Times of uncertainty and stress weigh on our relationships, just when we need them the most. From the growing frustration and arguments popping up with those we’re cooped up with, to weird team dynamics on zoom meetings that are difficult to understand and resolve, to feeling horribly incompetent as parents when the kids are NOT adjusting well to home school, this is a tough and unprecedented time for everyone.
Fortunately, it’s normal for stressful times to strain our relationships, and it is possible to turn those dynamics around with just a few shifts. Here are 10 of my top tips for handling common situations you may be experiencing in the current COVID-19 crisis:
1. Get the connection you need – Isolation is a leading contributor to anxiety and depression. Human connection is the antidote. If you are alone, you may not feel especially motivated to participate in virtual happy hours or extended family video chats but try to find a low-pressure way to connect with somebody, even if it’s just a phone call. In my work, I’ve been struck at the depth and closeness that can be created from a phone conversation, where you aren’t distracted by seeing each other and both parties can listen and share more deeply.
2. Get the space you need – If you are suddenly home 24/7 with your significant other or family, you might be surprised at how much tension and frustration can develop between the people who love each other the most. Most adults need at least two hours of time to themselves each day, and introverts need much more. Some people love background noise and others are distracted and unnerved by it. Everyone has different ideas of what “clean” looks like. It often helps to carve out an area of your living space that each person has to themselves and come up with other ground rules related to headphone use or quiet time to help keep everyone sane.
3. Communicate your status regularly to those who might worry – If you are telecommuting keep your boss, team, and customers in the loop by posting a succinct update on your status at the same time each day. This could be the top five things you did that day – or the progress you have made on your projects. Keep it short and bulleted, and if others post their status – read and respond with anything relevant they need to know. Everyone is stressed these days and if they don’t know your status, they will usually assume the worst.
4. Own your stress reactions and apologize – The unfortunate thing about stress is that ALL the behaviors people automatically slip into when we feel anxious or frustrated tend to have a negative impact on others. When we get irritable, the tension comes out in our tone of voice and people feel attacked or criticized even when we don’t obviously lash out. When we worry, the questions we ask people sound more like interrogation and people think we are trying to manipulate or control them. When we withdraw, people feel rejected, hurt, and abandoned. Be aware of what you do when you start feeling stressed, and make sure those you care about understand that it’s not personal, while reassuring them of your true intentions.
5. Give people grace for their stress reactions – Change causes most people stress whether they recognize it or not, so you should expect to see more reactive behavior from those you care about. If someone’s behavior becomes dangerous, get help immediately. But if you notice more irritability, withdrawing, or controlling behavior from others, try not to take it personally or make it mean anything other than a sign of their own fear and frustration as they adapt to a new reality.
6. If you have extra time, spend it on self-care (sleep, walks, learning, creating) – If you find yourself with time on your hands, the MOST important thing you can spend it on is self-care. Remember, if you get sick you infect others. If you are stressed, you will infect others with your negative emotions. But if you are healthy and calm, you will also infect others in a positive way, by calming their emotions, which will also keep their immune systems strong. In fact, this is probably one of the most obvious times where you can see evidence that taking good care of yourself saves lives. Sleeping more deeply and for longer periods of time strengthens your immune system. So does getting outside for walks. Getting your brain engaged in learning or anything creative that you enjoy can move you into “flow” mode, where time disappears and happiness reigns. Watching comedy or finding other ways to laugh is also known to release endorphins and reduce stress.
7. Re-assess your goals – When we began 2020, thinking about what we wanted to accomplish this year, we couldn’t have foreseen what the world would look like just a few months later. One of the biggest sources of discontent is a large gap between how things are and how we believe they “should” be. If you had goals and plans for this year that are no longer realistic, it could be eating at you inside. Our self-judgment affects others negatively just as much as other kinds of stress. So, one way to bring yourself to a place of more inner peace and calm is to re-think what matters now that things have changed. How do you want to assess yourself and your life? Once you get that clarity and it’s aligned with what is realistic for your situation and what is going on with the world, you will notice a higher degree of internal peace, which also positively affects those around you.
8. Own your decisions and allow others theirs – I’ve heard many people complain as they observe others ignoring physical distancing guidelines, touching too many packages as they select their groceries or otherwise not doing what’s “right”. This is a time when we are acutely aware that everyone has to work together, and it doesn’t feel fair when some don’t seem to pull their weight or follow the rules. You have a right to make requests or give people feedback when you notice unproductive behavior, but it’s up to them to hear your request, process it, and decide what to do next. If they don’t comply and you react by getting more and more upset, you are no longer helping the situation and have moved to a place where you are adding fuel to the fire by creating a power struggle – (and also causing yourself more stress which will infect others…).
9. Find a way to contribute that fits your values and personality – One thing I’ve noticed in myself as I’ve watched the news is that I’ve had a constant desire to do more to help, especially as I’ve been inspired by the stories of others who have come up with creative ideas to make a difference. In my case, I got an idea for a program that will help my community reduce stress and strengthen support systems during this crazy time. (stay tuned – I hope to share it by next week). Knowing we are doing something, no matter how small, can give us a sense of being part of a movement that is larger than ourselves, and that can keep us grounded and give us a sense of hope. If you want to do something unique, the best place to start is to think about what you are naturally good at or enjoy doing. But you don’t have to come up with new ideas – there are people everywhere getting together virtually to sew masks, deliver food, give blood. You can donate to your favorite causes, support your local businesses, or reach out to one person each day just to see how they are doing. It doesn’t really matter what you do, but if you notice an underlying feeling of restlessness or anxiety, finding something that feels like a contribution, no matter how small, can make a difference.
10. Practice deep listening – One thing that people need more than anything else is to be heard, understood, and acknowledged. Listening is a skill set that takes decades to master, even with continuous conscious practice. So, if you want to make a contribution AND build a critical skill set at the same time, one thing you can do immediately and with no resources is to practice deep listening. Practice on everyone in your family. Practice on phone calls, in virtual meetings, with your neighbors from six feet away. Every minute you successfully listen to another person is a minute you create a feeling of peace and calm in that person. The calmer and more peaceful they feel, the calmer and more peaceful everyone they interact with feels.
The little things we think, do, and say each day may seem insignificant, but keep in mind that peace, calm, caring, and well-being are just as infectious as any virus, and we don’t have to be physically close to spread them. We are all in this together – take care and stay healthy!