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As COVID-induced mental health issues emerge, this expert says ‘send your brain on a summer vacation’

By Maridith Yahl
NKyTribune reporter

It’s summer and that usually means lots of fun. But, the quarantine from COVID-19 has caused fear, anxiety, and loneliness. It can seem overwhelming as if there is no hope, but Dr. Annette Nunez says it is possible to achieve a positive summer mindset and improve our mental health. She suggests sending your brain on a summer vacation.

Dr. Nunez, a licensed psychotherapist, is the founder of Breakthrough Interventions, LLC in Denver and has worked over 22 years with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). She spoke to the NKyTribune via ZOOM.

Before COVID-19 disrupted our lives Dr. Nunez says, “Everybody was doing the routine and the mental health state of everybody was good, was going well.” Once COVID-19 came, “It was a big, drastic change for everybody in the sense of routines were broken and we know that children with autism love the routines.”

Have some fun (Photos provided)

The Kaiser Family Foundation’s recent poll found that more than 4 in 10 Americans say stress from the pandemic has negatively impacted their mental health. Social isolation and loneliness, loss of jog and income, cancellation of school and school activities, burnout and health concerns — all of this and more is part of the COVID world we live in. Our lives just aren’t “normal,” and we don’t know what the “new normal” is.

As the disruption in our lives extends, Dr. Nunez says, “we’re starting to see this anxiety again. There’s a lack of structure both for parents and kids.” Summertime activities are canceled or just not the same. This fear and anxiety, on so many fronts, “just truly isn’t healthy mentally,” she says.

“To make matters worse, we don’t recognize it. Everything’s really geared toward physical health, physical summertime bodies,” or getting kids into camps and keeping them occupied, Dr. Nunez says. People are not focusing enough on mental health.

To combat fear, anxiety, and the loss of structure and normalcy, Dr. Nunez says for all of us, across all ages, to get outside and exercise. Exercise gets the endorphins going, which triggers positive feelings. Just walking 30 minutes a day can help. Be creative in exercise and do not limit yourself. Dr. Nunez suggests going outside and playing with your kids. Set up an obstacle course, ride bikes, do water slides, run in sprinklers. All these things, “help change the brain chemistry to where you’re feeling in a more positive state.”

Dr. Nunez uses “Positive Prompt Cards” with her clients.

This is such a beautiful, easy idea. Write positive thoughts on a notecard.

“Breathe; Take a Break; You Got This; You’re Doing the Best; You’re the Best Parent; You’re the Best Kid,” are quotes to start with she says. Have everyone in your house write out positive and inspirational messages and hang them all over the house. Put them in obvious places and silly places. Try the refrigerator, bathroom mirror, or garage.

By posting the messages throughout the house you can look at them when you start having those feelings of sadness anxiety.

An easy way to trick your brain into being happy is smiling. Dr. Nunez says smiling 10 times every two hours can change your mood.

“If you can practice being positive and calm, then your child is going to pick up on that and be positive and calm,” says Dr. Nunez.

All these tips work across all ages, children, to teens, to adults. Dr. Nunez begins teaching positive thinking to her clients at the age of 2 and helps them to recognize negative thoughts.

“It’s really important to start working on this now,” positive thinking and schedules for both children and adults, “it gives your life purpose,” says Dr. Nunez.

Physical activity is important for a child’s brain development. Beginning these healthy activities at a young age helps build their mindset to have a healthy one as an adult.

“They can implement those when they’re an adult. And for an adult to start practicing this healthy mindset, we start seeing less anxiety, less depression, and less fear because they feel more control of their own life,” she says.

What if you can’t get outside?

Dr. Nunez says to pretend play.

“Bring out sheets and chairs and start building forts, houses within your house where you’re climbing over the couches or putting the couch cushions in a corner and running and crashing into them. There are so many things that you could do within the house. You can build an obstacle course where kids are crawling under and over tables, under and over chairs. This is a time when kids can be as creative as possible, especially within their home environment,” she says.

“We don’t have control over the outside world, but we do have control over our home in our mindset. So, it is really important, especially now, to practice a positive, calm mindset. Now that social media is such a big thing, I say to summertime clean, spring clean social media. Things that cause fear and anxiety, start deleting them and follow people that are inspiring to you. Follow animals. Follow things that provide positive quotes to help create happiness and positivity.”

She also recommends Little Sports for more ideas to get kids active.

“When you have control over your mindset, really you can do anything,” says Dr. Nunez.

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