According to a briefing held by the United Nations on May 13, 2020, the pandemic of 2020 threatens the core fabric of society itself. But what is the core fabric of society? I assert that by definition any community or society is built upon human connectedness, that is to say, interpersonal and familial relationships. Yet, the pandemic not only threatens our health and well-being, it threatens the very personal and familial relationships that usually buffer us against adversity. Nevertheless, we are not helpless to merely stand by and watch our most important relationships and family ties be strained or simply erode.
Psychological Toxicity and “Social Distancing”
The ability of any critical incident or disaster to cause anxiety, depression, helplessness, and despair can be thought of as “psychological toxicity.” Think of it as its ability of a disaster to literally “poison” the psychological health of a community. Psychological toxicity is caused by myriad of interacting factors including the lethality of the disaster, the duration of the disaster, and uncertainty or ambiguity surrounding the disaster itself. In most disasters, however, our ability to draw strength and support from others enhances our resilience in the wake of any disaster. That said, the pandemic challenges us like never before because it has proven lethal, the impact is lasting months, and there is great ambiguity surrounding the disease as evidenced by conflicting reports from the World Health Organization, conflicting actions from leadership within state governments, and even unreliable reporting from most media outlets. But most importantly the pandemic has proven “toxic” to the single best predictor of human resilience: the support of others. In the necessary effort to contain the contagion and save lives, we have been ordered to employ “social distancing” and even self-quarantine with the unintended consequence of undermining essential relationships.
Consequences of “Work-life Integration”
The benefits effects of social distancing and self-quarantine have been well known since the pandemic of 1918. As noted above, however, these life-saving tactics can also prove somewhat toxic psychologically. The much lauded and often strived for goal of “work-life balance” has morphed into “work-life integration” wherein the worlds of work, family, and recreation have collided. The resultant blending combined with the natural undulations if not turbulence of these three spheres of living has eliminated any possibility of diversion or respite. What are natural consequences? First, the sense of diversion that one often enjoyed moving from one sphere to another has been lost. As a result, fatigue is likely to arise more frequently. Second, because there are no longer clear lines of demarcation from one sphere to another, the frustrations and even anger experienced in one sphere may contaminate another sphere. Third, a general irritability may become pervasive. Interpersonal withdrawal is then common. Fourth and most toxic, relationships with significant others, rather than being seen as supportive, may begin to seem burdensome. When respite and some emotional distance is finally achieved, guilt and even grieving may be experienced.
Here are some simple suggestions on maintaining supportive relationships:
1. Remember “social distancing” really means maintaining a physical distance, not a social-emotional distance. So contact friends and family on a regular basis, even if it’s only for a few minutes each day. Rekindle old friendships. Bury old hatchets. Even sending text messages can sustain the connection.
2. Show others the same compassion you would hope they would show you, especially in times of high stress.
3. The deepest craving of human nature is the desire to be appreciated, William James once said. So show those around you they are appreciated, not only for what they do but for whom they are.
4. When possible take a five-minute mental vacation. Take several deep breaths and remember a place and time when you were extremely relaxed, then be there. This can re-energize you and help you be more attentive to the things and people around you.
5. Keep a plan for the future. As you fall asleep at night, plan for your life after the adversity.
6. Communicate with those around you, especially family. Fears, anger, and resentment are fueled by loneliness and silence. When you are not communicating with those around you, they typically assume the worst.
7. Do at least one thing for yourself each day. And don't feel guilty about doing so. Taking care of yourself is not a prerogative, it's an obligation you have to those you work with and those who depend upon you.
8. Find one thing to be thankful for each day.
9. Once every day, do something that brings the family together in a low-stress environment, such as dinner, a game, a movie or TV show, take a walk together.
10. And lastly, don’t hesitate to tell someone they are loved.
© 2020, George S. Everly, Jr., PhD.