Joe D'Ambrosio, PhD
Joe D'Ambrosio, PhD

Physical isolation and social distancing have become the new normal amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and strengthening psychological coping is as important as staying physically well.

“One of the big challenges I see in my clients is the inability to deal with uncertainty. The lack of control over this disease has confronted so many with what little power we have over our lives,” said University of Louisville Trager Institute and Republic Bank Foundation Optimal Aging Clinic Director of Wellness Joseph G. D’Ambrosio, PhD, JD, LMFT, CSW.

D’Ambrosio, who also is an assistant professor in the UofL School of Medicine, says having an understanding of the disease is needed in order to protect ourselves and others, but it also is important to remember “this, too, shall pass, and we will be stronger because of it. Past generations have risen up and used crisis situations to improve the world, and we can do the same.”

He points out that a crisis can present an opportunity to stop and re-evaluate life.

“I find that in times like this, it is important to look introspectively at who we are and how we want to truly live. So many of us live a life that was prescribed by either family, society or our own beliefs about what we should do to be successful – but it may not be allowing us to be as happy or as prosperous as we could, if we were doing what we really wanted,” he said.

He gives advice on jump-starting mental strength that can lead individuals to the future life they truly want:

  • Start a mindfulness practice. Begin by committing to 5 minutes in the morning and 5 minutes at night to silence and contemplation. Increase the time commitment daily so that you are doing at least 20 minutes twice a day. It will help situate you in the world where you can be your best self. There are many free apps such as Insight Timer or Calm that can help.
  • Now is a good time to begin to live a healthy lifestyle. For many that means changing diet to include more fruits and vegetables, and eating less meat and dairy. Work hard to make your body as immune proof as it can be, D’Ambrosio said.
  • Most importantly, have compassion for yourself and those around you. “We forget what a little bit of shared love can do to change ourselves and the world,” D’Ambrosio said.

Parents: Routines give children a sense of safety and security

Children are among those most affected by the new normal, D’Ambrosio said, and when a child experiences uncertainty it increases stress and feeling of helplessness.

“A young child’s brain undergoes constant development as they grow. Routines help the part of a young child’s brain that is able to plan ahead and make predictions about the future. Having routines in place give children the space to feel good about themselves as they know what is coming, and understand that they can accomplish the tasks presented,” he said.

D’Ambrosio encourages parents not to be too rigid if they go off schedule, just confirm that tomorrow you are back on schedule.

“Be kind to yourself and your children. These are stressful times and flexibility may be your biggest ally,” he said.

He offers some important tips for making day-to-day life at home more enjoyable and manageable for both children and parents:

  • Plan a specific time to awake and go to bed, do schoolwork, perform house chores, play, eat, exercise and have family time.
  • Develop a specific time for children to spend by themselves either drawing or reading.
  • Create a bedtime ritual, if you don’t already have one.
  • Work with your children to make pictures or signs for each activity that they can see and count on happening.
  • Be sure to let children know when the next routine is going to happen so that they can be prepared. For example, “we have 15 minutes left of study time so that we can take an exercise break.”
  • Use a dry-erase board or poster to post a daily agenda that includes reading time, playtime, naps, etc.
  • Assign chores to your children. Even children as young as 3 years old enjoy sharing adult responsibilities.
  • When preparing meals, include children in the preparation even if it is something small.
  • Encourage video-chatting with family and friends. Two children drawing together while on a video-chat can be fun and give the children a chance to connect.
  • Help your children to become artists by using old magazines, wrapping paper and mail advertisements to make collages.
  • Encourage independent childhood play time. Parents don’t have to be with kids 24/7, and the separation is a great way to help children differentiate from their parents. That is a skill they will need to get through the rest of their lives, D’Ambrosio said.

Read a Q&A with D’Ambrosio on mental health insights during the COVID-19 pandemic on the UofL Trager Institute blog.