Why your family stress levels may have reached an all time high, and what to do about it

It’s no surprise that many of us have felt our family stress levels peak during the COVID-19 pandemic. With very little warning, we had to adjust to a completely new way of living. Suddenly, we were all at home, each claiming a slither of the kitchen table to work, to teach our children, and plate up a meal at the end of another long and relentless day.

For many of us, there were added pressures from an increased workload, having adult children back in the home, becoming teacher, financial worries and of course, the ingrained fear for our health.

It has been – and continues to be – an incredibly difficult time, which, understandably, has increased family stress levels and seen many people struggle with their mental health.

A study by the Economic and Social Research Council, which looked at depression, anxiety and stress in parents between mid-March and December 2020, found scores to be at their lowest in August and September, and their highest following the pre-Christmas lockdown.

In this post, Roger Hoyte, Altum’s Senior Psychotherapist, outlines the impact of this stress on families, how you can deal with the constant changes the pandemic presents, and importantly, how best to look after your mental health.

All change

COVID-19 has changed every aspect of our lives and presented challenges we’ve never faced before. While some people adapt well to change, others sometimes struggle to readjust, whether as an individual or as part of the wider family unit.

Being forced into a lockdown situation with your family meant that suddenly, everyone’s office was at home. Perhaps you were fortunate enough to have an office space, or maybe you had to share your ‘desk’ with the children, procrastinating over their school work.

Many of us sat despairingly in front of a buffering screen with the additional demands on our home broadband, or suffered with the guilt of resorting to extra screen time for the kids in order to attend a conference call. They say never to work with children or animals, yet there’s every chance one or both could interrupt a work meeting – after all, when Mum and Dad are at home – it’s hard for them to understand the distinction.

The day-to-day workload in the house increased, but became layered with extra plates that had to be kept spinning. And if some family members carried more of that burden than others, frustrations and tensions built up, between couples especially.

Teenagers had to manage the boredom of being stuck at home, perhaps the stop-start of their studies, and the conflicting emotions of wanting to see friends yet being terrified of bringing the virus into the household.

Some young people have had to step into more grown up shoes to help in their household where loved ones have sadly been lost to the virus. The roles and responsibilities within the household may have changed.

We’ve had more than a year of tragic loss of life and a serious threat to our own mortality. In many families, jobs have been lost or furloughed, and our basic needs have been thrown into question: feeling safe, secure and having the means to put food on the table and pay the bills. It’s caused family stress levels to soar, and has left many struggling with depression and anxiety.

The importance of acknowledging change

The danger for many families is that – despite these major changes – they just keep going. They keep going without acknowledging the impact of these changes on the household, the adjustments required, and without dealing with any associated negative emotions.

There might’ve been practical issues to be addressed, for example, upgrading the home broadband to accommodate the increased demand, or ensuring there were enough devices for everyone to do their work or study.

Perhaps there were challenges to overcome regarding the split of household chores, to better support the new dynamic in the house and reduce frustrations. It’s often about shifting the resources within the family to where they are most helpful.

Ordinarily, our daily lives force us to break away from the family unit, giving us time to catch our breath and engage in activities that help to reduce any stress we’re carrying. But, over recent months, it’s often felt that there was little escape, and this does generate tensions.

How to help reduce family stress levels

Technically speaking, the best definition, from a psychological perspective, for the COVID-19 pandemic is a ‘trauma’. A trauma experienced by everyone. As a psychotherapist, I can tell you the best way to deal with trauma is to talk about it. Talk to friends and family about how you’re feeling. It’s incredibly important to have open, honest conversations about your worries and fears.

For months, we’ve been bombarded with messages telling us we should be afraid. Our fear levels have hit the roof, especially for those who may have vulnerable family members at home. For some people, despite restrictions easing along the way, their level of fear has remained high, creating post-lockdown anxiety. More on how to cope with that here.

The pandemic has gone on for so long that some people have lost the ability to regulate their emotions. When you come from that position, there’s always a transition needed in order to move from extreme fear to a less heightened state. Some people will need to take the time to carefully navigate this path. As well as talking to your friends and family, here are a few other suggestions to help you do this:

  • Take measures that help you to feel safe. If wearing a mask and using hand sanitiser help you to feel safe, continue to do so.
  • Self-care: do something nice for yourself, for example, take a bath, indulge in a book, or practice some yoga. 
  • Take in some fresh air: go for a walk and connect with nature.
  • Write a journal. Getting your thoughts on paper can help to provide clarity and perspective. Remember, we are in a very different place with the pandemic now compared to a year ago.

We will get there, perhaps at different speeds, but if you can take the time to acknowledge, as a family, how the pandemic has impacted you, and consider what changes are needed in order to adjust, you’ll begin to see your family stress levels dissipate.

As I mentioned, talking is a great place to start, but if the situation at home feels desperate, please reach out to us to find out how we can help you.

Take care and stay safe,

Roger Hoyte


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