Heart Palpitations, Eczema and Judgment: Parents Speak Out on 'Exhausting' Toll of COVID Stress

Caroline Colley and family
Caroline Colley and family

Elizabeth Restaino Caroline Colley with her family

Dealing with fear and uncertainty during the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic has been bad enough, but when mom Lauren's third-grader starting sniffling and coughing a few weeks ago, her anxiety ramped up even further.

"I've been having heart palpitations a lot lately," says the divorced mom of an 8-year-old child.

She doesn't want to be identified out of fear that her ex-husband, who is opposed to the COVID vaccine, will take her to court if their daughter gets the shot. (Everyone ages 5 and older is eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccination, which the CDC says is safe and effective at preventing severe illness.)

Lauren, 32, has been experiencing other problems that she also attributes to pandemic-induced stress: She had to start taking melatonin to ease her insomnia, she feels more "snappy" around others and now she's got a skin condition.

"I've never had eczema before," she says. "But now I have a flare up. It's on my eyelids."

Lauren's pain is being felt throughout the country, as parents of young children report that they are struggling even more with stress and burnout amid yet another intense wave of COVID-19.

The omicron variant of the virus is continuing to spread and hospitalizations among children have surged this month.

"We Just Can't Take It Anymore"

Woman cleaning a door handle with a disinfection spray and disposable wipe
Woman cleaning a door handle with a disinfection spray and disposable wipe

Getty Images A woman disinfects her home

Elevated anxiety is common in such fluid situations, especially when there are multiple unknowns as well as spikes in cases, according to Dr. Paul Donahue, director of Child Development Associates, a clinical practice in Scarsdale, New York, which has seen a deluge of new clients.

"We're hearing from parents… 'We've been so good for so long, but we just can't take it anymore,'" he says.

Parents of youngsters are feeling cynical and hopeless, and in that state, "It's very difficult to see a brighter day," Donahue explains.

RELATED: Stephen A. Smith Says Breakthrough COVID-19 Hit Him 'Differently': 'I'm Still Not 100%'

What Research Shows

Parents with kids 18 and younger have reported skyrocketing stress since the pandemic began — and it's exacerbated by ongoing confusion and constant changes, according to a study released in October by the American Psychological Association.

About half of parents acknowledged times have gotten tougher, with 44% saying major life decisions had become more stressful, and 47% reporting even day-to-day decisions such as what to wear or what to eat had become more difficult.

The numbers are even more pronounced for parents of children aged 4 and younger, with 54% saying daily decision making was causing greater anxiety than pre-COVID.

RELATED VIDEO: Doctor Says Fully Vaccinated People Are Going to Test Positive with Omicron: 'Our New Normal'

One former school therapist — who asks to remain anonymous so that she can speak candidly — tells PEOPLE that she'd never seen more anxiety in both parents and students than during COVID. It became so bad that she quit her job and went into a different field of therapy.

"It was killing my own mental health," the 26-year-old woman says of her time at a North Carolina middle school and a high school.

She says that feuding among students, low attendance and kids not participating in virtual learning were constant issues.

"They're a year behind but being expected to be fine because a lot of them were just automatically passed along to the next grade," she says. "I could feel my own anxiety getting worse."

High Hopes Then Low Lows

Caroline Colley and family
Caroline Colley and family

Courtesy Caroline Colley Caroline Colley and family

Caroline Colley, 38, of Wheaton, Illinois, felt crushed by the emergence of the omicron variant and news that the shot was less effective against it.

"It's exhausting," says the mom of 9-year-old twins and a 4-year-old. "It feels like every time you think it's going to get better, it doesn't."

The repeated isolations, cancelled plans and school disruptions have left her numb.

RELATED: Omicron Could Get Us Out of the COVID Pandemic — Here's How

"If I think about it, it interferes with my ability to function," Colley says. "It feels like a marathon, but nobody knows where the finish line is."

Lauren, whose daughter ended up only having a cold instead of COVID, also sees the pandemic as a long slog made worse by constant questioning of decisions like when to mask, vaccinate, isolate or allow participation activities.

"No matter what decision I make, I feel like it would be the wrong one," she says. "I feel like I'm being judged."

Keeping Hope Alive

Mother and little boy wearing face masks
Mother and little boy wearing face masks

Getty Images A parent helps her child with schoolwork

Parents can try a few strategies to alleviate the mounting stress, Donahue says. In addition to modeling a positive mindset for the kids ("I know we can't visit your grandparents, but we can still do some fun things together at home," he suggests as one script), adults need to take care of themselves.

Moms and dads should practice self-care by getting enough sleep, tending to their own health and granting themselves some alone time, he says.

Parents should also work to maintain their own social support system by hanging out with family and friends in safe ways, like taking walks together or chatting on FaceTime, he says.

RELATED: Americans Can Now Get Free Rapid COVID Tests Sent Directly to Their Homes — Here's How

Another tactic is to practice mindfulness with meditation, yoga or deep breathing, which can help restore balance and increase parents' resilience, Donahue says.

Equally as important, he says, is maintaining some sense of optimism.

"Think, 'We just have to get through the winter,'" he says. "The spring and summer are much likely to be much better. It's not that far away!"

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