Building relationship resilience during self-isolation
The emotional impact
As the world changes before our eyes, we are being repeatedly challenged by increasing uncertainty and potential threat. When change is so rapid and so profound, It can be hard to take it all on board. if we want to learn to adapt, we will need to face the reality of what has changed and its emotional impact on us.
Facing up to change
On the whole, human beings seem to prefer life to be predictable and relatively safe. Even before coronavirus, the recent past has been especially turbulent. Globalization, war and forced migration have increased deprivation and inequality both within and between countries. For many people, COVID-19 has made the resulting state of precarity considerably worse.
For those of us with the good fortune to live in affluent countries, it is a powerful reminder of the potential fragility of the social systems we might take for granted. It highlights the importance of the people, jobs, and services that ensure we have food in the shops, that our bins get emptied, and that there are people to care for us if we get sick. Our mutual dependence has never been more obvious and vital.
When the world spins off its familiar axis, as it seems to be doing, it threatens our sense of stability and order. Change of this magnitude can be difficult to accept. There are more or less helpful ways of coping with emotional upheaval. Three unhelpful emotional coping strategies are emotional avoidance, emotional surrender, and emotional overcompensation.
In this post, I’d like to talk about how we can recognise those unhelpful strategies when they show up and how to switch to more helpful strategies. I want to suggest that we learn to confront the reality of our situation while maintaining compassion, optimism and a focus on what is in our control. If I’m focusing more on personal resilience than on relationships, it’s in the hope that by raising our self-awareness, it will also have an impact on how we behave towards each other.
Clinging to the familiar
If we’re struggling to adapt, that might be in part because we are unable or unwilling to let go of our attachment to the way the world used to be, just a few short weeks or months ago. This is not really surprising. Consider how much we had invested in our day-to-day life. Remember all those plans we had. How there were celebrations to attend, people to hang out with, holidays to plan, the match to watch. All the stuff of daily life and of our dreams and aspirations.
Of course, it’s hard to let go of this stuff. The people and projects we invest in bring us a sense of achievement, pleasure, and connection. They give us our most profound experiences of identity, meaning, and purpose. And somehow we have to find the courage to face the reality that many of our most meaningful activities are indefinitely on hold; cancelled or deferred to an uncertain future.
The emotional impact
We know that profound change can have a deeply painful emotional impact. Perhaps you’ve noticed that your dreams are more vivid or your patience a little shorter. That your mood goes up and down quite sharply. Or that your anxieties are more in the forefront of your mind, or your temper a little more frayed. If so, you won’t be alone in feeling this way.
A recently published rapid review in The Lancet reviewed the evidence on how people have previously coped with isolation and quarantine during an epidemic. It makes for sobering reading. People’s mental health and relationships suffer during lockdown, especially those with existing mental health problems. Researchers noted that it took people about six months to feel safe again around other people after their isolation ended.
What about your situation? You may already have experienced a bereavement and be grieving the untimely loss of a loved one. A friend or relative could be in a hospital, or even in intensive care. It would be completely understandable to be horribly worried about their safety and to feel powerless at being unable to be with them.
Unwanted change can be a bereavement in its own right. We might feel grief, for example, at the loss of roles that gave our life meaning and the loss of a future we thought we could plan for. Or anger that more wasn’t done more promptly to restrict the number of deaths, or to get adequate personal protective equipment and testing to frontline workers.
You might be dismayed at the disproportionate impact of the virus on black and minority ethnic communities, the elderly, and those with underlying health conditions. You might feel anxious at how the situation will develop because of the uncertainty of the duration of the lockdown and the lack of an obvious exit strategy. Or, you could simply be frightened that you might get infected or carry the infection to someone else.
Emotional avoidance is a strategy for managing distress by ignoring, suppressing or deflecting emotional pain. One form of avoidance is to deny the present reality by trying to cling to old certainties and to a past that we still hanker after. In trying to live as if nothing significant had changed, we might find ourselves tempted to contradict government instructions.
In order to legitimise and justify this behaviour, we tend to rationalise our decisions, telling ourselves that “it’s just this once” or, “it won’t hurt anyone”. We might be tempted to minimise the seriousness of the situation, reassuring ourselves that “it’s just the flu,” when the harrowing scenes from intensive treatment units show us that there’s no “just” about it.
The antidote to this form of emotional avoidance is to recognise the cognitive manoeuvres we are using. As human beings, we are all capable of rationalising away the discomfort we experience when what we want doesn’t match with what we experience. Inconvenient truths are the hardest to acknowledge. It’s a hard question to face but perhaps, from time to time, we could all do with asking ourselves,
“If my behaviour were part of the problem, what would I need to change?”
Other emotional avoidance strategies
Other emotional avoidance strategies include withdrawing psychologically through dissociation, denial or fantasy. We might seek to distract ourselves through risky behaviour, such as an increase in online gambling or through numbing ourselves, including drinking more alcohol than is good for us. People might notice that we are withdrawing emotionally from them by retreating into solitary activities.
The antidote to these strategies is to open up to others and connect with them. To recognise that we are all in this together and that we can support each other through hard times. It means allowing ourselves to feel vulnerable and to share our vulnerability. And to express our empathy and to let other people get close to us. We can make self-isolation less lonely if we share how we feel with those who care about us.
