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Stressed from being cooped up? Health experts worry about long-term impact

Brookelyn Berardi of Northport explained the struggles of having to work from home during the pandemic while caring for her toddler.  Credit: Johnny Milano

Melissa Belcastro of Kings Park spent years mastering the juggling act of working at home with two young children.

So when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, she and her husband were proud to watch their 5- and 8-year-old sons refrain from constant interruptions during conference calls and other work duties. But as the weeks dragged on, the regimented schedule of school assignments disappeared. At the same time, work seemed to never end. Finding a balance seemed impossible.

“I feel like this is a new definition of latchkey kids,” said Belcastro, 38. “My kids kind of had to fend for themselves sometimes — grab a snack, make a bowl of cereal — because I couldn’t be there all the time," said the project manager at a research firm. "At the same time, I’m amazed at how resilient they are.”

Households across Long Island have been struggling with being cooped up for months because of the coronavirus. Routines have been broken, young children are restless, and older kids are missing their freedom. Many seem to be stressed out.

While some people have used the time to hone their exercise regime and cooking skills, others have spent endless hours binging on streaming channels and junk food. Months of working and attending school from home have wreaked havoc on sleep schedules.

Health experts worry about the long-term impact of it all. They say chronic stress can adversely impact a person’s immune, digestive, cardiovascular and sleep systems. Over the long term, stress has been linked to numerous problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.

“We live in unprecedented times,” said Dr. Joshua Miller, medical director of diabetes care for Stony Brook Medicine. “We are dealing with a deadly pandemic, and no one, regardless of their walk of life, has had to think about the challenges that a pandemic brings to their daily lives and the struggles that they already have.

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“It's important to acknowledge that everyone in one way or another is feeling all and more of those emotions,” he added. “And then it's important to come up with an action plan for navigating those emotions — because if you don’t, they will overcome you.”

Battling COVID-19 while still working from home and having a toddler learning to walk was at times overwhelming for Brookelyn Berardi of Northport and her husband, Derek.

“The mom guilt follows me around,” said Berardi, 30, director of strategy and development for Crunch Fitness.

Berardi, who suffers from chronic insomnia, relied on her fitness routine to stay on a schedule. After several — and sometimes tense — weeks inside, the family now is enjoying daily walks and socially distancing outdoor activities.

“I find the more we are in nature and outside, the better we feel,” she said.

Tara Allen, a registered nurse, nutritionist and personal trainer in Farmingdale, said some of her clients tell her they are up late watching the news every night, even though it makes them more anxious and sleepless.

“I’m seeing a ton of people turn to food and alcohol in an emotional way to cope with this,” she said. “I’m recommending people plan out their meals in advance.”

She also said sticking to a regular sleep pattern is vital for adults and children.

“Their bodies are used to releasing certain hormones at certain times,” said Allen, a mother of two young children. “If you keep them up late and they experience bright light at night, they have more trouble sleeping. Then they are overtired, and it’s a vicious cycle.”

Having more people in a home at the same time is also a source of conflict, said Dr. William Sanderson, a psychologist and director of the Anxiety & Depression Clinic at Hofstra University.

“Now you have everybody too close for comfort where normally people would come and go and keep their schedules and have limited time together,” he said.

Parents also could be experiencing a kind of burnout, being physically exhausted from the demands of children who aren’t able to go to school, see friends or participate in organized sports and other activities.

Sanderson suggests family members make an informal schedule to help share space.

Miller said it’s important for families to find summer milestones to look forward to, even if camps and vacations have been canceled because of the pandemic.

“Make sure there is a proper cadence to respite and vacation and clearing your mind and not just going 24/7, 365 days,” he said. “This is not a two-week pandemic. It’s not a two-month pandemic. It could very well be a two-year-or-more pandemic.”

Tips on managing your life

Have you spent more time streaming than dreaming during the pandemic? Here are some tips to help you get back on track.

  • Stick to a regular schedule for work and sleep.
  • Get outside for a safe, socially distant walk, hike, bike ride or other exercise on a regular basis.
  • Stay away from salty, fatty snacks and foods and opt for fresh veggies and fruits. Plan out your meals in advance.
  • Even if your vacation or plans were canceled, find a summer activity you can look forward to.

SOURCE: Newsday research

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