Tag Archives: Shelter in place

Overcoming free-time boredom during COVID-19: Combining a home-based optimal leisure lifestyle with behavioral activation

By Rodney B. Dieser July 7, 2020

As a licensed mental health counselor, I am hearing many of my clients tell me that they are ready to go stir-crazy because of an abundance of free time combined with greater stress during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although many states are reopening their leisure industries, many of my clients feel the safer route — and more thoughtful route toward health care workers and preventing the spread of COVID-19 — is to follow epidemiological and scientific advice by staying home.

Some of my clients are experiencing depression because they have lost their jobs, spend most of their days bored and ruminate on fear-based thoughts. The purpose of this short article is to suggest two interrelated ideas about how to create a psychological breather of positive emotion during your day that can also distract you from worry and stress.

First, develop a home-based optimal leisure lifestyle (OLL), which consists of one serious leisure activity, supplemented by casual and project-based leisure. Serious leisure is centered on acquiring and expressing special skills, knowledge and experience that take months, and sometimes years, to develop. Often, in everyday life, this is known as developing a hobby and is based on mastery gained through hard work and much effort.

My youngest son has taken the extra free time he now has and developed a serious skill-based hobby: He has purchased a watch repair kit and is tinkering away at repairing old watches. I am learning how to play the harmonica to Bruce Springsteen songs.

The Wikipedia page on hobbies identifies hundreds of skill-based hobbies to pursue, many of which are home-based. The internet can help with education and skill development. Often, there are online communities full of people who will welcome and mentor you toward your new serious leisure pursuits.

Casual leisure involves short-lived activities that require little or no specialized training. This type of leisure is based in hedonistic pleasure that requires little effort. For instance, my wife and I are currently watching comedies and documentaries on Netflix and enjoying it.

Project-based leisure is a short-term, one-shot or occasional creative undertaking. My wife is serving her community through her sewing projects and is serving a local nonprofit agency. When our kids were young, they picked a project of leisure learning each week (often it was insects), and we all had fun as we learned together. Just like with serious leisure, you can use the internet to find projects in your community. Often, nonprofit organizations are more than ready to link your personal strengths, passions and skills to a project they are working on.

Developing an OLL will provide transient moments in your day for positive emotion — a psychological breather from going stir-crazy and experiencing brain-numbing boredom. To learn more about OLL and the three forms of leisure I have just described, visit the Serious Leisure Perspective website. There you can learn about Robert Stebbins, who pioneered the academic work over a span of 40-plus years that led to development of the serious leisure perspective and the OLL framework. In addition, this website lists hundreds of studies that provide evidence of how individuals’ positive emotion is increased when involved in serious, casual and project-based leisure.

Research demonstrates that people can remedy stress if they laugh more (casual leisure), find a hobby (serious leisure) and engage in meaning-making activities such as volunteering in their communities or toward social causes (project-based leisure).

Behavioral activation involves having people/clients become more active and involved in life by scheduling activities with the potential to improve their mood. Counselors can help those clients who have an abundance of free time on their hands, whether due to unemployment or wanting to continue self-quarantining, by working with them to create a daily schedule based on developing an OLL. This involves using free time to engage in one serious leisure activity (e.g., starting a new hobby such as digital art, nail painting, cartoon drawing or bird watching), one casual leisure activity (e.g., reading, exploring new musical genres, watching comedies, hanging out with friends virtually) and one project-based leisure activity (e.g., sewing high-grade face masks for health care workers, volunteering at the Humane Society or with a political party, helping a nonprofit with fundraising efforts, creating a family history book by interviewing uncles, aunts and cousins) every day.

Behavioral activation is an evidence-based treatment for depression that has been found to be very effective. In everyday language, it is simply getting people more active and involved in life by scheduling activities that can improve mood. Cultivating an OLL and getting involved in serious, casual and project-based leisure when homebound is one way to create a psychological breather of positive emotion during your day that can also distract you from worry and stress.

 

Self-disclosure of my OLL

The following is a self-disclosure of my OLL during a three-month-plus self-imposed lockdown at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is provided so that readers can gain a gestalt of how an OLL can be inserted into everyday life that now may feature much more free time.

Serious leisure: Developing and expressing special skills, knowledge and experience; acquires much effort and is linked to enjoyment.

My daily activities

  • Learning to play harmonica to Bruce Springsteen songs
  • Studying creative writing and attempting to write short stories

Casual leisure: Low skills set focused on distracting; linked to pleasure.

