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Strength Amid Stress: Their daily lives upended by the coronavirus pandemic, families are working to adapt in an uncertain time

by on July 02, 2020 8:39 AM

Sarah Watson and her family were blindsided when her mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on March 2, just as cases of the coronavirus in the United States were increasing.

A week later, Governor Tom Wolf ordered schools and non-essential businesses to close. Watson and her husband began working from home and parenting their two school-aged daughters 24/7, in addition to trying to support her mom through chemotherapy and doctor appointments.

Watson has suffered from anxiety since childhood, but the confluence of events created a level of stress like nothing she had endured.

Her tipping point was a few weeks later. She was in a Zoom meeting with her Penn State co-workers, feeling overwhelmed. She tried to remain calm and professional while fighting back tears.

Then Watson got a text from her mom, who wasn’t feeling well. She asked Watson to come to her house.

“Here I am stuck in this meeting and my mom, who is not well, needs me,” says Watson, who lives in Boalsburg. “It was this defining moment of, ‘What are your priorities?’ It was the moment I realized I couldn’t possibly carry everything I had.”

Mentally and emotionally maxed out, Watson decided to take a leave of absence from her job.

People like Watson have had everything about their lives upended seemingly overnight by the coronavirus pandemic: They had to work from home, and many continue to do so – if they have a job; they’ve curtailed social activities; they can’t do all of the things they’re used to doing; and they had to facilitate their children’s schooling. The effects of the pandemic are personal, and the longer it goes on, the heavier the effects weigh on their minds.

State of uncertainty 

 “I don’t think that our world and our day-to-day existence has felt this kind of scary,” says Amelia McGinnis, a licensed social worker and therapist who has a counseling and consulting practice in Lemont. “We are not designed to be in a stress state or a state of threat for very long.”

Centre County was placed under the governor’s stay-at-home order March 28 and moved to the “green” phase on May 29, which allowed for non-essential businesses to reopen and relaxed restrictions on public gatherings, among others. Despite the move to green, McGinnis says residents still face uncertainty about how much to open up their lives.

“I think all of us are experiencing this environment where it’s not safe and it doesn’t feel safe enough,” McGinnis says. “Even with some things opening up, it’s providing more stress to people. We are having to make decisions in a very unclear safety environment – that can be very hard for us to tolerate.”

When the stay-at-home order went into effect, Candace Good, MD, a staff psychiatrist with the Mount Nittany Physician Group, says she was surprised how well people seemed to handle it. But over time their confidence eroded. People lost their sense of security, and the ways they coped with stress, such as going to the gym or meeting friends for lunch, were no longer options.

“The main thing is we're all dealing with a lot of uncertainty right now,” Good says. “I’m thinking back to those first two weeks, because I think everybody was thinking, ‘Oh, OK, we’ll stay at home.’ The longer it went on, all of these stressors kept piling up.”

Feeling overwhelmed

Trish Hummer, of State College, struggled to adapt to the locked-down world in March and April.

A self-described extrovert, she missed her office work environment at Penn State. The mother of two grown children in New York and New Jersey, early epicenters of the outbreak, she worried daily about their safety. And she couldn’t stop thinking about her high-risk 87-year-old mother with Alzheimer’s and her 97-year-old stepfather, who live in a senior assisted-nursing facility in town.

Hummer, the family’s problem-solver, felt helpless. She says she broke down in tears several times a day for a month, imagining horrible scenarios she had no ability to fix.

Hummer didn’t disclose her worry to her husband or children – she says she didn’t want them to think she’d lost it.

“That sudden weight on your chest, you can’t breathe, can’t focus … were not like anything I had experienced before,” she says. “I’m the one who takes care of all the issues. I think the absolute lack of solutions had me coming undone.”

A socially distant road trip to see her family helped, Hummer says. She and her husband visited their niece and then their daughter in New Jersey, sitting on opposite sides of the driveways at their homes. They also visited her son and his girlfriend in Manhattan, where they stood 12 feet apart on a city sidewalk.

Hummer says other things have helped her cope, too: She sometimes knits with friends on Zoom, and her neighbors had a socially distant cul-de-sac dinner party.

For Tasha Thatcher, of State College, her stress has not subsided since she was furloughed in mid-March from her job as a full-time bartender.

She took a part-time job on the kitchen staff at a local nursing home and has been receiving partial unemployment assistance to make up for her lost income.

“I have anxiety disorder, and I was to the point where I was like, ‘This is ridiculous and I need to be working,’” she says.

