While things appear to be slowly opening up again in many parts of the world, many people continue to feel hesitant to leave their homes, fearful of exposure to COVID-19. The resulting sense of isolation, depression, and anxiety are keeping mental health hotlines busy.
Without sounding too rosy, is there the possibility of extracting something positive from the turn inward that circumstances are now offering? A telephone survey of 818 Hong Kong residents of age 18-60 during the SARS epidemic in 2003 offers glimmers of hope.
Researchers have reported in the Journal of Infection (August, 2006) that over 60% of respondents cared more about their family member’s feelings. About 30-40% found their friends and family members more supportive. About 2/3 of those interviewed paid more attention to their mental health. And around 35-40% of participants in the survey reported taking more time for resting, relaxing, and exercising.
Sometimes it takes an unexpected and unwelcome jolt to remind us of what’s important in life. These findings suggest to me that one positive response to the stress and fear created by a pandemic is to avail ourselves of the rich resource of human connections, while also taking time to cultivate self-care habits.
Perhaps our lives have been so busy that we haven’t allowed ourselves to pause long enough to attend to our own — and each other’s — inner world. Now that we’re being forced (or invited) to slow down, it’s an opportunity to gently embrace what’s happening inside us, as well as to open our heart to listen to how others are experiencing the pandemic and how it’s affecting them. With the unemployment rate being so high and facing a host of uncertainties, now is a good time to avail ourselves of the support of family and/or friends. But it takes a courageous willingness to be a little vulnerable to share our feelings.
If you’re feeling pretty isolated and vulnerable right now, know that you’re not alone. As the Hong Kong survey suggests, we have an opportunity to pay more attention to our mental and emotional well-being. We can take time to gently embrace our feelings and listen deeply to others’ feelings and concerns.
This is a time when many of us are feeling rather powerless and isolated. But we do have the power make choices that help us feel less isolated. We can call, email, or video chat with a friend — or even send a nice card or letter (imagine that!) Like you, they might appreciate your checking in with them to see how they’re doing.
You might also reflect upon people who have had a meaningful impact on your life. Caught in the time-consuming rat race, it’s easy to lose touch with friends with whom we once felt a strong and supportive connection. You might consider going through your old phone book or searching social media to see if you can locate an old friend or two. I found myself “shocking” a few old friends and had some lovely and uplifting conversations recently. Perhaps we’ll stay in touch more now, but even if we don’t, there’s something rewarding for both of us to let them know I still think about them and value them.
We have the power to not just endure what is happening and whatever we’re feeling about it, but also to express our feelings and concerns to people who care about us. That won’t change the situation we find ourselves in, but don’t underestimate how communicating openly can change our inner landscape. And feeling less isolated and more connected, we might just find an inner strength that helps us consider creative ways that we might move forward in our lives.
I’ve also found myself doing more reading, while moderating how much news I absorb. It’s natural to succumb to our unbridled amygdala, which is programmed to scan for danger in order to help us survive. If we can maintain some mindfulness around what will help us feel less overwhelmed and isolated, we might find our way toward a deeper connection with ourselves and the people we care about. If we can find a spacious perspective and bring some wisdom to how we spend our time, we might find a better balance.