My daily activities

  • Watching more documentaries and comedies on Netflix
  • Reconnecting with “forgotten musicians” of my past (what I used to listen to as a young man). Includes learning about and appreciating musical narrations and sonic arrangements of different genres of music. Examples: Chris de Burgh, James Taylor, Al Stewart, April Wine, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Thin Lizzy, Supertramp, Triumph and Neil Young. I extended this to the music that my father and mother (both deceased) liked. This included Hank Williams, Waylon Jennings, Stompin’ Tom Connors, Hank Snow and Freddy Fender.
  • Reading the “classics” in literature, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman

Project leisure: Short-term activity focused on completing a project

My daily activities

  • Cleaning out parts of the house that have not been cleaned out for years and donating much to Goodwill Industries
  • Gardening
  • Weekly project of exercise for health: Taking a 5- to 15-mile bike ride three days a week; running sprints at an outdoor track one day a week; working out on a Bowflex twice a week

Note: I used my stimulus check to purchase a Bowflex online and set it up in the garage. That piece of exercise equipment, gardening plants/seeds and used books (also bought online) are the only leisure resources I have purchased during the pandemic. Many of my leisure activities, such as playing the harmonica, engaging in creative writing and developing my appreciation of past musicians, have been learned or enhanced through resources on the internet.

 

****

Related reading, from the Counseling Today archives (co-written by Rodney B. Dieser): “The serious leisure perspective in mental health counseling

A USA Today opinion piece written by Dieser: “Coronavirus pause: People need people, but it’s risky to resume social activities so soon

 

****

Rodney B. Dieser is the author of five textbooks and more than 100 articles on the topic of leisure. His writing about leisure has appeared in USA Today and the Mayo Clinic Proceedings journal. He is a professor of recreation, tourism and nonprofit leadership and an affiliate faculty member in professional counseling at the University of Northern Iowa. He works 10 hours a week as a licensed mental health counselor for Covenant Family Solutions in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Contact him at rodney.dieser@uni.edu.

****

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.

The power of virtual group therapy during a time of quarantine

By Scott Gleeson July 1, 2020

In our newfound world of physical distancing, the idea of six to eight people in a confined space might feel counterintuitive to the six-feet-apart mission we still find ourselves trekking in wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Yet the power of a group is exactly what could provide a profound healing method for so many in times of intensified life anxieties and social isolation.

Mental health clinicians everywhere have been thrust into virtual counseling scenarios because of shelter-in-place restrictions, with telehealth numbers skyrocketing in March, April and May, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Although in-person individual sessions are poised to become more feasible this summer, physical distancing practices and safety precautions are likely to keep group therapy sessions at a minimum.

That’s where virtual group therapy can be essential.

As a facilitator for a small men’s group at a private practice in Downers Grove, Illinois, I was hesitant about virtual group sessions temporarily replacing our biweekly meetings back in mid-March. By now, even with FaceTime and Skype temporarily being deemed HIPAA-compliant, I am guessing that we all can relate to the technical and natural difficulties that can ensue with any virtual session.

Is the Wi-Fi spotty to the point that the client’s responses are delayed, leading to talking over each other? Is a client’s body language difficult to read on-screen, or are they tenser and more reluctant to open up? Is privacy a never-ending challenge? The task of organizing a successful group session over a virtual platform was certainly daunting to me.

Despite my apprehension, our first quarantined men’s group session was one of the best we have had in the nearly two years the group has been running. The reason? There was a true need to connect.

Our meetings are facilitated as an open group, and we recently welcomed a few new members virtually, but it takes the life of a closed group because of the culture of camaraderie. The men in our group are all going through something different, and we cover topics ranging from marriage and parental struggles to loss and relationship dynamics. The demographic makeup of the group is diverse, but because of the support the guys feel when sharing their current life stressors (sometimes in great depth), there is often a sense of inhabiting common ground. Once we got used to the Brady Bunch-looking setup of the virtual platform, we didn’t skip a beat in this regard. The synergy we had developed over time carried over to make the virtual group setting still feel organic and comforting.

Irvin Yalom has popularized 11 therapeutic principles for high-functioning groups, and among those key principles are universality and instillation of hope. In these emotionally turbulent times, the cohesiveness felt in group therapy can take on new meaning because of the umbrella of uncertainty we are living under. And the need to foster optimism during a global crisis has been catapulted to the forefront.

What follows is a look at three important ways virtual group therapy can bolster clients’ mental health during unprecedented challenges.

Addressing uncertainties: One ripple effect of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the hit to the economy that left many workers jobless, furloughed or taking significant pay cuts. That’s where the power of catharsis comes in.

Throughout our group’s spring meetings, one common theme the guys shared was how discombobulated they felt by the uncertainty of everything, especially economically. Upon soliciting feedback, many group members shared that it was helpful simply to air out those feelings and connect with others universally.

Checking in on self-care: Quarantining drastically complicates the goal of maintaining proper self-care. The World Health Organization (WHO) has suggested a rise in depression as a result of routines and livelihoods being altered.

Of course, standard self-care practices for many men (going to the gym, drinking beers at a bar, playing contact-centric sports) quickly fell out of the picture as the pandemic escalated. That pushed our group members to get more innovative and imaginative.

