With new information emerging every day about the COVID-19 pandemic, and huge numbers of people ordered to stay home to prevent its spread, this is one of the most stressful and anxiety-producing times in recent memory. Staying connected to yourself, to others, and to what truly matters has never been more difficult – or more essential. Our research and work at the Connection Lab offer the following science-backed DOs and DON’Ts for staying connected through this surreal and challenging time.
Do Connect with Your True Priorities.
For many, this period of time having to shelter in place may manifest a different set of priorities than our usual day-to-day routines. Take stock and connect with what your new priorities are during this period of time. Whether it be finding creative ways to get your work done remotely, relaxing utterly, catching up on leisure reading, focusing on healthy eating and lifestyle, savoring this rare time at home with your kids, finding the headspace to envision your next chapter in life – now is the time.
Do Prioritize (and Schedule) Connecting with Others.
Official restrictions on in-person contact mean most of us are feeling isolated and cut off from contact with other people. I’ve started scheduling a couple of morning “FaceTime coffee dates” each day with friends or family to keep the threads of connection strong despite the distance between us. Don’t underestimate the power of this simple technological tool. We are sensory beings, and live streaming our interactions fulfills more of our senses than one-dimensional texting or even a phone call. Video chats are remarkably satisfying and far more connecting because we can see someone’s expressions, their house, and maybe even their cat in the background. Social media encounters are not true connection, and do not provide the same connecting force as a virtual face-to-face conversation. There are many free (as well as paid) apps and programs that make video chats easy. Make the effort to reach out.
Anxiety, worry, hypervigilance and racing thoughts are a real issue for most people right now. Meditation is one of the best tools we have to counteract these states of mind. It doesn’t matter how little/long you do it, or how ineffectively. The goal is just to show up to the practice each day and give it a shot. Get comfortable, close your eyes, pay attention to your breath – and when intrusive thoughts/feelings inevitably capture your attention, you can nonjudgmentally label them “anxiety” and gently set them aside as you come back to your breath. You may not feel any better in the moment, but the effects take place throughout the day. Research has shown that it only takes one week of consistent meditation practice to begin to see brain changes. It works!
Do Spend Time in Nature.
The current lack of street noise and usual parade of humans means spending time outside has never been more serene or awe-inspiring. It’s important to get out in the fresh air even if it’s just sitting on your front porch. Stepping outside has a way of instantly shifting us, and tuning us into the natural world . . . helping us feel more connected. Going for a walk or solo hike helps clear your head, and allows for a productive kind of daydreaming. A slow walk or ride on your bike allows you to notice how the flowers are still blooming and the birds are still singing even in the midst of a global crisis. I sat on my curb yesterday for just 10 minutes and was amazed by the lack of street noise, and the chorus of natural sounds. Don’t miss the opportunity to tune into nature right now; a rare and marvelous event is happening out there.
Find a way to engage in some physical movement each day. Whether it’s inside your house doing burpees and jumping jacks, some deep stretching, following along to a television exercise program, or outside going for a walk or run, it’s important to stay connected to your body right now. Any form of exercise will help you immediately clear your head, gain a fresh perspective, and snap out of the malaise that comes from watching screens all day. Again, it doesn’t matter if it’s five minutes or five miles – just making the gesture in some way each day will reap many intangible benefits. Reconnecting with your body is one of the best and most instantaneous ways to feel alive and tune back into yourself again.
Do Nourish your Body with Fresh, Nutritious Food.
Now more than ever, it’s imperative to take proper care of yourself – not only for the sake of your health, but also to stay in tune with your body and what it truly needs. Feeling out of control with your eating, and/or eating for emotional comfort will lead you down a dark tunnel. You will feel physically, psychologically better if you are disciplined about your nutrition right now. A mostly plant-based diet with healthy fats and proteins will help you sleep better, lighten your burden, help you feel more connected to your priorities, and most importantly will tune up your immune system. Many of our home pantries are now bursting at the seams with dried or packaged goods, but nearly all of these foods are loaded with sugar, salt, chemicals and empty carbs. In short, they lack the nutrition we need, and really are the last foods we should be resorting to. Make the effort to get fresh produce from the grocery stores and farmers’ markets, which remain open as essential services. If you can’t do that, many delivery or local produce producers are organizing home drop-offs. The worst thing you can do for yourself right now is subsist off the junk in your pantry. Eating fresh, quality food is still possible, and an important foundation for your emotional and physical well-being right now. Don’t forget to hydrate regularly, too!
