The emotional tolls of Social Distancing—how are you feeling?
If you’re anything like me, as we enter the third month of social distancing and staying at home as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, your emotions are likely running the gamut from stressed and despondent to antsy and anxious…and everything in between.
Most everyone can agree that keeping away from friends and loved ones (minus immediate household members) makes for a very strange and challenging experience.
Communication as we used to know it has changed completely. In-person, face-to-face, time has been replaced by Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts and iPhone FaceTime. Gatherings and happy hours have been replaced by online video chats.
To be fair, digital meetings can be a great way to connect—but seeing a loved one on screen can’t compare to physically being together.
Likewise, topics and tones of conversation have probably changed a bit over the past few months. It’s hard to avoid talking about the current world situation. It’s not unusual to air frustrations, concerns, anger, and sadness over what’s going on. This has resulted in more discord than usual, even among people who normally get along.
In fact, I’m sure if you were to ask 10 of your friends how the past few months have affected their relationships, some would say it’s brought them closer together, while the others would admit the stress and constant “togetherness” are really testing their bonds.
Nothing about today’s world is easy. But there are ways to make our present situation—and how we deal with relationship struggles as a result of it—a little better.
I know you want to support the people you love during uncertain times—especially as we navigate tough emotions and situations, like job loss, healthcare fears and, of course, we’re all a little worried about contracting COVID-19.
So what’s the best approach to support? Well, research shows that even the most comforting words can have vastly different effects, depending on how you phrase them.
Research released in February 2020—weeks before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, but still very relevant to current life circumstances—found that validating a person’s feelings has a far greater and more beneficial effect than diminishing or being critical of that person’s emotions. The researchers suggest that highly “person-centered” messages are much more productive than low “person-centered” messages.
Low person-centered language can be very frustrating. If you’ve you ever shared your thoughts or feelings with someone only to be told, “you’re overreacting,” or “don’t take it so hard,” you probably remember feeling pretty annoyed or angry, right?
This type of language, as it relates to COVID-19, might sound like this: “You’re overreacting. There are people in far worse situations than you are. The risk isn’t that great. You shouldn’t feel the need to stay at home all this time. It’s your fault you’re lonely.”
The researchers found that low person-centered messages like this do not help people manage disagreements in a way that reduces distress, and, rather, leads to anger and defensiveness.
Highly person-centered language, on the other hand, validates a person’s emotions without judgment or criticism. It leads to better ability to cope with stressors. A good example of this type of language would be: “It is totally understandable why you are so upset right now. This COVID-19 situation is awful not just for you, but for everyone.”
When it comes to the COVID-19 situation—and all circumstances related to it, such as job loss, money concerns, loneliness, resentment, anger, etc.—allowing your friends or loved ones to vent their feelings, then acknowledging them, can go a long way in helping that person feel safe in these trying times.
Don’t get me wrong. We’re all human and I know it can be tempting to tell someone they’re overreacting if you truly feel they are. But, if your goal is to be helpful and supporting, do your best to avoid using this kind of language. Remember, most people on this planet have never experienced or lived through a worldwide pandemic. Everyone is entitled to his or her own unique reactions to everything going on.
However, this brings up another point…
Know Your Limits
While being a source of emotional support can be important and feel empowering, it can also be exhausting. And it’s okay to need a break from it all.
A study out of University of Michigan found that there is actually a distinct point at which obligation toward family and loved ones can start to feel like a burden. That point, researchers say, occurs when the obligation really starts to disrupt your day-to-day life, or when it leads to financial burden.
On the other hand, light obligations, which can be described as phone calls/text messages to check in, or other small acts of kindness, can strengthen the bonds of your relationship—especially if they are reciprocated.
So, the bottom line is this: During this crazy time in our lives, I’m doing my best to stay connected with my loved ones—and I encourage you to do the same, but in a way that brings you joy. This means, if you can’t stand computer chats like Zoom, stick to phone calls. If phone calls are too stressful, send texts or emails. And who doesn’t love a nice handwritten letter?
In a time when you want to stay as close as possible to the people you can’t be with physically, do what you can to keep in touch in a manner that makes you comfortable. And if you just need a day to yourself, that’s totally fine. You’re entitled to some “you time”.
Likewise, if someone adds unnecessary burden to your life, whether it’s due to a negative attitude or unreasonable requests, it’s okay to step back for a little while. You can’t let other’s negativity bring you down, especially if your own emotions have been teetering on the edge of sadness or depression lately. You don’t want to put any important relationship on rocky ground on account of heightened emotions.
There is a light at the end of this dark tunnel. You will get through this feeling physically, mentally, and emotionally, stronger than ever. Until then, stay safe and sane!
- Tian X, et al. How the comforting process fails: psychological reactance to support messages. J Commun. 2020 Feb;70(1):13-34. Last accessed May 1, 2020.
- Oh J, et al. The effects of obligation on relationships and well-being over time in middle adulthood. Int J Behav Dev. 2020 Mar. Last accessed May 1, 2020.
Last Updated: May 7, 2020