One of our guys ramped up from-home workouts. Another started calling one new friend each day. Another started a Star Wars marathon. Another began virtual guitar lessons. Another started baking for the first time ever (desperate times indeed!). This is where the altruism offered by group becomes an emotional springboard. In sharing their strengths and creative ideas, each member’s self-esteem received a boost.

Creating much-needed positive connection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended connecting with others and “talking with people you trust” during times of quarantine. Participating in happy hour with co-workers over Zoom or hosting informal college reunions over Facebook Messenger can undoubtedly offer a great morale boost.

The difference between those types of meetups and a therapeutic group can be found in the layers of emotionality present. Raw feelings of “I miss my kids” or “Nothing I do is ever enough for my wife” take on a different tone in a group that fosters emotional processing vs. another round of drinks.

One important element to consider is the idea of connection provided by social media and how an overconsumption of that medium can actually be detrimental to well-being. That’s especially the case when it comes to ingesting news that often has negative headlines. The WHO recommends limiting news consumption and taking in at least one positive story each day. To honor that guidance, consider starting or ending virtual group meetings by having each group member share a positive story.

Every class I took for my online master’s program at Northwestern University’s Family Institute was over a virtual platform. So, in many ways, I was trained in a digital arena, with case conceptualization and role-plays constructed in Zoom breakout rooms. One of my biggest takeaways from that experience was how close I actually became with my classmates. We had met in person maybe once before graduation, yet there was a potent bond that was fostered through the intimacy of a computer screen.

I feel a similar sense of unity now in virtual counseling groups. In a day and age when physical touch is less plentiful, togetherness has never been more vital for all of us.

 

****

Scott Gleeson is a licensed professional counselor at DG Counseling in Downers Grove, Illinois, and Chicago. Contact him at scottmgleeson@gmail.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.

Supporting families with engagement strategies during COVID-19

By Carson Eckard June 18, 2020

To combat the toxic stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, I have created a list of activities to positively engage children during this time. The following list includes a description of what each activity is, what materials are needed (with an understanding that many families are under financial hardship) and the possible psychological benefits of the activity.

These activities are designed for entire families, including adults, to reduce stress and promote healing during the pandemic. Most of these activities can be done either inside or outside and can be tailored to individual interests, ages and ability levels.

 

Obstacle course

This activity will get the whole family moving. Use objects around the house to get the family involved. This could include climbing under or over chairs, throwing a bundle of socks into a laundry basket, spinning, using paper strips in place of lasers, and so on.

Inside, a slower pace can be taken to ensure that nothing gets broken and no one gets hurt. If you have access to an outdoor space or a sidewalk in front of your home, you can create an obstacle course out of chalk. Here’s an example.

This website includes a list of materials to use.

This slideshow has ideas for children in wheelchairs.

Materials: Whatever you have in the house

Ages: Toddlers and early elementary-age children

Psychological benefit: Obstacle courses can target many aspects of a child’s brain, including sensory input, motor planning, coordination, sequencing and problem-solving. They can also reduce psychological stress and anxiety. When more people participate, the teamwork and competition can provide some of the social interaction children have been missing from environments such as school.

 

Broadway play

This activity allows children to engage in imaginary play by creating plots to their own stories. When the story is written, have the child cast the characters in the story, find props (or imagine them) and direct the scene. If there aren’t enough family members to act out the scene, consider playing multiple parts at once or having the child draw the characters instead. Children may need direction and prompting, but allow them to be in control of constructing their own narrative. Activities that could be added include constructing sets and props and making movie posters.

Materials: Whatever you have in the house — paper, markers, drawing materials, prop-making materials and so on

Ages: Toddlers through early middle school age

Psychological benefit: During the pandemic, children may be struggling with an inability to control the situation. When they are able to control a scene and story in a healthy way, it can reduce their stress and promote individuality and resilience. Furthermore, creativity reduces anxiety and depression and can help children process toxic stress.

 

Board games and card games

When everyone is stuck at home, board games and card games are a great option for helping the entire family to connect. For younger kids, games such as Go Fish, Candy Land, and Guess Who? could be hits, whereas older kids may like Monopoly, Clue, and Sorry!

If you don’t have any board games at home, use paper or cardboard to create your own. WikiHow has information on steps to take when you’d like to create your own board game. Make sure your child is part of the creative process of creating the game if you choose to make your own.

For more information on why board games are good for a child’s mental health, as well as a breakdown of age-appropriate games, check this link from Manhattan Psychology Group.

Materials: Cardboard, paper, markers, small toys, etc.

Ages: Any

Psychological benefit: Playing fun games decreases anxiety and can increase confidence in children. Some games include aspects of problem-solving and can access the cortex for children who feel safe. Board games allow for healthy cognitive and social development for children.

Mazes and finger labyrinths

Mazes and finger labyrinths are easily made at home. They are a great brain teaser for kids and can also be extremely relaxing. Finger labyrinths are just like mazes, but instead of drawing a line to the exit, a finger is used to follow the path. When paired with deep breathing exercises, this can have a meditative quality.

