The COVID Connection
Submitted by Melissa Zehner, LPC, Professional Psychotherapist, and Mindfulness-Meditation Practitioner
If you were to stop and think about your interpersonal life for a moment, post-COVID, what comes up? Have relationships changed? Have some waned from lack of attention or has intimacy increased, perhaps from a reinvigorated sense of appreciation? Have there been losses where maybe the relationship couldn’t hold a certain amount of discord or distance? Have new relationships formed or ones from the past resurfaced? How are your relationships faring through this nebulous time? How are you feeling in terms of relational connectedness? Do you feel valued, appreciated, honored, understood and seen or do you feel alienated, lonely, misaligned, perhaps even invisible at times?
The thing about COVID, in addition to what it’s done to the bodies of those who have been inflicted with it and to all our psyche’s that have feared this illness, (even more so) it’s affected us interpersonally. We’ve had to fundamentally alter our every way of being with one another; we’ve at times had to fear one another, had to question other’s behaviors, had to scrutinize or make conjectures, had to avoid, back up, and distance ourselves. Terms like “social-distancing,” “keeping space,” “quarantine,” “6ft apart” and “masks required” have become common nomenclature (representing a certain social separation) that even our youngest of speakers have verbalized almost unremarkably at this point. No matter how it is that you are navigating the current circumstance, this pandemic has caused a collective-relational trauma.
As we’ve been able to let up our guard a bit and resume more “normal” activities, there is still a fundamental lack of solidarity floating throughout the atmosphere. Who is still social distancing, who attends school, who is on zoom, who has left the school system altogether, who wears masks, who won’t, who thinks the pandemic is a fabrication, who is financially stable and who is relying on food donations in parking lots? Then of course, there’s that election coming around the corner. The outcome, of which, seems to have a significant effect on the direction this country will take next, leaving the opposing sides in tremendous fear and indignation over a potential loss. Plus, a racial injustice movement that’s (sadly) been reduced to a juvenile argument over semantics rather than an introspective pause for this country to reevaluate itself.
Our entire lives seem to be cut up into segments of this or that, if this is true then that must also be true, our side versus their side, blue or black, red or blue, me versus you. And so, we get farther distanced through such binary social constructs that are overly simplistic, reductionistic, and strips us of our common human connection. Not to mention, the energy it takes to process this much controversy spiraling around us at all times. The Amygdala (that part of your brain that scans for threat) has likely been on overdrive these past months, trying to make sense of this new and very strange landscape. The exhaustion that comes with being on perpetual high alert is overwhelming, not to mention a serious risk to one’s mental and physical health.
Stop here and take a breath. Now let’s do a simple body scan. What is your jaw doing right now? Is it locked up, are your teeth clenching down? Are your shoulders rising up to your ears, is your neck stiff? How’s your breathing? Is it rapid or forced, is there a heaviness bearing down on your chest? And how about your gut- is it all knotted up? Just take notice of your body as it is with no need to change it, just a simple gentle acknowledgment. Breathe here for a few moments and acknowledge all that you’ve been carrying… Now, think of someone who has supported you, who has seen you as you are with total acceptance and genuine love. Breathe with all the visceral sensations that arise as you think of this person. Doing this for a few moments longer while smiling (even if the smile is forced). Perhaps you notice a softening or warmth somewhere in your body, or not. There is no right or wrong here, just a simple objective observation of the body.
Recently, I had an extremely difficult day that turned into another difficult day and then another until I had hit a low that seemed impossible to shake. Ordinarily, I would know exactly what to do, take space from my children, and tend to myself but with no child care resources available it simply wasn’t possible. Like many parents these days, I was being pushed beyond my threshold and there was simply nothing I could do about it but wait it out. Then something kind of extraordinary happened. My son unknowingly taught me something, a new kind of practice. The children were playing a make-believe game where they feed each other imaginary cookies that transform them into different characters with various emotional states. In one of his transformations, my son was making punching gestures into the air while simultaneously smiling. I pointed out how difficult that is to do. The reason being, when we form a fist with our hands, especially in a punching fashion our body has a natural response to this (one of fight/flight activation) and when we smile our body has another response that is quite the opposite, it’s a signal for us to soften and relax. To perform these two contrary gestures at once is quite difficult and I wondered what it would feel like, so I started doing it myself. Interestingly it felt quite good and in just a short while I noticed an incredible shift in my mood. The malaise had very suddenly lifted.
As a body-oriented psychotherapist, I could spend a great deal of time summating why this occurred but I won’t digress too far here. I will only offer that I was able to enact the rage (safely) with the fists while softening with the smile, engaging both branches of the autonomic nervous system. The branch that primes us for fight/flight action is the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the branch that helps us restore afterwards is the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). By signaling both branches my body was able to go through the full circuit of activation to restoration and I was thus released of the hold anger had on me. See what happens when the fight/flight system (SNS) is on overdrive, which occurs when the Amygdala continues to be on high alert then our calming system (PNS) also known as the “rest and digest” branch of the nervous system does not kick in. So, try putting on a smile sometimes, even when it is forced and perhaps even adding a few punches in there and just see what happens.
It’s vital that we not only seek out ways to engage conflictual states within ourselves but also with one another. You see, we need relationships in order to survive and be well. Our brains are wired this way; we thrive through human connection and we peril in its absence. So, where do we go from here amidst all this controversy? We work harder than ever to cultivate trusting relationships wherein we can state what we need, what makes us feel safe, what makes us feel understood, and as if we matter even when (and maybe especially when) we hold contrary perspectives. In a way, it’s every therapist’s dream really, for people to enter into relationships by stating what they need unequivocally, no assumptions, no ambiguity, no justification, and no apology. To love me, I need this. And you, what can I offer you, regardless of whether I share the same point of view? So here we go.
I need you to wear a mask. I feel safer when you wear a mask in my presence and when you care enough to make me feel safe then I feel valued, accepted, and loved. If you deny where I’m at because you assume that I should be where you’re at then I feel anxious, ignored, and invisible. I need you to keep a little space of the physical kind- not the emotional. I need you to engage me emotionally. Tell me what it’s really like for you, not what the pictures say. I need you to respect that my choices may be different than yours and know that although things aren’t as I would like them to be, I am still smiling under this mask and finding real purpose in life. Also know that I don’t really want to know about your stance on whether to wear masks or not, whether kids should be back in school or not, whether you think this virus is real or a conspiracy. It’s not your stance on these topics that I want to know. The stance is your armor. It’s what pits you against me, it’s what leaves us both feeling alienated and misunderstood, creating the need to buffer this armor with more and more justifications, pushing you farther away from me. Know that I may have the tendency to judge you (it happens sometimes) but that I actively work on acknowledging this judgment within me. I can observe my mind’s tendency to judge something as good or bad, right or wrong, my way/her way and I can sit with these binaries, breathing into them, and letting them go like an incoming wave that recedes almost as soon as it rises… when I don’t cling to it.
When I can allow such opposing thoughts to settle like this, then often a deep compassion for myself rises up and permeates outward to include a loving compassion for all those around me. And with that a knowing that our fears and our wants and our great human need to be seen and honored and loved is just the same, no matter how we choose or are forced to navigate the current circumstances. Know that I don’t give much credence to my thoughts, they are wholly unreliable but my love for you and my desire that all living kind be well is so far beyond such passing thoughts. It is dependable, unwavering, and based in an authentic relational connection. And you… what do you need from me? How can I make you feel safe, honored, seen, and loved, just as you are right now?