On Sunday, April 19, Agudath Israel of America and United Task Force hosted an uplifting and informative live-stream lecture with Dr. David Pelcovitz. Dr. Pelcovitz began with ideas about general anxiety. He noted how right now we are dealing with an invisible force. First, you have to say to yourself that feeling anxious is a totally normal reaction to an abnormal event. This fear is my body doing its job. “Be kind to yourself,” he emphasized. The normal reaction in this situation is to go into a “fight or flight” response. The key is to be compassionate to yourself. “Create a space in yourself for fear, and remember that we are not defined by this fear.”
Dr. Pelcovitz quoted the work of Dr. Susan David, PhD, award-winning psychologist at Harvard Medical School, who taught that we need to ask the simple question: What is the function of the emotion we are experiencing? If the emotion is grief or sorrow, it’s a signal that we care and should reach out and give comfort to those who experience loss. If the feeling is guilt about not being a good parent, then we need to take a step back and make sure our actions are in stride with our values. We can ask ourselves what we can do to be a better parent. We might want to work on being calmer or on spending more one-on-one time with our children. He emphasized, though, that we need to have compassion in terms of our own self-care. He quoted a pasuk from Mishlei that teaches, “Without vision we lose our self.” There were three questions that Yaakov asked his family before his fateful meeting with Eisav: Who are you? Where are you going? What will you do with what you have? Dr. Pelcovitz advised, “Take pull-back time to ask yourself the answer to these three questions. In the midst of chaos, who do I want to be? Write down your answers. Writing moves our values to front and center.”
He then shared the three ways of managing anxiety, which fall into three categories: cognitive, physiologic, and behavioral. He shared a fascinating story to illustrate the cognitive approach. He was once speaking in a shul in New Jersey about parenting. There was a woman in the back with a six-month-old baby that was wailing and disturbing everyone. People kept shushing her and asking her to leave.
In the front, an elderly man stood and faced everyone. He spoke directly to his k’hilah: “You all know that 70 years ago I was liberated from Auschwitz. At that time, if you told me that in 70 years I would be at a get-together with 400 Jews to hear a lecture on how to parent the Torah way, I’d say that is impossible. And if you told me there would be a Jewish mother with a crying baby, I would be blown away. Do you know the gift it is to have a Jewish baby crying? It’s a miracle. We are witnessing a miracle.”
After he spoke, the baby stopped crying. The mother had relaxed, which may be why the baby stopped crying, and the audience was no longer upset. Dr. Pelcovitz said that, to this day, when he hears a baby crying in a room where he is talking, he says to himself, “Baruch Hashem.” That is the power of our thoughts and our ability to control our anxiety.
Next, he spoke about the physiological response. We have to realize that response is built-in and normal.
Finally, he shared the behavioral reaction to anxiety. He quoted Dr. David Rosmarin [assistant professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and the founder/director of the Center for Anxiety] who taught that we can’t tolerate situations that are uncontrollable. In reality, Dr. Pelcovitz noted that we cannot predict what will happen with COVID-19. Ironically, our sense of control in general is really illusory. When we identify our emotions clearly and interpret them as a way to help us, this will help us to feel a sense of control. We need to see the growth potential from any emotion and that it can lead to positive changes. Then the emotion shifts into growth and self-development. “Clarity helps us to deal with things better. Verbally labeling the emotional context of a frightening situation helps lower anxiety.” He quoted from Sefer T’hilim: “If I never fell, I never could have gotten up.”
“Labeling an emotion correlates with self-reduced stress. We need to focus on what we are doing and that we are doing quarantine as an ultimate chesed to protect our family and community from illness. Seeing it as an engine of chesed makes all the difference.”
He went on to explain that children do best with structure and routine. Right now, children are isolated from friends, and it is difficult and confusing for them. We are all wired for connection. Children are especially wired for playing with other children. It is hard for children to not be able to be with grandparents and sit on their laps. We have to try to be empathetic with them.