For help on constructing labyrinths made out of materials such as rice, play dough, paperclips and more, go to this website.

The Labyrinth Society offers an online resource for downloadable and printable finger labyrinths.

The All Kids Network has many printable mazes for kids.

Materials: Paper, printer, something to write with

Ages: Whereas mazes are most engaging for children ages 3-6, finger labyrinths are a good mindfulness activity for children of all ages

Psychological benefit: Mazes offer many benefits to a child’s development, including problem-solving and motor control. Children will need patience and persistence to complete the puzzle and, once done, may experience a boost of confidence. Finger labyrinths originated in prayer but are also used as a grounding exercise.

 

Dance party

Turn up your favorite songs and get moving. Be sure to build a playlist the entire family can move to. Only upbeat jams! Spotify is a free service you can use to build playlists if you establish an account. Spotify playlists that might make for super fun dance parties can be found here. You may need to look around to find a playlist without explicit lyrics, but Spotify does offer an explicit content filter in its settings. Other free services include Amazon Music, Pandora, iHeartRadio and YouTube, but most have ads and can incorporate explicit lyrics, so be careful.

Materials: A phone, laptop, tablet or any device that plays music

Ages: Any

Psychological benefit: Dancing is both great exercise and a form of creative expression. Dancing keeps your heart healthy and muscles strong, improves coordination and balance, and provides an outlet for emotions. Music activates the cerebellum, stimulates the release of hormones that reduce stress, and improves self-esteem.

 

Karaoke party

On a similar note to a dance party, a karaoke party could be another viable option for the family. Because you want family members to sing, I recommend using YouTube and allowing each person to pick a song of their choice, unless you have a premium subscription for a music streaming service. As a finale, try singing a few songs that everyone knows together. For an added bonus, try creating a song by making your own lyrics and finding objects around the house to use as instruments.

Materials: A phone, laptop, tablet or any device that plays music; maybe a prop to use as a “microphone”

Ages: Any

Psychological benefit: Singing releases hormones that reduce stress and make us feel happy, improves mental alertness and helps us control our breath flow, which can help us regulate. Singing also helps children’s communication skills and self-esteem. Studies show that singing stimulates the vagus nerve responsible for our senses, motor function, digestion, respiration and heart rate. When stimulated, the vagus nerve reduces stress, lowers the heart rate and blood pressure, and reduces inflammation.

 

Play teacher

Let your child become the expert and pretend to be a teacher of whatever they are passionate about. This can take a more “formal” approach by pretending to be in school, or it can be more informal, simply asking them questions about the things they are interested in. This helps children realize that adults don’t know everything and allows them to develop as individuals.

Materials: None

Ages: Elementary school age (Note: It is beneficial and important to ask children of any age what their interests are to strengthen your relationship with them)

Psychological benefit: Taking on a formal “school” scenario involves imaginative play. Imaginative play allows children to experiment with different interests and skills. Furthermore, children who engage in pretend play are understanding social relationships, expressing and understanding emotions, expressing themselves both verbally and nonverbally, and practicing problem-solving skills. If imaginative play isn’t your cup of tea, have conversations with your child about what they are passionate about or interested in. Having these kinds of conversations will help you and your child relate to each other more.

 

Yoga

Although it may be difficult to practice advanced yoga poses with younger kids, it is possible to find something appropriate for their level. One of the most important aspects of yoga is breathing. Try doing the yoga poses with your child. Model a positive attitude and a willingness to try new poses, and compliment the child when poses are attempted. Make sure the poses are not too advanced for children or they may become frustrated.

Here is a free YouTube video of yoga poses that you can do with children. If you do not have access to a video device or the child would not benefit from structured instructions found in a video, you can find printable yoga poses from Kids Yoga Stories. If you and the child are new to yoga, it is vitally important to follow a guide to ensure that you are not hurting yourself or the child.

Materials: A guide to follow (either pictures or a video)

Ages: Any

Psychological benefit: It is no secret that yoga has therapeutic qualities such as offering a sense of calmness and relaxation. Furthermore, yoga enhances children’s flexibility, strength, coordination and body awareness. Doing yoga can reduce muscle tension held in our bodies and is another activity that stimulates the vagus nerve, which reduces stress, lowers the heart rate and blood pressure, and reduces inflammation.

 

Indoor sports

This category can depend on whether there is space to move around and interact with each other, but there are options for small spaces too. Each activity is meant to allow children to have fun and can be created with multiple objects around the house.

The Fatherly website has many ideas, such as balloon tennis, for bigger spaces. Roll up some paper and make a ball or a puck to kick, throw or hit around the house. Use a balloon to play volleyball or keep-up. If you have a smaller space, perhaps finger football might suit your needs.

