[Editor’s note: This is the fourth article in a series on action plans for different areas of life during the COVID-19 pandemic.]
During this period of physical distancing, a new norm of limiting touch was created. Although touches are often few and brief in American culture compared with other cultures, these brief touches contribute greatly to our emotional well-being. Many have missed the small touches of friends and family that connected them at a deeper level, or the social courtesy of a handshake during introductions.
Social distancing, although necessary, has been a big challenge. But after a period of quarantine and isolation from friends and family, perhaps a bigger challenge will be returning to normal interactions of touching one another without fear and anxiety. There are mixed emotions involved. Some people are feeling relief and gratitude as restrictions are gradually loosened, while others are experiencing frustration with the “new norm” or are fearful that others could still infect them with the virus.
Whichever side you come out on, it is important to remember that touch creates a human bond that is particularly necessary for building a healthy, more connected community. Studies show that we need to touch and be touched. Human touch is vital for well-being. It leads to the release of oxytocin, also called the “love hormone,” which helps regulate your fight-or-flight system and calms your body in times of stress.
Studies also show that lack of touch can be harmful to health. In experiments with monkeys, researcher Harry Harlow demonstrated that young monkeys deprived of touch did not grow and develop normally. We must now work at getting back to where we can touch each other without anxiety or doubt.
In the meantime, learning to express warmth and affection through words will help us move forward. Here is a plan of action for that.
1) Focus on the future.
Every storm passes. And this too shall pass. After a period of quarantine or isolation, you may feel emotions that include relief and gratitude, or even feelings of personal growth and increased spirituality. Just as fear was once spread, hope and security can be transmitted socially too.
Looking at crises as opportunities to rethink and reorganize our priorities will prove beneficial. Crises bring opportunities for improvements that are not always possible in other conditions. The analogy of a diamond may apply here. The beauty of the diamond comes about from the extreme experience of pressure and heat. The same is true for us. We will emerge stronger from this situation and the complex challenges we have faced and are still facing. Let’s focus on a future that is filled with hope.
2) Prioritize your mental health and be flexible.
Things may get worse before they get better, but we are still here. Human beings have great capacity for adapting in times of suffering.
Prioritizing your mental health can be one of the best steps you can take at this time. For many, this will mean continuing to see their therapists or booking online sessions to talk through things and being intentional about practicing self-care.
Feeling anxious as we reintegrate as a society will be normal, but if you experience symptoms of extreme stress such as constant sleep problems or an increase in alcohol or drug use, a visit to your health care provider or mental health professional can make a positive difference. Mental health is essential to everyone’s overall health and well-being, especially during difficult times. Focus your attention on your strengths and abilities, and imagine yourself coping and adapting successfully.
Flexibility is adaptive. It is imperative that we build a foundation of healthy coping and stay connected to our values and to one another. Gratitude is a good first step toward opening the door to flexibility. In fact, the more you practice gratitude, the better your brain gets at recognizing positive things.
Start by thinking about one thing or person for which you are grateful. Focus on the feelings that arise, and hold them in your heart. Know that you can return to that thought of appreciation anytime as you move forward.
3) Be optimistic and resilient.
Optimism is the tendency to see and judge things in their most positive or favorable outcome. Resilience is our ability to overcome difficult circumstances and grow in the face of adversity. These qualities will be key in our efforts to recover. When we are anxious, we tend to overestimate and exaggerate the impact of a negative event and underestimate our chances of recovery. Resiliency gives us a realistic balance.
The ability to handle adversity will be another critical component to our success moving forward. Even if you or someone you love has been diagnosed with the coronavirus, maintaining an optimistic attitude is essential to supporting recovery. Being optimistic will help you make your thoughts and emotions much more positive, which in turn gives your immune system a boost.
The experience of the coronavirus does not have to become a traumatic and overwhelming experience that marks us for life. On the contrary, it can be an excellent opportunity to exercise our resilience — that is, to grow in the face of adversity.
Religious individuals involved in tragic circumstances often report finding peace, hope and even increased faith in the midst of the experience. Consequently, they tend to report high satisfaction in their lives. “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed … Struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:9).
We can all benefit from this kind of optimism. Therefore, let us start filling our world with music and songs of hope in preparation for the great celebration that awaits us. We will meet again. We will celebrate again. Let’s get started.
Esther Scott is a licensed professional counselor in Arlington, Texas. She is a solution-focused therapist. Her specialties include grief, depression, teaching coping skills and couples counseling. Contact her through her website at positiveactionsinternational.com.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.