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While many of life’s enjoyed moments and cherished simple pleasures are being put on hold, that voice in our head continues to call out with moment-to-moment reminders about when we were able to take care of our kids and also to take care of ourselves. The longer we continue to be socially distanced because of COVID-19, the louder that voice gets, amplified by worries about all these additional responsibilities like our children’s schooling, our own jobs (if virtual or considered essential), ongoing household tasks, and not to mention incessant family health worries and fears. Once more, we find ourselves in this reality as many of the anchors and safety nets we once knew and depended upon are no longer in place or available. These include the momentary pleasures of being able to escape through taking a moment for ourselves for some self-care or a movie, to go out with friends, or just to be home alone. Who would have thought, had ever thought?
The world we’ve always known and the world we are getting to know are very different. What is this new reality that is creating so much anxiety, stress, frustration, sleeplessness, isolation and loneliness despite the number of others we may be living together with? A whole host of emotions are being experienced during these extraordinary and unprecedented times, requiring us to be living in a very different way than ever before. We are being required to live under a new and necessary normal that is on the tongues of all whether they agree with the premise or not - that being ‘social distancing’ which is affecting our work, our relating and relationships, and our overall mental and physical health.
But let’s call social distancing what it really is: physical distancing. For very critical life and death reasons involving not only one’s own health but the health of everyone, we need to physically distance. Social distancing, however, is a misnomer, because more so than ever before we need social connection and emotional connection, too. We should not socially distance or become emotionally distant either.
Why? Emotional and social connection is essential for our mental health. Emotion is a part of all social connections, central in our relating and in our relationships. Emotion can unite us and divide us, motivate us to reach new heights and prevent us from doing so, and enable us to fight the fight or not. The ability to maintain connections with ourselves, with others and together, is tied to emotion and more important now than ever before. It’s these social and emotional connections that can help mitigate the stress and anxiety of feeling overwhelmed. These connections can serve as a buffer against loneliness, isolation and, for so many of us, feeling tired and done. So given this is our new normal, how can we strengthen our emotional and social connections during this time and bring back those moments of simple pleasures and the solid floor beneath our feet?
First, we have to keep in mind that given that we all have feelings, awareness of our emotions and feelings is key. Emotion is not only our first language from birth but it also is the universal language that can bind or separate us. All emotions matter, but it's what we do with our emotions that matters most. Once we’re able to give ourselves permission to have our feelings, then we can let ourselves know and recognize what they are. We can tune in, observe, and listen to what our emotions are telling us. We can start by tuning in to our bodies, by being aware of our rapid heart rate, sweats, headache, stomach or backache. These are physiological responses and reactions to the intensity of emotions and stress. Next, we can take deep breaths that can help us to regulate the intensity of what we are experiencing. Lastly, we can recognize and identify the emotion behind the response. This can help us feel more organized, less anxious, and more in control. Once we are better able to get our bodies in control and our emotions, we can then access our thinking and begin to talk about what we’re feeling in a calm, confident and more constructive manner, leading to better understanding and ways to solve the challenges we’re confronting more thoughtfully and less emotionally.
Expressing our emotions in a constructive manner that’s tempered with understanding and acceptance of the feeling, which does not mean acceptance of the behavior, can help us better deal with and manage the intensity of our feelings and prevent our emotions from hijacking our thinking and behavior, leading to more effective and successful outcomes in solving problems and resolving conflicts and relating to those around us. Let’s take an example. Let’s say you need to get on a work related Zoom call shortly and you’ve asked your child several times to come to the table for lunch. You’ve gotten no response. You look at your watch and start to notice your heart is beating rapidly. Becoming very frustrated, you yell ‘get in here now’. Your child responds by breaking down in tears and runs to their room, slamming the door. Best laid plans, so now what? Letting yourself become aware that your body is signaling that your emotional meter is up, you can take some deep breaths and recognize you’re very frustrated and angry because your child didn’t listen to you and you need to get on that work call in less than 15 minutes. You can go talk with your child to tell him that you are frustrated and angry that he didn’t listen telling him to come to the table for lunch and explain why that was important to you. You can create a dialogue with your child, listening to his feelings and reasons. He may tell you he’s mad or sad because he misses playing with his friends and being with them at school and you can respond with understanding that you get it and know how hard it is for him right now with things being so different. That will leave him feeling that you’re with him and he’s not alone. Then together you can come up with a plan to solve the problem and the consequences if that plan is not followed. By engaging your child in the solution, you provide your child with a sense of pride, responsibility and empowerment, resulting with you both feeling emotionally connected and in control.
Bear in mind, being intelligent about one’s own emotions and those of others does not mean you don’t experience the stress and anxiety and intensity of feelings. Rather, it means that you have a heightened self-awareness, an ability to handle intense emotions, an increased sensitivity to how others are feeling and you can forge and maintain stronger connections with those around you. These abilities also allow you to deal more effectively and successfully with the stresses and challenges of daily life. When we are more aware of ourselves and our own emotions and those of others we deal better, feel better, relate better and live a better life.
And perhaps most importantly, at the end of the day, remember that despite being physically distant, you are not alone. We are in this together. Being tolerant and kind to yourself as you’re practicing these helpful ways to better manage your feelings is crucial. Find time for your own needs by making room for moments that bring back into focus some simple pleasures whether those be calling a friend, having a virtual girls night out, getting together for a ‘socially distant’ walk or jog, or even just finding time to be with yourself and getting lost in a great book or listening to your favorite tunes. Creating these connections for your self and others will open doors to more positive ways of staying emotionally and socially in touch while staying safe and sane when you’re needing to maintain this new "normal" we erroneously call "Social Distance".
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