Materials: Anything you can find around the house

Ages: Early elementary to early middle school age

Psychological benefit: If your family doesn’t have much space to run around and play, even the simplest games such as finger football increase coordination. In addition, these sports need multiple participants, which assists in the social development of the child.

 

Video games

Many video games are not family friendly or age appropriate for children. However, many options are available for younger kids both online and offline. PBS Kids offers many educational games for young children. Older kids may benefit from playing games online with their friends. Among popular options are Fortnite, Roblox, Minecraft, League of Legends and titles usually found on consoles, such as NBA 2K and Call of Duty. Many of these games are not free (some can be very expensive), and many are not appropriate for all kids. Have a conversation with the children in your life about what their friends are playing, and then set healthy boundaries around screen time.

There are also online video games that you can play with your family and friends. Popular options include Kahoot!, Jackbox Party Pack, digital board games through apps, Mario Kart Tour and others. Many of these games require only your phone or another device with internet access.

Materials: Games to play and something to play on

Ages: Any (as long as you monitor what games they are playing)

Psychological benefit: Your child is likely missing their friends from school and other environments. Allowing children to play video games with their friends online can help them stay connected and have fun. With all ages, video games offer an outlet for motor development, the release of stress relief hormones, social interaction, problem-solving, development of leadership skills, and increased alertness.

 

Call-and-response songs

If you’ve ever been to summer camp, call-and-response songs will be familiar to you. These songs are started by one person and imitated by another person or group. For children, particularly children with special needs, transitions between activities may be challenging. Side note: I worked at a summer camp with children with autism spectrum disorder, and mealtimes were one of the most stressful parts of the day for them. Singing a simple song such as “We put our foot up on the tree, we put our foot up on the tree, we put our feet up on the tree so that we can eat” makes these times less stressful for all.

Performing a quick redirect activity such as a call-and-response song can lighten the mood and offers a fun incentive for completing an activity. Although there are already call-and-response songs that you can utilize, you can also make your own (or change the words to an existing song) to suit the child’s needs. This activity could also be paired with dance moves or even a camp-themed day.

Go to Ultimate Camp Resource for a list of call-and-response songs. Design Improvised has a great list of themed summer camp ideas to use if you’d like to host a camp-themed day at home.

Materials: None

Ages: Toddler through elementary school age

Psychological benefit: Singing has profound mental health benefits. Singing forces a person to control their breathing. If someone is anxious and having trouble regulating their breathing, singing can help. Singing also improves mental alertness and confidence.

 

Grounding activities

The purpose of a grounding activity is to refocus on reality. It is particularly effective for children who suffer from anxiety, high levels of stress, trauma, dissociation, self-harm tendencies and suicidal thoughts. When children experience these events, they are more likely to enter a state of fight, flight or freeze because they feel they are in danger. Grounding techniques help move the brain from survival mechanisms to a calm state.

Although grounding activities are used in circumstances of higher emotion, they should be practiced often (and even when children are feeling happy) to ensure that children can perform them while in a dysregulated state of mind. You should take time out of the day for all family members to practice these skills together.

Sound search: Sit calmly in a comfortable position. The person lists the sounds they hear. Focusing on other senses helps bring the child back to safety and stabilization.

Coloring break: Although this is most effective for younger kids, it can be used for any age. Even if you do not have coloring pages, encourage the child to draw or color on a piece of paper. Support whatever they need to create in the moment. Crayola has printable coloring pages both for kids and adults.

Sensory bin: A sensory bin is a container filled with materials to stimulate the senses. You must know what types of sensations the child feels are soothing and what sensations may make the child excited. When used with soothing objects such as water or sand, a child may be able to focus on the container instead of overwhelming thoughts. The good thing about sensory bins is that they are easy to make and easy to store when needed. This technique is used mainly with younger kids, but a child of any age may appreciate a sensory bin if it is filled with the appropriate objects. Go to Your Kids Table for a list of ideas on what to put inside a sensory bin.

Positive affirmations: Building a mantra, based on a child’s strengths, that the child can repeat when they are feeling overwhelmed may be beneficial. The idea of having a child repeat a positive mantra when overwhelmed is to help the brain focus not only on the words they are saying but also on the breath needed to form the words. Whenever a family member or friends see the child becoming overwhelmed, they can support the child by guiding the child through the mantra.

Breathing techniques: You can teach children to utilize many different breathing techniques. Breathing exercises calm the brain’s reactions to threats by getting more oxygen. The adult should make sure the child has no anxiety about breath retention and that the child is slow and intentional instead of hyperventilating. If the child is hyperventilating, try to get them to exhale longer than they inhale. Model the techniques for them. Repeat the technique for as long as it takes the child to calm down. Breathing techniques take many forms, such as:

  • Sniff the Flower, Blow Out the Candle: The child imagines holding a flower in one hand and a candle in the other. The child must focus on breathing in through their nose while bringing the “flower” to their face, as if sniffing it, and then exhaling out the mouth while bringing the “candle” to their face.
  • 4-7-8 breathing: The child should breathe in through the nose for 4 seconds, hold their breath for 7 seconds, and exhale out their mouth for 8 seconds.
  • One-nostril breath: The child should place their finger over one nostril and breathe in deeply. The child should then switch to the other nostril and breathe out.