Also, give yourself permission at times to lose your cool. He shared a fascinating study about texting versus calling. One group of fourth grade girls was assigned to call their mothers for comfort, and one group was assigned to text their mothers. The mothers used the same words of comfort but only the group who called their mothers showed that their pulse rate decreased and their anxiety hormone level decreased. So, it’s important, right now, to have direct calling or zooming.
How to talk to your children about the coronavirus depends on their age and also their temperament. “Encourage questions. Validate their feelings. Speak to them when there are no distractions. Recognize that children express themselves with art, writing, and music. Explain to them that not every respiratory ailment is COVID-19. Recognize that it’s constantly shifting. Your children need to know that they can always come to you to discuss their feelings and worries. Focus on hope. Create a consistent schedule that includes bedtime, mealtimes, learning times, and exercise times. Encourage children to do chesed. It helps to build in resilience. He pointed out that boredom, panic, and loneliness are normal reactions.
He then shifted to the problem of difficult financial times. We must monitor our conversations and realize that children listen to everything we say. Don’t leave the news on: It can cause psychological problems for your children. Filter the news for them. Children don’t have the same perspective as adults. “Pay attention to their temperament. Each child has a different style.” We need to shelter the anxious child more. Some children are information seekers. Some people need to distance themselves when challenges occur and some need to talk it out. We need to figure out what works best with our children. Also, he shared that it is okay to express sadness in front of our children.
He noted the teaching of an Israeli-born psychologist, Tal Ben-Shahar, PhD [Harvard University], who wrote about the ABCs of resilience. First, remember that all emotions flow through one pipeline, and we need to allow emotions to come and name the monster. The more we allow ourselves to talk about the positive and negative feelings, the better we will do. Gratitude is the next thing, and it is incredibly important. Dr. Pelcovitz pointed out that hakaras ha’tov is the y’sod of being Jewish. We must count our blessings. Dr. Pelcovitz suggested that at the Shabbos table each family member could share something he is grateful for, as well as a chesed he performed that week. Gratitude increases happiness, and we know that when happiness goes up, then our immune system’s ability to fight increases. Gratitude is the most powerful antidote while in quarantine. Exercise is also important.
Dr. Pelcovitz pointed out that it is easy to show gratitude to people we don’t know so well, but much more difficult to show it to those to whom we owe the most, like parents, spouse, or children.
He concluded that we have to accept that a lot of control is lost and we are faced with loss and new stresses. At the same time, there is so much in our community of which to be thankful.
After the lecture, Dr. Pelcovitz answered some questions sent from the public before the lecture. The first question was how much we should reveal to children about the coronavirus situation.
He responded that there is no reason to frighten the child, and the answer here depends on the child’s age and temperament. Pre-schoolers only need a basic understanding, with no great detail. Explain in concrete ways. They need to be reassured, and you can expect extra clinginess. For older children, you should be straight and honest if they ask. First try to hear what they are asking, and ask back to make sure you know what they want to know. “To be understood, first understand.” He noted that there is no reason to reveal brutal reality in terms of numbers.
The next question was how to balance getting a break for yourself while not giving the children too much screen time. He responded that one of the best ways to care for your children is to care for yourself. Everything has to be balanced. Replace screen time with one-on-one time. Connection time is associated with values. Find a balance between love and limits, based on what works best for your child’s temperament. He again emphasized the power of routine. Children especially need routine, as it provides focus and purpose. It’s important to know when to be flexible. Make sure to build in recess and fun.
The next question was: How does a mother balance work and childcare. He responded that it’s not fair for all the responsibility to go to one spouse. “Couples don’t have to think alike. They have to think together.” Do not fight in front of your children. Set up a time to talk together or go for a walk. Remember to nurture your relationship. Use “I” statements, not “You” statements. Right now, we have a great opportunity to deepen our relationship.
The last question was how we can teach important lessons to our children from all of this. Dr. Pelcovitz suggested to focus on your resilience. Model “meaning-making.” Ask yourself how I am growing and transforming. Write down your thoughts. Anne Frank got the idea of keeping a diary and writing things down. We can use art. Tell your children that one day they can tell their children about what it was like during this time.
By Susie Garber