A few weeks into the coronavirus pandemic, the rules for social distancing have been pretty clearly established: stay inside as much as you can, and if you must venture out for essential services, keep a safe distance of six feet between yourself and others.
Physically, we’ve never been more separated from each other. Yet ― thanks to Zoom, smartphones and the internet ― you might even find that you’re connecting with people more despite being remote. But as we support each other by staying in touch virtually, sharing links to the latest coronavirus updates and commiserating over our (often shared) anxieties, it’s not uncommon to get overwhelmed and crave a little emotional distance.
“This increased social connection is amazing because it’s validating and distracting and often uplifting,” said Jenna L. Schleien, a psychologist practicing in Brooklyn. “However, spending a huge part of each day listening to others’ fear and anxiety can take a toll on our mental health.”
You don’t have to sacrifice your conversations to fix this. If you assess your own coping needs, then you can set boundaries with loved ones, communicate thoughtfully about each others’ limits, and learn to support each other in a way that’s healthy for all. Here’s how:
First, figure out what you need to stay sane
Each day, there’s a lot to take in. Staying informed, healthy and productive amid a global crisis isn’t sustainable without coping techniques. It might sound trite, but before you can help someone else, you really do have to make sure you’re taking care of yourself first.
Schleien suggested making it a habit to intentionally check on yourself throughout the day. Ask yourself, “How am I feeling?” If it’s not always obvious to you moment to moment, you can look for signs from your body: Is there a tightness in your chest? Are you clenching your jaw? Do you feel a general heaviness?
After practicing that self-awareness, the next step is to figure out a few distracting and soothing activities that will provide relief to you when you need it. Maybe a daily run keeps you level-headed. Maybe it helps to put away your phone a couple of hours before bed and read a book, listen to music or work on a craft project.
Set your own boundaries and communicate them compassionately
Once you become more aware of your emotional trajectory, you’ll start to notice what triggers your stress. If you find that a friend, family member or partner constantly venting to you is wreaking havoc on your emotional state, it’s OK to tell them you’re feeling overwhelmed. You can also set limits on the conversation, said Leah Katz, a clinical psychologist based in Portland, Oregon.
You don’t have to send your pal an AI-generated form letter to get your point across. Try something honest but compassionate like, “When we talk about this multiple times a day I’ve noticed it really revs up my anxiety. Can we set aside some time later, like 30 minutes, and talk about it then? I want to hear you but I feel like that’s what I can handle right now.”
“If the wish for boundaries is expressed clearly and with kindness, it’s usually appreciated and respected,” Schleien said.
You could also ask them directly how you can help them, Katz said. Try saying, “How can I be here for you?”
By asking a more practical question, “instead of going into problem-solving mode, or playing the role of the therapist,” you can shift the dynamic from them venting to taking a more proactive approach to managing their anxiety.
Katz said that when she personally asked a family member how she could support them, they responded by asking if she could FaceTime with them a few times a week.
“I think the question was really appreciated, and I got some direct feedback,” Katz said.
Suggest another topic or activity that will make you both feel better
If you need a break from talking about coronavirus but don’t want to be dismissive of someone you care about who’s reaching out to you, try changing the subject or suggesting an activity that could be a nice distraction for both of you.
You could say, “I hear that you’re anxious. I’m having a really hard time too. Is it OK if we try talking about something else for a little while?” Katz suggested.
Or, take a break from the chatter. “Support doesn’t always have to come in the form of talking, although it often does,” Schleien said. “Engaging in self-care together can be a way to support each other and be there for each other without always having to talk through it.”
Even if you’re not in the same room with each other, you could play an online game, watch a movie together through Netflix Party, or put on face masks and have a dance party over Zoom.
Know you don’t always have to be available
If you figure out that getting away from your screens for a few hours every day really restores your sense of calm, it’s OK to put the group chat on mute and tune out for a bit.
Say you’re mid-text with a friend who’s distressed, but you need some solo time. Instead of ghosting the conversation, you could tell them, “Hey, I’m going to go for a walk for a couple of hours, can I check on you in a bit and see how you’re doing?”
“Validate what they’re needing and you’re needing, and you balance those both in an equation to find out what’s going to be best in the moment,” Schleien said. That’s the way we get through this together.
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