 

****

Carson Eckard is a rising second-year graduate student in the community and trauma counseling program at Thomas Jefferson University. He graduated with his B.S. in psychology from Thomas Jefferson University in December 2019. He is passionate about advocating for clients, particularly LGBTQ+ youth. Contact him at Carson.Eckard@jefferson.edu.

 

****

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.

For such a time as this: A plan of action for couples and individuals

By Esther Scott June 15, 2020

[Editor’s note: This is the second of four articles in a series on action plans for different areas of life during the COVID-19 pandemic. The remaining articles will be posted on subsequent Mondays in June.]

The new normal that the coronavirus has introduced can create some real tension, particularly for couples who think they are losing “that loving feeling” as a result of the shelter-in-place mandate meant to contain the spread of COVID-19. Every marriage has its natural ups and downs, but research studies suggest that the way we relate to each other can have profound effects not only on our mental health, but on our biological health as well, “for better or for worse.”

This unplanned for and prolonged time to stay at home may bring discomfort for many of us, but we can come out the other side with new skills. Having a plan of action can help protect your relationship during these changing times and may even help reignite the spark that brought you together in the first place.

Here is an action plan to follow to help you reclaim your “happily ever after” even during the coronavirus pandemic.

 

1) Bring back that loving feeling. Be more proactive.

Early in relationships, we prioritize our one-on-one moments, but eventually we begin to sideline, just when we may need to connect the most. To “bring back that loving feeling,” research shows that couples should engage in meaningful activities to stay connected with each other. It could be as simple as trying a new weekly schedule that includes a night for reading or listening to music, a night for TV, a night for conversation and so on.

One exercise we recommend to the couples who come to see us is to put a big fluffy pillow in the middle of their living room or bedroom floor, grab their favorite drink (e.g., a bottle of wine, sparkling apple cider, tea), turn off cell phones and TVs, turn the lights down low, play soft music in the background, and simply talk to one another for 45 minutes. We recommend they do this at least once a week.

No one enters a relationship with the expectation that it will be boring or unhappy. Boredom signals that our relationship needs to be refueled. Just as the fuel light on your car indicates when you are running low on gas, boredom and unhappiness mean that your relationship needs to be refilled. You wouldn’t think of abandoning your car when the fuel light comes on; you would think of refilling it. The same goes for relationships.

Boredom and “unhappiness” do not mean that a relationship does not work — it just means that it needs some attention. Early in the relationship, everything is new and exciting. We talk for hours, text countless times and spend every second we can together. Then, somewhere along the way, we believe we have shared all there is to share and know all there is to know about each other and we stop connecting, which can lead to a sense of boredom and unhappiness. We need to continue cultivating those opportunities that helped our relationship to grow in the first place. This, in turn, will help bring back that loving feeling.

2) Focus on supporting each other.

Can I depend on you when I need help, feel scared, worry about dying or don’t feel well? Am I willing to be that source of comfort and stability when you need me? These are questions the subconscious mind has kept in storage from the moment you decided to join your lives together.

No matter how long you have been together, the current pandemic has revealed the need for much more mutual dependency. Now is the time to give reassurance that your partner can count on you to protect them by protecting yourself. Now is the time to provide empathetic listening when they are feeling scared about their future or frustrated with the new changes and losses experienced. Now is the time to support each other.

3) Talk to connect. Connect through agreement.

Instead of talking about what is not working, have a conversation about the needs you both have and how to satisfy each other within your relationship. Try focusing on what is good about your relationship, what you admire and what you feel grateful for. Once you show appreciation for each other, it is likely that both of you will have a change in attitude.

Research shows that if you focus on the ways your partner is supportive, both you and your partner will feel better about the relationship. Connecting this way increases your chances of standing strong through the storm. Use this crisis as a call to action.

We continue to change and grow every day. The problem is that we have stopped sharing. Talk to connect! Ask questions: “How do you think the world has changed since COVID-19?” “What is something you truly enjoyed doing that you have not done in years?” “What is the best way for me to encourage you and support you?” There is still plenty to discover about each other.

 

Note for dating couples

Adversity can sometimes make a relationship stronger. COVID-19 may have intensified your relationship more quickly than it would have otherwise. Use this opportunity to examine your partner’s character during this crisis.

Character is the first thing to inspect before marrying someone. Your potential spouse can have good career and a strong personality or be fun loving and good looking, but if there is a character problem, these other qualities will not matter. Your character determines your commitment to the relationship, and commitment is the essential ingredient that will help you build a lifetime of enjoying one another.

