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Emotional Wellness During a Pandemic and the Holidays

The holiday season can be a stressful time filled with anxiety and sometimes grief from losing a loved one. The added stress of the COVID-19 pandemic can exacerbate what’s already a difficult time of year for many. In this episode of the Inside Pediatrics Podcast, Children's of Alabama Emotional Wellness Director Lou Lacey offers tips on how parents and caregivers can stay mentally and emotionally fit through the holidays.
Emotional Wellness During a Pandemic and the Holidays
Featured Speaker:
Lou Lacey, LPC
Lou Lacey, LPC, is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Director of Emotional Wellness at Children’s of Alabama. She works to prevent “compassion fatigue” among hospital employees by providing individual and group counseling onsite. Lacey has provided therapy for trauma victims for 30 years. She is the former director of the Rape Response program in Birmingham, Alabama, and former director of the Children’s Hospital Intervention and Prevention Services (CHIPS) Center at Children’s of Alabama, a child abuse assessment and treatment clinic.  Lacey has been a speaker and instructor for more than 20 years in the areas of post-traumatic stress disorder, compassion fatigue prevention and treatment, and finding joy in living a life of service to others.

Tiffany Kaczorowski: Welcome to Inside Pediatrics, a podcast brought to you by Children's Hospital of Alabama in Birmingham. I'm Tiffany Kaczorowski. And today, we're talking about emotional wellness with Lou Lacey. She is a licensed professional counselor, an LPC, here at Children's of Alabama and is the Director of Emotional Wellness at Children's.

Lou has been a speaker and instructor for more than 20 years in the areas of posttraumatic stress disorder; compassion fatigue, prevention, and treatment; and finding joy in living a life of service to others. Lou, you've helped so many hospital employees by providing individual counseling, group counseling onsite here at the hospital. And now you've been asked by one of our physicians at one of our primary care practices to help families, parents, caregivers, during this holiday season when emotions are really running high because of the COVID pandemic and then also just the usual stress and anxiety that the holidays might bring.

Lou Lacey: Sure. And it's such an important question. I mean, I'm generally asked about this during the holidays anyway, in a typical year. But then you throw COVID in and, of course, everything is upside down and we're all asking ourselves, "How can I get through this in a healthy way," and have some of our needs met regarding the holidays and have some of the joy that we're looking for during the holidays in a way that's safe and healthy.

Tiffany Kaczorowski: One of the things that Dr. Wright mentioned was that he's had families come in and they're just-- you know, school schedules have been disrupted. They're stressed about that. They're not necessarily getting to see all of their family members during the holiday season this year, maybe not for Thanksgiving and maybe not again for Christmas, Hanukkah or the New Year. What kinds of tips do you have for us, like you said, to help bring us some joy and bring us a little bit of normalcy?

Lou Lacey: Yeah. I think the first thing that comes to my mind is just acknowledging, you know, what's going on in our world right now. With our kids, they know that this is an unusual time, but just being honest about it and helping them and ourselves, adjust our expectations. You know, we always have high expectations during the holidays. We want it to be perfect, this beautiful experience for everybody involved, especially our kids. But so I think we have to be more realistic this year.

And the good news is I think that children are more resilient than we give them credit for. They often are more resilient than we the adults are.


Tiffany Kaczorowski: We might be stuck in our ways.

Lou Lacey: Exactly. And we have a lot of history with our expectations where children don't necessarily. And I think that they are capable of rising to the challenge of this being an unusual year. You know, one of the things that has always been so interesting to me in working with children and parents in stressful situations, is that a lot of a child's recovery or healing from a traumatic experience comes from observing the adults in their lives.

So, if they're looking at their parents during this stressful time and their parents are, you know, wigging out and very anxious and worried and wringing their hands, then the child is thinking, "Oh, something's really wrong." You know, "I better panic too." But if the adult, the parent is, you know, being calm and happy and honest about what's happening, you know, talking about it. But if they're being steady about things, that sets the example for children and they follow that lead.

Tiffany Kaczorowski: So for us as parents, you know, we may put on that front with our children, that everything is okay, it's calm, this is going to be a different year. But then inside, I know a lot of parents are struggling right now. We do have more food insecurities this year in our area. More families that have been without work for a while are really struggling to put food on the table or to make that Christmas happen or Hanukkah happen for their kids. So what are some things that we, as adults, as caregivers, can do to just kind of calm down?

Lou Lacey: Oh, no doubt, you covered a lot of it right there that this is a time like no other. I mean the layoffs and the financial hardships that our families are facing. You know, it's just incredibly difficult, but I think that one thing that can help alleviate some of that stress that we experience as the adults is having an outlet to talk about how we're feeling.

So we're not meant to keep all that bottled inside and so finding the right person or people that we can talk to about our worries and about our anxieties. We know that talking about what stressing us actually reduces cortisol in our system, so that's the stress hormone. If you've ever gotten something off your chest and then afterward you have that feeling of relief, that's what it is.

Tiffany Kaczorowski: Even if there's no immediate solution, there's still that relief of, like you said, getting it off your chest and talking about it.

