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Managing Poisonous Thoughts during Covid-19 and anytime

Updated: Mar 20, 2020

I originally planned to write this post I was going to continue along my current theme of managing anger. But right at the moment the world is in a state of anxiety with Covid-19 constantly on every news feed and in what seems like every conversation. Even as I walk down the street all I can hear from the people around me is Covid-19, or the fact that here in Australia people have bought out the stores of toilet paper, paper towel, soap and hand sanitiser. We are living in fear. Nothing good can come from living in fear. Fear and anxiety will only suppress our immune systems making us more susceptible to the very illness that has started this. Fear impacts on our relationships and our ability to make rational decisions. Of course, Covid-19 is serious, I'm not saying we should be complacent. I understand that while most people will be fine, it can drastically impact on the vulnerable. This then puts a strain on our health system which then potentially puts us all at risk. On top of this is the ripple effect that continues to impact businesses, people's incomes, child care and the economy in general. So I get it. These are hard times, but we don't have to make it worse by accepting fearful and unhelpful thoughts.

With all this going on around us, it is no wonder that children are becoming more anxious and reactive. Their usual routine at school has been completely turned upside down. Their assemblies, excursions and normal play has been cancelled. They can't touch or be close to someone else. While this is for their safety, it is going to impact their well being.

Earlier this week I put a post on social media explaining how to talk to your children about Covid-19. We need to be honest with our kids giving them enough information to help without overwhelming them. You need to be the source of their information for your kids, otherwise they will make their own conclusions from media hype.

1. They are safe: Start with the fact that children are safe. Even though this virus is sweeping through the world, children have remained virtually symptom free. It is important for children to understand and be confident that they are okay.

2. We are being kind: kids are being told to wash their hands more, use hand sanitisers, keep a distance, don't hug or high five, and cough into their elbows. All of these are good hygiene but the sudden focus can be scary and annoying for kids. Who wants to wash their hands when they could be playing?

We need to explain that there are people that are not able to get over sickness as easily as others. Some people are already sick or older and that can make Covid-19 very serious for them. When we take our time to wash our hands etc we are being kind to those people.

3. Give them hope: there are experts from all over the world working on a cure. Breakthroughs are being made daily. Scientists already know a lot about this virus. It is only a matter of time before we have a treatment.

With all of this unrest it is not surprising that children and adults are overwhelmed with unhelpful thinking. Thankfully the technique that I wanted to show can be used to help with any unhelpful thoughts, in this current crisis and any time.

Unhelpful/poisonous thoughts

When I talk to children about "unhelpful" thoughts, or as Dr Tony Attwood calls them, "poisonous thoughts". I explain that these thoughts are any thought that makes you feel "not good". They could make you feel sad, angry, frustrated, annoyed etc. This is a simple Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) approach. The premise behind this is that there is a relationship between thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Our thoughts can trigger feelings which then changes our behaviour.

Start by working out what their thoughts could be. You might need to work backwards from a situation. For example, "you punched your brother because he took your toy and wouldn't give it back". Then try and work out the the thought behind the behaviour, "your thought might be, he always takes my stuff, it's not fair". Write out as many thoughts as you can.

These thoughts usually have some common words, Always, Never, Not Fair, Will. These extreme words can really evoke intense emotions. Circle these words in their thought. I usually explain to kids that these unhelpful or poisonous thoughts have some truth to them but they aren't completely true. As these thoughts are exaggerated, we can then find the more helpful thought or "antidote" thought.

The helpful thought or "antidote" thought is not just the opposite of the unhelpful thought. If the unhelpful thought was " he always take my stuff", the helpful thought wouldn't be "he never takes my stuff" because that wouldn't be true either. A helpful thought is not supposed to make you feel wonderful, it is just supposed to make you feel a little bit better. When we can lift our mood a little it makes the situation easier to handle. So for this example, the helpful thought could be "he takes my stuff sometimes" or "he usually asks first". They may still be a little upset but not as they were with the extreme word. Work together to pick the best helpful thought or "antidote".

Often after we have come up with the helpful thoughts, kids aren't convinced that this will help. So what I do is get them to rate their mood out of 10 for the unhelpful thought and then the helpful thought. They are amazed to see the shift. Have them write what their mood would be out of 10 (10 being feeling fantastic and 0 is terrible) for each unhelpful thought and then the helpful. If there isn't a shift of at least 3 then you might need to find another helpful thought.

Learning to change our thoughts takes practice. It won't work instantly but eventually they will start to recognise that they are using those extreme words in their thinking and be able to adjust. Be sure to talk about these thoughts when they are calm. Have them practice changing them when they are calm and then eventually it will happen more automatically.

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