Do Slow Down.
As you feel your way into this new set of realities and priorities, and as the world around you is temporarily on hold, allow yourself to also slow down and savor this unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to decompress, and unburden yourself from many of the endless to-dos we normally contend with. Fear tends to make you want to speed up both mentally, and behaviorally. Notice how disconnected you feel when you’re afraid. Slowing down will help you go with the current, instead of against it, and lead to feeling more connected to the silver linings of this experience.
Do Let Go.
Surrender to the things that you cannot control, and cannot do anything about. Continuous worrying, competitive hoarding, complaining, and clinging to control will only lead to you feeling disconnected from yourself, others, and your true feelings. Decide what appropriate actions you can take to protect your family, your health and your financial stability, and draw a clear distinction between those healthy actions, and things that you can do nothing about. Worrying and obsessively checking the stock market will not help a thing. Letting go of repetitive thoughts, ruminations, and fear-based activities will help you find greater ease – and also let you begin to process your real underlying feelings.
Do Connect with Your Feelings.
Fear and anxiety tend to block us from feeling and digesting the more fundamental feelings underneath. If this global pandemic is highlighting the loneliness you feel from living alone, the loss of a recent relationship, the overwhelm you feel living paycheck to paycheck while trying to support your family . . . invite those feelings to the table, welcome them . . . and begin to grieve the loss of whatever you need to grieve right now. Whether you are mourning the loss of a sense of security, the trust in a reliable future, or the difficulty in having to live with so much uncertainty, do the work that is required to move through those feelings: first acknowledge them, then validate them, and then sit with the very real loss you are experiencing. Try journaling if you need a healthy tool to get you started; constant complaining and kvetching do not help. Once you start to connect with your truest deepest emotions, you will feel more in touch with yourself, and better able to digest and work through those feelings. There is no short-cut or way around it; you must feel your feelings if you want to stay connected to yourself.
Do Cultivate Meaning.
As a meaning researcher, I can’t overestimate what a mood and game changer it is to hunt for and engage in things that are personally meaningful to you. This is true every day, but especially now as we feel cut off from so many things we usually love to do. Look around your house for the projects you always wished you had the time for – or the backburned hobbies that you’ve dreamed of picking up again. Have you hoped that someday you would have the time to finish that baby book, or scrapbook? Maybe you’ve longed for enough time to make the ultimate music playlists, or to learn how to play the guitar from YouTube videos. Doing something meaningful each day will fundamentally and positively influence this experience for you.
Do Look for Positive Ways to Feel in Control.
Having a sense of mastery or control is one of the top three fundamental human needs. Many people who are hoarding toilet paper and cleaning products are doing so to regain a sense of control – a craving that isn’t unreasonable or unnatural. However, there are far more productive ways to regain that sense of control. First, do the things that need doing – whether that is remote work, stocking your emergency supplies, or getting your medications. In other words, take care of business. Beyond that, activities like cleaning out your closet, or tackling the garage can go a long way towards bringing back the much-needed sense of being in control of your world. Watch out for fear-based activities that only serve to stoke the fires of anxiety. Pay attention to your emotions as you engage in these pursuits, and stay alert for the red flag of fear.
Do Consciously Choose Your Perspective.
You have a choice whether to tell yourself the world is going to hell in a handbasket, or to marvel at this unique point in history when borders and political differences melt away and people come together to fight a common cause. You can let yourself feel supremely annoyed that you have to deal with bored kids who are home from school, or you can choose to view it as a unique opportunity to bond as a family in a new way centered around board games, taking care of your home and yard, cooking, or tackling projects together. Take note of the stories you tell yourself and the meaning you give these events in your life. Narrative therapy is a powerful form of therapy that helps people change a story of trauma or hardship by rewriting it from an empowered point of view that highlights the hidden meaning. Engage in your own form of self-guided narrative therapy by consciously (and wisely) selecting the stories you choose to tell yourself and others about what is happening.