Her fiancé continued working through the shutdown at a fast-food restaurant.

“We’re still worried that one of us is going to bring it home,” she says.

Debbie Peasley, of State College, runs two businesses at home and kept working during the pandemic as much as she could. She designs children’s custom clothing for special occasions, and she sources fabric.

She was used to having a quiet studio to complete precision sewing, but when area schools and Penn State closed, her four children ended up back home all day. A full house meant no chance of focusing.

“When you’re designing something, you can’t be interrupted,” Peasley says. “If you’re in the middle of sewing a fabric, when you’re doing a $200 dress for somebody, you want it to be perfect.”

Peasley’s youngest child has autism, and it was a lot of work to manage his Zoom sessions with his teachers, she says. She reached out to the teachers for help because she couldn’t keep it all together, and they helped put together a program her son could follow, for which she says she was grateful.

For Torrie Raish, of Bellefonte, life before the pandemic ran like a well-oiled machine. She worked at Penn State while her husband stayed home. Their three oldest children went to elementary school. The kids had sports and other activities.

During the pandemic, though, Raish says she and her husband had too many things to manage and facilitate. Their children are too young to do school work independently, so Raish and her husband had to help them join their Zoom meetings and manage their assignments. The kids’ activities, such as her daughter’s gymnastics classes, transformed into even more Zoom meetings.

“It has turned into basically just multiple full-time jobs,” Raish says. “It’s really hard to manage all of it. I feel like a project manager of my home. When their activities were led by somebody else, we had to get them there, and that took time, but we didn’t have to become the expert to get that done.”

To keep up with her job, Raish resorted to working in the evenings, after her kids went to sleep.

“There are definitely days that I’ve reached my limit of managing everything,” she says. “There’s only so much you can get done in a day.”

Good, the Mount Nittany Physician Group psychiatrist, says no one can blame them for feeling overwhelmed by the pandemic, which has been a constant fixture in most people’s lives for more than three months.

“People right now, particularly parents, are pretty hard on themselves,” Good says. “It's too many jobs for anyone to have. It's too much to be a caregiver, working a regular job, and then trying to be a teacher.”

The loss of control or ability to do normal activities is hard for many people, but Good says they should not forget that there are things they’re doing to maintain normalcy, such as making dinner, cleaning the house, or going on neighborhood walks.

Seeking help

McGinnis, the Lemont social worker and therapist, says she noticed a lull in requests from new patients at the start of the lockdown. However, since late May and early June, more and more people have reached out for help, she says.

“One hypothesis is that a lot of people, just trying to wait it out, finally reached a point that it’s not going away and need to do something,” she says. “When you’re down, you have a friend you can reach out to. Who can you burden? You talk to your friend, and your friend is struggling, too.”

She says this is the first time she’s been in a situation in which she is experiencing the same stress as her client.

Sarah McPherson, the director for outreach and education at Centre Safe, formerly the Centre County Women’s Resource Center, saw a similar trend. When the county shut down, there were fewer calls for help.

When people were ordered to stay home, those who needed help had less freedom to reach out to Centre Safe’s crisis hotline. Abusers would have a much easier time keeping tabs on their communication.

“Abusers use a lot of isolation tactics – it’s really about power and control,” McPherson says. “We know that these are used in any normal circumstance. When you have that forced isolation element, it can just add to the stress.

“That was just really concerning, knowing that this was going to be happening and people were not going to be able to reach out to us.”

Centre Safe saw a small increase in calls once the county moved into green. As people are able to get out of their house, such as by returning to work, they have more freedom to reach out for help.

She says those who offer support services should expect to see that effect for a while.

“There’s been a lot of job loss and there’s been a lot of other stressors in folks’ lives, and those can contribute to people lashing out and harming people in their home,” McPherson says. “As a nation and in the county, we see the effects on job loss and unemployment are not going to stop as we move to green. We just want to be prepared for more lasting effects of this.”


Watson, whose mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer before the shutdown, worked as a mental health counselor for 13 years. She noticed some warning signs in her own behavior, such as becoming more irritable with people or trying to control everything.

She ended up reaching out to friends in the mental health field, who validated her feelings by saying she should get professional help. She’s been seeing a psychologist for almost two months now through telehealth appointments. It's made a difference, she says.

“I was a little bit reluctant at first,” Watson says. But her psychologist, she says, is “really helping me to have some self-compassion, taking one day at a time.”


Mike Dawson is a freelance writer based in College Township.


Mike Dawson is a freelance writer in State College.
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