my lap during a work Zoom meeting. Maybe about 20% of the time, it went OK. The other 80% was filled with either an accidental mute as I talked pointlessly, me reaching right out of frame to throw various sources of entertainment at my toddler, or a banshee scream-cry filling the microphone as a toy flew at my head. The call was cut short due to frustration by the other party, and I sobbed after, afraid for my job, my future, and my ability as a mother. 

Your family will inevitably get sick. It’s impossible to avoid. But, that does not make you a bad parent; you care and are doing all that you can. In the midst of sickness, it helps me to remember that most of these colds and flus are building up my child’s immune system.  But still, how can I minimize these episodes of infirmity*? 

*These are general health recommendations based on personal experiences and NOT medical advice. Further, these may not work for more extreme cases of worry or health anxiety. Please reach out to a therapist/professional if you feel you are suffering.  

Tips to Keep Your Family Healthy

Minimize Outings With Large Crowds

This is easier said than done, I know. Especially with busy children. But avoiding large crowds isn’t only a good idea during a pandemic. Flu season comes every year, and indoor parties with communal food are it’s favorite.   

Take Precautions 

When I was pregnant, I imagined dropping my small baby off for her first day of daycare, happily taking pictures, and returning to work with a new expanded identity. Instead, drop-off was marred by a mask over my face with my infant daughter unable to recognize me. As sad as it was, we have grown used to packing protective equipment. Our diaper bag is always loaded with a mask, hand sanitizer, wipes, and a car seat cover. (Tip – a car seat cover ensures that only invited people can peek behind the curtain and access/potentially touch and breath on the baby.)  

Learn to Say No

Leave the people-pleasing for your old self. The one (and probably only thing) that has gotten easier as a parent is my ability to say no. I have grown into a better advocate for myself and my child. If someone I know has been exposed to sickness and is going to a gathering, I will decline the invitation. If someone who has not washed their hands wants to pick up my child, I will ask them to wash or sanitize first. If someone is visibly ill, I will wish them well while also expressing that I am not comfortable being near them.   

Build Healthy Habits 

One way to prevent sickness is to develop daily healthy habits. Wash your hands often, eat your fruits and vegetables, exercise, and get outside. A healthy and properly-trained body can fight off those pesky viral invaders much better than one lacking nutrition or proper care.  

Don’t Keep Your Child in the Dark

Wearing masks and avoiding outings is not the norm for most of us; for pandemic babies, this is all they’ve known. But older children have noticed the switch in our habits. And it can be scary. Avoiding an explanation of why society has changed allows the child’s imagination to run wild, especially if they overhear someone else angry, sad, or afraid about the ongoing pandemic. It’s important to give an age-appropriate explanation of what germs are, and how we (parents/guardians/adults) are working to protect them (the child)

Be (Relatively) Honest 

It’s OK to let our children know we are also scared about getting sick, or that we are sad, tired, and unwell when we get sick too. It’s important to let them know they aren’t alone in their feelings. 

COVID, the flu, and even seasonal allergies will all affect you mentally long before foreign invaders even have a chance to enter your body. And it is important to protect ourselves in that capacity as well as physically.

Here Are a Few Things to Do to Care For Yourself:

Build a Support System

Find other parents in the same season of life, who might have similar fears and circumstances as you. They will be a great sounding board, to unload the troubles and fears of the day, and to get feedback that will leave you feeling less alone. 

Find What Makes You Happy

Find something that makes you truly happy and invested. A busy mind is as important as an active body. When the mind is stagnant, we tend to explore inwards into it, and that is where most fears live and grow. 

Build Hope 

Step away from the news or social media if you feel it clouding your mind with fear or feelings of inadequacy or despair. Taking a break every now and then will not immerse you in ignorance. But obsessing over every update (Will school close again? My child’s BFF has the flu; are we next? Can an ear infection last forever?) will leave you drowning in worry. 

Look to Your Children 

Your children can, in many instances, give you all of the above. They relate to our fears more often than we think. They give us such happiness, as well as headaches. And despite also seeing the world as a hugely confusing, vast, scary, unknown place, they are full of hope and positivity, and (pardon the cheap metaphor) that’s as contagious as any virus. 

Most every parent strives to give their kids the gift of a carefree childhood, but that’s not easy when every outing is a perceived risk. How do we minimize risk without sacrificing the special moments from these formative years? How can we live near-normally while being responsible?

This is an answer all parents are seeking now, and I won’t pretend to have the ever-elusive answer in this article. If there is an answer, it will likely be different for each of us. But what is important is that we share our experiences, even our fearful ones, openly with our family. May it strengthen our immune system and our bond with our loved ones.

What is one thing you can do today to decrease your own or your family’s worry about being unwell?

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Hi, I’m Dani! I’m an engineer turned clinical research scientist. My husband and I met through our mutual love of all things nerdy. We married in 2017 and recently started growing our family. Our first child was born three days into the start of the new decade. Just as we were ready to start bringing her out into the world, the pandemic hit. Finding communities online has been the perfect way for me to feel less alone in new motherhood and the wonderful, emotional, exhausting, and sometimes terrifying experiences that come with it. Columbia Mom =was one of these communities. In April 2021, I joined as a contributor. I will use my background in engineering and science to provide unique activities that I hope you and your children will love. I believe in honestly sharing the “good, bad, funny, frustrating, beautiful, and messy” parts of our new parenthood journey, so in this little corner of the internet, you might relate to something and feel connected and empowered.

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