Do Find the Silver Linings.
While there are many hard truths about the world right now and in our individual lives, you don’t have to look hard to discover the silver linings that are everywhere. Find them! Consider the chance to spend quality time with loved ones, neighbors coming together to help each other, the lack of rush hour traffic, the opportunity for many people to become more location independent with their work, the clear water in the canals of Venice. As a personal practice, I’m doing one new thing each day that is totally out of the ordinary for me in order to appreciate these silver linings. Today, my dad and I are riding our bikes to a meeting spot to have a little picnic on the grass, six feet apart – something we’ve never done before, and would normally never do any day, let alone a weekday. Take a step back to notice the opportunities and unexpected benefits from what is happening right now. It will go a long way towards helping you feel the gratitude and joy that can so often sit alongside heartbreaking grief.
Don’t Overuse News and Social Media.
Use these outlets for what you need, but be efficient about it. Get in and get out. At a certain point, the constant stream of information just becomes pollution to your brain. Don’t get bogged down in all the fear mongering and sensationalism that is the new 24-hour news world we live in. Remember that many provocative headlines are often an exaggeration – “clickbait” trying to get you to click into the content – rather than an honest description of the main point. It’s helpful to remember that most news media are businesses, whose primary aim is to get and maintain your attention. Be a discerning consumer of your news, and avoid getting sucked into conspiracy theories and doomsday opinion pieces. The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security is a good resource for staying factually informed about the virus without exaggeration or distortion.
Don’t Fight with Loved Ones.
Admittedly, this is much easier said than done. But consider the bigger perspective: How do you want to remember this time? How do you want to be remembered from this unforgettable moment in history? Clashing with loved ones that you are cooped up with, and spreading anxieties onto each other are certainly understandable (we’re only human), but doing this repeatedly will only lead to you feeling the pain of disconnection. Consider and have compassion for the fact that we all have different coping styles. Some of us are minimizers, some are avoiders, some are overreacters, and so on. In my home, when I watch my boys displaying mind-boggling levels of denial (the most predictable of human responses), I try not to shame them for it and instead remind myself that minimizers don’t mix well with maximizers (my coping style). Tolerating differences right now goes a long way towards cultivating closeness. Decide whether you want to be right, or be happy. Extremely difficult circumstances call for extreme levels of compassion, forgiveness, patience and flexibility. The more you can dig deep and resist entering into battle, the prouder and more loving you will feel towards yourself.
While I’m all for the intentional and purposeful use of alcohol, a big tub of ice cream, and/or binging a fantastic show on Netflix, there’s a real difference between intentionally savoring those experiences and mindlessly disconnecting from yourself, your needs, and time. Set an intention to use addictive, mind-numbing substances and activities (food, drugs, alcohol, TV, social media, internet surfing) purposefully, and stay vigilant about falling down the rabbit hole in your efforts to give yourself a break. Notice how you emerge from extreme numbing experiences feeling almost stoned and out of it, disconnected from life and your priorities; it’s not worth the amount of time it takes to reconnect. Instead, set healthy limits for yourself with escapism, and beware of the extra temptation right now to use it to an extreme.
Don’t be Selfish.
Looking out exclusively for you and your own serves only to make you feel more isolated and disconnected. Research consistently shows that helping others is ultimately the greatest way we can help ourselves, and feel a sense of belonging and purpose in the greater community of life. Look for ways that you can help ease a younger person’s fears, assist a senior by dropping off groceries, or check in on a neighbor who lives alone and may need help picking up a medication. Some people are even managing to volunteer for non-profit agencies like Self-Help for the Elderly during this time, packing meals for seniors in need. Many people instinctively spring to help others in a time of crisis, but fear can often turn us inward and breed a scarcity mindset, where we feel compelled to buy weapons to keep others out. Be careful of this mentality and the painful sense of disconnection it promotes. Having faith in humanity and the goodness of others, while experiencing your own selflessness, will soften your heart and turbo-boost positive engagement and a sense of deep connection.
Stay home, stay healthy, and stay connected….