The following questions can help you identify potential character issues that will need to be addressed to keep your relationship healthy. Most of these questions can be answered simply by watching a person’s behavior around family and on social media.

  • How do they handle stress or crisis situations?
  • Are they teachable?
  • How well do they set healthy boundaries in their life?
  • How do they handle money?
  • Are they angry or hot-tempered?
  • Do they follow through on commitments?
  • Do they demonstrate respect for others?
  • Are they entitled?

 

Plan of action for individuals

If you are going through COVID-19 alone, the lack of social connections and the disruption in routine can impose additional stress that can lead to depression. These feelings of association and loneliness are flexible and change with context. In fact, things may get worse before they get better. What felt manageable yesterday may not feel manageable tomorrow. Here is a plan of action for you.

1) Change your perspective.

You may find yourself riding this wave “alone,” but it is important to remember that you do not have to feel lonely. This is a global pandemic. We are all in this together, even if we are physically apart.

Now is the time for a change in perspective. Remember, perception is reality to those who perceive it. Your world is built from the inside out, from your brain. If you perceive your time alone as lonely time, then you will feel lonely. But being alone is not the same as being lonely. On the other hand, you can be in a relationship or surrounded by people and still feel unsupported and lonely. Use your situation as time of reflection. Solitude can be a season for us to reconsider what is important in our lives.

2) Reach out and connect.

Now is the time to reach out to friends and family and connect with them in a more meaningful way. Let people know how much you care about them. A phone call, involving a real voice instead of a text message, is better, and a video chat instead of just a phone call is best. Humans were created to be social beings, and hearing a real voice and seeing the faces of those we care about is exactly what we need in times of crisis.

Talking about your feelings with someone when you are stressed or upset may or may not resolve your problem, but it can help you to feel better and less alone. If, on the other hand, you are on the receiving end of the call, be the support that person needs. Listen and convey that you understand their feelings. This act of one person sharing something vulnerable and the other responding with understanding and care is what we call empathetic listening.

3) Avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Avoiding unhealthy coping mechanisms such as pornography, alcohol or drug use can prevent long-term complications. The spread of the coronavirus and the necessary physical distancing measures put in place have led to increased feelings of loneliness and stress, which can help explain the reported increase in pornography use. Some claim that pornography does not present a problem for those who use it. However, a number of research studies show links between pornography use and potential concerning outcomes, including lower levels of sexual satisfaction for men.

Alcohol and substance use are also popular coping mechanisms among those looking to reduce feelings of stress, loneliness and boredom. However, alcohol and substance use could do more harm than good and could lead to a possible spike in addiction disorders for years to come. Health experts warn that an increase in alcohol and drug use could have both short- and long-term impacts on health and safety.

To avoid the potential harm of relying on unhealthy coping mechanisms, we recommend using humor and creativity to reduce stress and boredom. Using humor does not mean that we are trivializing the challenges brought to us by the coronavirus; it means we are trying to cope with them in a healthy way. Laughter is the best medicine, and humor can improve our mood and increase our resilience.

The movie Groundhog Day offers a great example of how many of us may be feeling. Every day seems to be a repeat of the last. But remember, even though it was the same day over and over again, the main character in the movie had the opportunity to learn something new every day. You may be alone, but you do not have to feel lonely. We are in this together with our friends, family members and even the entire global community.

 

****

Esther Scott, LPC

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.

How to help domestic violence clients during shelter-in-place situations

By Federico Carmona April 13, 2020

It’s heartbreaking to read the variety of articles circulating about vulnerable people trapped at home with their abusers because of shelter-in-place mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unfortunately, experience reminds us of a concerning reality that is typical of these uncertain times: Adverse labor market conditions are positively related to domestic violence. Research conducted after the Great Depression of the 1930s, the farm crisis of the 1980s, and the Great Recession of 2008 found that economic crises have significant negative effects on the quality of intimate relationships and parenting in working families. Marital conflict, abuse (particularly violent controlling behavior), and a decline in parenting quality are among the harmful effects in families of a macroeconomic downturn.

In my role as a trauma therapist, I have seen dozens of domestic violence clients during clinical intakes and in counseling. I have also read a multitude of articles on the subject about studies and reports from different parts of the world. Shelter-in-place mandates aren’t a good thing for women and children who are the targets of abuse. The anticipatory anxiety and uncertainty of these times can cause negative emotions to churn, leading to behaviors that increase the already-concerning number of domestic violence and child abuse cases. There is no “how-to” manual to deal with the current situation, of course, but the safety of this vulnerable population demands us to do our best.

How can the counseling community help domestic violence clients who are trapped at home with their abusers? I offer a few suggestions:

Reach out between appointments/sessions. One of the critical signs of abuse is the isolation of victims of domestic violence from their networks of love and support. An occasional check-in from us can empower these clients to tell us more about their situations and perhaps even dissuade their abusers from further violence as we keep checking in.

