Tackling the Tough Conversations That Come with COVID-19
Social distancing due to the coronavirus pandemic has left us saying things we never thought we’d utter. Like, “Don’t throw away that junk mail! We can use it as toilet paper!” And, “Man, I could really go for a professional networking happy hour right about now.”
But it’s the conversations we have with those limited few around us that have completely thrown us for a loop. Could 18-year-old you ever have imagined arguing with your mom that she needs to skip happy hour and stay home? Or three months ago, insisting that your tween remain inside on her phone instead of going outside to play with her friends?
Unfortunately, it’s those exchanges that have become the most difficult. We thrive in routine and find comfort in the familiar, so when they’re thrown out of whack, it can impact our relationships with our loved ones. However, there are ways to share your feelings while helping others face theirs in a positive way.
How to give yourself a much-needed pep talk
For those of us with anxiety, the uncertainty that surrounds us isn’t anything new—it just causes us the dark thoughts in our heads to reawaken. For those who adjust well to change, the unknown can set off feelings they’ve never experienced.
“This global pandemic has upended our understanding of ourselves, the world and the way we think, feel, act and live,” says psychotherapist Rebecca Pastor, LPC. “This is not something to try to navigate alone. In this time of physical isolation from our friends, communities and even families, it’s important to take preemptive measures to keep yourself grounded and protect your mental health. We are all in a period of grieving over a thing that changes daily.”
Those therapists we spoke with suggest a variety of techniques to address stress, including connecting with others as much as possible (virtually, of course), creating daily routines (including time for self-care) and practicing self-compassion.
Image courtesy of Maria Victoria Heredia Reyes.
How to confront the social butterflies in your life
For those of us feeling cooped up like animals, seeing others still socializing “in the wild” can leave us reeling, especially when it’s our own friends and family members. Confronting those who think they’re invincible because they’re young and healthy or that this virus is “just the flu” can be even more maddening.
According to psychologist Dr. Carol Dyer, the key to opening the conversation is to reinforce the life-saving measures social distancing means. “Social distancing is comparable to volunteering, vaccinations or going to work (as women did during WWII)—sacrifices made to keep our communities safe, healthy and running as smoothly as possible. It is an act of empathy, love and, yes, sacrifice, but we have always done us this in our history.”
Building on that “all for one, one for all” mentality and acknowledging we’re all sharing the same feelings of confusion, grief and anger can also lead to more constructive dialogue.
“It may sound basic, but I suggest that you begin by recognizing what the other person is feeling,” says Pastor. “For instance, ‘I know you’re confused and frustrated by the social distancing recommendations and angry at having to cancel your vacation.’ Follow that up with sharing your own feelings, ‘I’m confused too, but I am really worried about how easily the virus spreads, and how many people are dying, so it feels very important to observe the stay-at-home order for the safety of everyone.’”
Image courtesy of Christian Erfurt.
How to calm your loved ones’ nerves
While most of us can escape the threat of coronavirus by staying at home, we can’t avoid the nonstop media coverage that fills our TVs and social media feeds. For a family member already on edge, especially a child whose school routine has vanished, the constant barrage of information can shift them to a stage of panic.
Most mental health professionals stress the importance of validating your loved one’s feelings without judgment. “Sit with the person and talk quietly and calmly, inviting them to tell you what they are feeling,” Pastor explains. “This is really powerful because panic is not an emotion—it’s an overwhelming, nonverbal, very visceral experience. If it can be translated and expressed in words, it becomes much more manageable and less frightening.”
Explaining to your loved one the difference between irrational feelings and facts, reassuring them without providing false hope and reminding them their feelings are temporary can all help alleviate some of the stress bearing down on them. Dr. Shanon Harlow of Understanding Minds Psychological Services also suggests engaging in calming strategies—such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and visualization—that your friend or family member can use in the weeks to come.
“Many people experience fear that panic will return, so being proactive with managing anxiety is important,” she says. “Once calm, take proactive steps to identify the triggers and integrate calming techniques and self-care strategies into your day to reduce risk for panic moving forward. If panic persists, seek out mental health services.”
For my own daughter, who already struggles with extreme anxiety and ADD, finding factors she can control in a chaotic new normal has been helpful. Writing cards to nursing home residents and covering the neighborhood sidewalks with chalk messages have helped her feel she’s contributing to a solution.
How to avoid sinking into a political showdown
Thankfully, since the pandemic broke out, any political jibes between me, a liberal, and my ultra-conservative friends have essentially disappeared. On my social media feed, it’s another story. After seeing acquaintances celebrating an individual who literally tweeted a picture of himself fiddling while the world burned around him, I finally had to unfollow a number of people for my own sanity.
At this point in the crisis, according to Dyer, getting into a verbal tussle with loved ones only adds to the frustration you’re already experiencing.
“As for finger-pointing and avoiding arguments—my short answer is use your voice and vote in the next election rather than engaging in unwinnable arguments! Many of us will not be persuaded or be able to persuade others, so acceptance of this fact may help us avoid unnecessary tension. (We have enough of that going around!) I have noticed that I like being surrounded by people who are like-minded, and I find collective outrage comforting as long as I don’t isolate myself on that island.”
What you can do
If you need to take an afternoon nap right now, do it. If you need to talk a walk instead of jumping on another conference call, reschedule if you can and go outside. For many, this is your opportunity to recoup and recover from the overscheduling and undue stress we’ve piled on ourselves for years. But sometimes even the best coping mechanism can’t chip away at your anxiety without professional help.
“You’re entitled to whatever feelings you have in response to the pandemic,” remarks Dr. Harlow. “We just want to make sure that those feelings are not causing problems in your daily life. If so, it’s time to seek out mental health services.” She notes it’s especially needed if you have experienced something traumatic, if negative thoughts or feelings are taking over your life, if you rely on avoidance to cope, or if you find yourself engaging in risky behaviors.
If you need to talk with a mental health professional, all three therapists are accepting new clients:
- Dr. Shanon Harlow, 314.729.1200 – Her clinic, Understanding Minds Psychological Services, is a multidisciplinary mental health practice with masters and doctoral clinicians. Telehealth options are available.
- Dr. Carol Dyer, 314.888.5196 – Dyer works with clients struggling to cope with issues related to life transitions, trauma and other life demands. She offers telehealth appointments.
- Rebecca Pastor, LPC, 314.266.9788 – Pastor focus in a variety of issues with a special interest in the mind-body connection and the impact of living with illnesses of all kinds.
Other options for emergency help or additional information include:
- Mental Health America of Eastern Missouri – Offers a number of behavioral health services, including a life crisis hotline. Call 314.469.6644 or 314.647.HELP (life crisis hotline).
- International Institute – Provides mental health services for foreign-born residents of St. Louis City. Call 314.773.9090.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness – Connects residents on both sides of the river to behavioral health support groups and classes (including virtual sessions). Call 800.273.8255 in Illinois, 800.811.4760 in St. Louis.
Featured image courtesy of Anthony Tran.