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  • Partners in Change

Viewing Social Distancing and Shelter-in-Place Order through a Different Lens

Karen Stanley-Kime, Ph.D., LP, ABPP

In his 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist Viktor Frankl 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, to choose one's own way." We are now in a unique position to reflect on where we are given COVID-19 and to choose our way from here.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought change to all of our lives, the nature and extent of which is unique to each person’s circumstances. We find ourselves faced with often-repeated questions in this pandemic: How do we adapt? How do we cope? Will we be okay?

If you experience some level of emotional discomfort with Governor Whitmer’s shelter-in-place order, know that you are not alone. Many are struggling with the social consequences of COVID-19, among a myriad of other challenges this pandemic brings. I would like to offer a perspective that I hope will be helpful if you are struggling.

When we are considering the human psyche, paradoxes abound. For example, the more you struggle to suppress anxiety and appear confident and unshakeable, the more anxiety you tend to experience. The more you tell yourself to stop thinking a distressing thought, to just “get over it” and let it go, the more present and consuming that thought becomes. The more often we tell a loved one to stop an annoying behavior, the more frequent and annoying that behavior becomes. At least in some cases, it seems that our devotion to the struggle, the very thing that is employed to end or at least control an unpleasant state, sometimes actually increases rather than decreases unpleasantness.

Consider how paradox applies to social interactions. For better, worse, or some combination, we are now (or recently, prior to COVID-19) more socially connected than ever in history. With the touch of a few buttons, we can speak with almost anyone on Earth. We can access health care via the Internet. We can have thousands of followers on numerous social media platforms. If we wish, our entire lives can be made public, from the mundane tasks to the most significant moments. Despite the ease and availability of social connection opportunities, many of us feel lonely and isolated. This is the paradox. The increased availability of social connection opportunities has, at times, resulted in greater levels of social disconnect in the form of fewer meaningful interactions.

So, if increased availability of social interaction has resulted in greater levels of social disconnection, perhaps the reverse of this paradox is true: a mandatory reduction in social interaction can result in increased levels of social connectedness.

How could this be so? Consider the abundance of opportunity for meaningful connection, even in a state of self-isolation or quarantine. To meet all our typical demands and responsibilities, we sometimes neglect quality time with our families. How often have you intended to call a friend, your grandparents, a loved one, but simply have not found the time to do so? Is it the case that you regularly find yourself multi-tasking while having a conversation just so you can get everything done? Executive Order 2020-21, the recent shelter-in-place order for Michigan, may provide the opportunity to deepen our connections with loved ones by engaging in more frequent, meaningful interactions. Now is the time to really hear your child’s dreams, your spouse’s struggles or concerns, your grandparents’ stories of resilience despite adversity. Now is the time to practice listening, mindfully selecting your words, enjoying periods of silence in conversations to really reflect on what another person just said.

COVID-19 also presents an opportunity for community connection, and one need only look to the media for evidence that this is occurring. From volunteers who are ensuring that students get lunch while classes are cancelled to those who are grocery shopping for people who are considered particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, we all have the opportunity to connect. Deliberate acts of generosity, care, and kindness sometimes present themselves or, at times, maybe we should actively seek out these opportunities. Even if you consider your commitment to social distancing and sheltering in place, realize that this is a sacrifice that you are undertaking for a purpose, namely the care and safety of yourself and your fellow human being. That is social connection despite orders to isolate.

Finally, the social consequences of COVID-19 present an opportunity for self-reflection. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, a popular therapy that combines dropping unhelpful struggle with suffering with behavior change that is guided by personal values, we call connecting with one’s values “calibrating your compass.” Now is the time to consider what really matters to you in life given that life is finite. If your “true North,” for example, is being an understanding parent to your children, check in to see how you are doing in traveling this path. If you are off the path, consider ways that you can get back on the path today rather than tomorrow. Consider what is important or unimportant to you in your life and consider how to pivot toward what is important. As you cope with challenge, you might exhibit characteristics that surprise you and that can help you pursue your values.

As with all things in life and with life itself, COVID-19 is impermanent. The choices that you make during this time can greatly outlive this pandemic. If you are having trouble making choices that you will be proud of when you look back on this time, please seek support from family, friends, religious or spiritual leaders, mental health providers, or trusted others. We have always been “in this together.” COVID-19 is simply the latest reminder of our interconnectedness.

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