Listen, just listen. People experiencing domestic violence need an empathic ear — someone who will allow them to vent their repressed emotions and feelings without judgment. We are not to offer advice, only listen and empathize. It’s just time to build trust.

Validate clients’ feelings, emotions and beliefs even when they don’t make sense. The best way to build trust with clients experiencing domestic violence is by being present with them. We’re present with them through our vicarious empathy, active listening and compassionate validation. Our empathy is vicarious because it takes an emotional toll to connect with someone’s anguish and suffering. Active listening requires us to be disciplined enough to fully concentrate on what the client is saying rather than on the answer that we might have in mind to their situation. Clients experiencing domestic violence require validation — compassionate validation — because many times, their decisions (or lack of them), circumstances and beliefs don’t make sense to us.

Introduce them to mindfulness exercises. Clients experiencing domestic violence live in a world of fear and anxiety because of the cycle of abuse. At first, they’re worried because of their confusion and inability to make sense of and control the incipient abuse. In time, as the abuse increases, worry turns into anxiety and fear.

Mindfulness can help these clients become aware of their emotions, thoughts and bodies to take control of them and find much-needed relaxation. Meditation exercises shouldn’t necessarily be long. There are plenty of sites online with short, simple exercises, from breathing to stretching, that can help clients gain the bodily and emotional awareness they need to function.

Remind clients of their strengths and qualities. One of the benefits of practicing active listening is the ability to notice in clients’ stories what they have forgotten about themselves: their own power, qualities and strengths. By doing this, we help clients not only to survive their circumstances but also to move toward a better future as survivors of domestic violence who deserve lives of meaning and purpose.

Help clients to start a project. Because of shelter-in-place mandates, more perpetrators of abuse are at home all of the time. This increases the emotional state of “walking on eggshells” for domestic violence clients. We can help distract these clients from that state by brainstorming with them or suggesting a project to them. It could be an individual project based on their abilities, strengths and qualities that we noticed in their stories, or it could be a project that involves their children.

Assist clients in making a safety plan. Making a safety plan is incredibly useful. It doesn’t need to be complicated or lengthy. The simplest way of doing this is by helping these clients become aware of their circumstances (call the problem what it is — domestic violence). The rest of the plan might involve:

  • Trying to avoid conflicts and arguments during the mandated confinement
  • Involving their children in most of their home activities
  • Reaching out to relatives and trusted friends (when possible)
  • Being prepared to leave at any moment (i.e., having money, documents, car keys, children’s backpacks filled with some clothes and snacks ready to go)
  • Calling 911 when they feel that they or their children are in danger (even in a shelter-in-place situation, law enforcement will issue an emergency protective order to separate victims from their abusers)

Involve others. We can help our clients experiencing domestic violence to think about the resources they possess to deal with their situation. One of these resources could be men who are part of the couple’s life in some way (e.g., clergy, friends, relatives, co-workers, classmates, teachers, bosses).

When families and friends get involved, perpetrators of abuse can sometimes be dissuaded from causing harm to their partners and children. The presence of fathers, brothers, neighbors and friends prompts accountability. Some of these individuals might be willing to offer their support and speak up against the ongoing abuse. Victims of domestic violence can only break their silence and become survivors if they feel supported. We need to be cautious, however, and see each client in their particular context, giving consideration to whether this type of intervention could put them in more danger than they already are.

Help clients build a network of support. Isolation is one of the most critical signs of abuse. It creates a hated dependency on the abuser. Imposed isolation robs victims of domestic violence of their personhood. It suppresses their voice and identity piece by piece as family members and friends are pushed away. Connections are the simplest way to beat domestic violence. It is critical that victims of domestic violence get reconnected with relationships they trust. It is also crucial to get these clients connected with other survivors of domestic violence (via online groups) so they can claim their victory and begin the journey of healing from the trauma caused by the abuse.

Inspire clients to pursue self-sufficiency. Studies show that when women’s wages are relative to those of men in dual-income couples, there is a significant reduction in domestic violence. To be self-sufficient is to have bargaining power. It’s to have the ability to exert influence in the relationship. There are public resources designated to help survivors of domestic violence pursue further training and education with the purpose of becoming self-sufficient. Check with social services agencies about these resources.

These recommendations aren’t intended to override the urgency of calling 911 when someone is facing a clear and present danger at home. Let law enforcement personnel figure out how they will bring individuals and families to safety during shelter-in-place situations. Emergency protective orders are being issued even with the courts closed.

 

****

Federico Carmona is a trauma therapist for victims of domestic and sexual violence at Peace Over Violence in Los Angeles. He is also an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. The experience of domestic abuse in his ministry and his own family motivated him to seek specialization in clinical counseling, specifically in trauma, to assist survivors of domestic and sexual abuse and violence to reclaim their identity, peace, and lives with dignity and purpose. Contact him at federico@peaceoverviolence.org.

 

****

For more information

 

****
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.