Lou Lacey: Exactly. And you know, there isn't an immediate solution, you know, especially during all of this. But we have this great need to connect with other human beings around this really difficult time. It's one of the biggest needs we have as people anyway. And then you turn up the volume on that during COVID and during the holidays. So having a person or people that we can turn to and just say, "Gosh, this is so hard. Let me tell you about my experience."

Tiffany Kaczorowski: And it doesn't have to be a professional therapist. It can just be a friend or family member.

Lou Lacey: Yeah, absolutely. And it can be anyone. And I add to that, that ideally it should be somebody who doesn't try to fix the problem. You know, starts offering suggestions. If you've ever had that experience where you're talking about something that's bothering you or upsetting you and the person you're talking to says, "Well, have you tried so-and-so?" Finding somebody who can just listen to our experience and not try to fix it for us, not to problem solve and to not judge us for how we're feeling is important.

Tiffany Kaczorowski: I know a lot of people are having shared experiences right now. They may not know that their friend or relative is feeling the same way.

Lou Lacey: Yeah. It is a shared experience. And if I had to say one bright spot for me that's come out of this experience has been recognition that we all need each other. We need to belong to one another. We need to take care of one another. We just have to be a little more creative about it this year.

Tiffany Kaczorowski: That's true. We've talked about just keeping things in perspective. You know, this is a temporary situation.

Lou Lacey: Exactly. I think it's tempting when we get in those dark moments, you know, in the middle of the night where we're just overwhelmed by all of this, but we have to remind ourselves that it's not going to continue like this forever. You know, we're kind of in the heat of it right now, we're in a crisis. But it's not going to stay at this point at this level.

You know, I was talking to a family member of mine this morning and saying, "I'm not going to come. I'm not going to come see you as much as I desperately want to, because it would be irresponsible of me."

Tiffany Kaczorowski: Right. Just wanting to protect others. And then also saying no. It's okay to say no or to dial it back a little bit from your regular routine.

Lou Lacey: We're going to have to.

Tiffany Kaczorowski: Yeah. It's true.

Lou Lacey: I loved it when you and I were talking the other day, you know, just about the real-world implications of this and what you said about your Christmas meal.

Tiffany Kaczorowski: When my stepmother and step sister and her husband come to visit, they've been in our little COVID circle. And when they come, we're just going to order some food. And there's no reason for us to try to fix everything right away, you know, maybe do a little bit, but gosh, you just don't need to do it all and drive yourself crazy trying to make this perfect.

Lou Lacey: I think we can all follow your lead on that in bringing our expectations down to a more realistic level during this exceptional time.

Tiffany Kaczorowski: And then we also talked about keeping it in perspective, but not abandoning healthy habits. And we all tend to do that around the holidays anyway. But more stress during this time of year could really affect our health if we're not careful,

Lou Lacey: It's more important than ever that we not abandon those healthy habits. I'll admit that when the holidays roll around, generally, I'm like, "Okay, I'm going to take a little break from all this. I don't have time to exercise as much. I'm not going to worry as much about eating well." But this year we're really going to have to focus on those things, you know, to keep ourselves both physically and emotionally healthy and happy. You know, that we get sleep, that we eat well, that we have some kind of exercise. It doesn't mean we have to go to the gym, but maybe it means walking outdoors, finding some ways to be active.

Tiffany Kaczorowski: Yeah. We've walked our dog a lot these days and he's really happy about that. I think he's one of the happiest pooches in the world, uh, during COVID.

Lou Lacey: My dog too.

Tiffany Kaczorowski: That's right. We've been home a lot.

Lou Lacey: She's like, "Hey. I like this."

Tiffany Kaczorowski: Yeah. I think just getting outside too and enjoying a little bit of nature can do the soul a lot of good.

Lou Lacey: I think a lot of us get our needs met, you know, spiritually, mentally, emotionally, physically, by being outside. It's a great way to reboot.

Tiffany Kaczorowski: Anything else, any other resources that we can provide or any last thoughts for our parents and caregivers out there who are working so hard to provide a nice holiday season for their families?

Lou Lacey: I think the one thing I would add at the end here is the importance of self-compassion during this time. You know, we're pushing ourselves really hard under these incredible circumstances. And we have to be kind to ourselves. We've pretty much got it covered when we're dealing with other people, but we kind of turn a blind eye to that idea when it comes to ourselves and we don't give as much kindness to ourselves as we do to others. And so being reassuring and--

Tiffany Kaczorowski: Forgiving.

Lou Lacey: Forgiving is a great word-- of ourselves and letting ourselves know, you know, "It's okay. You're doing a great job." So it sounds a little bit hokey, but I really think there's some truth to that idea.

Tiffany Kaczorowski: Well, thank you, Lou. And you also provided us some resources that we're going to include in the show notes. A couple of websites for people to go to. The CDC has a great coping during holiday stress, we'll provide that link. And then also, which is a partnership with the American Academy of Pediatrics. They have some great tips on their website, Keeping the Holidays Happy. And then also you provided a USA Today article that talks about coping with stress during the holiday season.

Lou Lacey: Such an important conversation for us to have, and I appreciate you asking me.

Tiffany Kaczorowski: Well, thanks, Lou. We appreciate your time. Thanks for listening to Inside Pediatrics. More podcasts like this one can be found at