Because the COVID-19 pandemic can be traumatic, young people need to set self-care plans to manage stress and keep their immune systems strong.
Life was good at the beginning of the year for Cayla Lamar, a 17-year-old in her second-to-last year of high school.
“I was getting very in tune with myself and my surroundings, and I just started my new job at Vox in January,” said Cayla, who works as a journalist for Vox Teen Communications, a teen-led non-profit organization in Atlanta, Georgia. “So, it was a very good time for me.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic started spreading in the United States in early March, a hint of things to come for Lamar was the cancellation of her mother’s big trip to Destin, Florida. “I remember that being the pivotal point, like everything changing around me.”
Moving to virtual classes was not a problem for Lamar. But as is the case for so many, she has had to adjust to rapid and dramatic changes. Her older brother moved back home from college, and high school milestones like the annual prom dance were canceled.
“Quarantine has been a blessing, and it’s been very hard at the same time, because, I don’t know, I’ve become more emotional,” Lamar said.
To cope, Lamar is using her time at home to engage in activities that she’s been putting off, like learning French. She writes poetry and a journal. Yoga has been especially important. “Honestly, if I wasn’t doing yoga, I think I would sound completely different,” she said.
Stress during COVID-19 can weaken one’s immune system.
For many teens and adolescents, the COVID-19 pandemic has been hard. The loss of milestones like graduation and the inability to hang out with friends can stir disappointment. Sheltering at home can be challenging, distressing and even traumatic. Teenagers need to connect with friends to develop, and loneliness in adolescence can lead to problems in young adulthood.
Self-care — activities that nurture physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health — is crucial for teens and can help alleviate stress during the COVID-19 pandemic and over the long term.
“If we don’t learn how to manage ourselves, how are you going to get through this?” asked Dr. Portia Preston-Jackson, a public health professor at California State University in Fullerton. “Because this is definitely a marathon. This is not a sprint.”
Like natural disasters and terrorist events, COVID-19 is a mass trauma that can trigger post-traumatic stress syndrome, depression and anxiety among survivors. But the pandemic is different from previous mass trauma events because it is not clear when it will end, Jackson-Preston said.
To keep strong during COVID-19 and after, one must manage stress, Jackson-Preston said. “We don’t want to chronically activate our stress response system. We want to manage our stress as much as possible. We don’t want to have high cortisol levels. We don’t want to risk the strength of our immune system.”
Stress can produce high, sustained levels of cortisol, weakening our immune system. Healthy coping mechanisms can strengthen one’s immune system.
Develop a self-care plan.
Lamar was counting on going to her best friend’s prom, but the dance and other plans have been canceled, leaving her alone with her emotions. “I’m not really a person to openly cry,” she said, adding that the pandemic has “really made me open myself up more.”
Expressing emotions openly and acknowledging a sense of loss are critical first steps in self-care, Jackson-Preston said. “I know many people are reluctant to let on how this is affecting them, but you can write your feelings in a journal if you don’t feel comfortable speaking to others,” she said in an email.
Quarantining does not have to be distressing and boring. Teen-recommended self-care activities include keeping a healthy sleep schedule, cooking and eating tasty, nutritious food, limiting the consumption of COVID-19-related news, taking daily walks, sticking your head outside a window for sunshine and fresh air, meditating and experimenting with a new activity that you have been meaning to do.
Lamar says she has been using the time to study a new language, “I’ve always wanted to know two languages. So, I’m a little bit fluent in French now, but by the end of quarantine I plan to be fully fluent, and that really motivates me to get up and start, you know, to get my body moving.”
Keep your mind busy and at times off of COVID-19.
For Cara Horcha, a 19-year-old emergency medical technician and nursing student, self-care is different because she is a healthcare worker and has to work to survive. “I have bills. I have to pay my tuition. My unemployment never went through. So I didn’t have a choice.”
Horcha works at an assisted living facility in Brighton, Michigan, caring for senior patients — bathing, dressing and feeding them, and doing their laundry and cleaning. “I go to work every day, and I protect myself. I don’t think it’s a safe environment to be in, but you do what you have to do.”
Horcha is careful to protect herself and others from the spread of the virus and to get enough sleep. When she returns home from work, “I leave my shoes outside, I go inside and I put my scrubs, everything I had on that day, in the washer, and I immediately wash it. I go shower, and then I usually go to bed to stay sane. I’ve just been working and going to school and sleeping a lot.”
Horcha says nursing classes have helped her stay busy on days off from work. “I feel like when I’m busy, I can just keep my mind on other things and not worry.”
Learn what makes you happy.
Jackson-Preston recommends that teens create a self-care plan by tapping into resources at the University of Buffalo School of Social Work, which recommends ways to maintain self-care and to deal with crises.
Her students completed self-care plans at the beginning of the semester and have revised them to adapt to the pandemic. “Whether they are exercising at home, or using a planner to organize their time and prioritize their tasks, students report that they feel empowered to have a plan they can set in motion when so much of life feels unpredictable,” Jackson-Preston said.
Because each person’s self-care needs and resources are unique, Lamar encourages peers to avoid comparing their experiences during the pandemic. “Somebody may seem to be having a great time in isolation on social media, but that does not mean that we are all keeping it together,” she said.
“Do not compare yourself, learn what makes you happy, find the things that make you happy, because if you do, when you keep seeking that, by the time you get out of quarantine, bro, you’re going to be amazing.”
Akilah Wise is a fellow in global journalism at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. She is a freelance writer from Atlanta, Georgia, and holds a PhD from the University of Michigan School of Public Health, where she focused on structural inequality and reproductive health.