Emotional surrender is giving in to hopelessness and defeat. It is becoming so overwhelmed with powerlessness that it is easier to be passive than to try to resist. We might notice that we become overly reliant on others. That we give in too easily and become unassertive. We might no longer take care of ourselves as well as we did. Those closest to us might notice that we are tearful, low in mood and have lost motivation.
The antidote to this strategy is to start to take small steps to increase your autonomy and self-control. Plan activities you can do each day that bring you a sense of achievement, pleasure, and connection. Learn a new skill or take up an old hobby. When despair and defeat show up, recognise that they are not reflecting the whole picture and that, deep down, you are almost certainly more capable than you are giving yourself credit for.
Emotional overcompensation is the attempt to take control of the uncontrollable. It might manifest in obsessively reading statistics about infection rates or following news sites for more information about the worldwide situation. Or, closer to home, you might spend every hour trying supermarket sites to check for home delivery slots.
Other people might notice that you are deeply preoccupied and irritable. They might find your behaviour controlling or resent your insistence that everyone does things your way. You might inadvertently come across as critical. In fact, you might be quite hostile in the way you interact, for example with strangers who don’t appear to take the situation as seriously as you think they should. In this approach to emotional coping, there is a lot of potential for increased conflict and frustration.
The antidote is to recognise the limits of your power to control your vulnerability. It doesn’t mean giving up all power to influence how you respond to the crisis. It does mean learning to accept that people are not perfect and that they have their own reasons for acting as they do that make sense to them. Try to focus on what is directly in your sphere of influence and seek to get consensus on how you and those you live with respond, rather than trying to impose your solutions.
Acknowledging the reality of your situation
Letting go of unhelpful emotional coping strategies means acknowledging the reality of your situation. For example, you might now have to work from home and struggle to find the space or a set-up that works for you. You might have been furloughed and not be quite sure what to do with your time. You could be a key worker who’s having to self-isolate due to a family member having symptoms despite knowing that you’re needed back on the frontline. Perhaps you feel a conflict between going to work from a sense of obligation or for financial reasons and keeping yourself and your family safe.
And it probably won’t just be you that you’re concerned about; in one way or another, we’re all having to deal with the impact this crisis is having on our children, parents, siblings, and friends. Our place in the world, and our responsibilities to ourself and others, are changing in ways we couldn’t have predicted.
Take a moment to think about the changes you’re facing and the frustration and loss that you’re feeling. What do you notice comes up for you? Try to let yourself stay with the feelings, letting them wash through you. Notice your thoughts but don’t buy into them. See them as words written on leaves floating down a stream that you watch float by from the safety of the river bank. Whatever you’re feeling is what you’re feeling. Even if you find your emotions painful, try to make room for them. Focus on whatever is present at this moment. And notice that you are here, still and silent, observing your feelings, with curiosity and without judgement.
Hope in a time of uncertainty
And now try to turn your mind towards self-compassion and empathy for others. Of course, it’s not surprising that at times we feel disorientated, lost, upset, and confused. Yet, as life tears down the regularities that scaffolded our daily life, there is hope. Life may never be quite the same but resilience is a capability that all human beings share. It is the capacity to find meaning and hope in appalling circumstances. As Viktor Frankl once wrote, “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances”.
If we are to be resilient, then we must hold on to optimism and the belief that we are fundamentally resilient. I have found it really encouraging to hear the stories of people’s positive responses to adversity and this seems to be a widely shared and necessary response to feelings of powerlessness.
Notice how you feel when we celebrate those who do selfless deeds, for example raising money for charities to support the NHS. Or when we go out on to our doorsteps and clap for the people whose work puts them in the way of danger for all our sakes.
Focus on the positive
Notice the way we are trying to adapt. How, in our own homes, we are learning to work remotely or to become our children’s surrogate teacher. That we’re taking online classes, or picking up musical instruments that have been gathering dust, or learning a new language. Or organising virtual dinner parties or watching gigs being live-streamed. How it helps to reach out to neighbours and set up online groups to look out for each other.
These are a few of the examples I’ve come across, and I’m sure you’ll know of others in your life and community. What would it be like to take a moment to celebrate them as a testament to our humanity and our solidarity? Either on your own or in conversation with your partner, think about what you are grateful for in your life and in your relationship. Notice how you feel more resilient when you focus on what is positive and try to bring a sense of realistic optimism to your current predicament.
Perhaps you might like to start a diary of your experience where you record how you are coping? There is good evidence from positive psychology that a daily gratitude diary helps build a feeling of mastery. Find a nice notebook if you have one and, at the end of each day, simply record three things that have gone well, or that you were grateful for. At the end of each week, read back what you have written. If you and your partner are both doing this exercise separately, you might like to share your entries with each other. It can be good to reflect on what sustains you and gives you hope.
If you’re feeling more ambitious, you could do online training on resilience, such as the University of Pennsylvania’s resilience skills in a time of uncertainty course, or the Yale University MOOC on the science of wellbeing, both of which are free at the time of writing.
In short, let’s acknowledge the pain, loss, and difficulty, but try not to let it overwhelm us or frighten us into retreating from ourselves and each other. If we focus on what is in our control and on what we appreciate and are grateful for, hard times are a little easier to bear. A crisis brings into focus what is really important to us. And, knowing what is truly important is knowledge we can take with us into all our uncertain futures.
For now, my very best wishes to all. Let’s keep each other safe, look after ourselves, and, above all, try to be kind.