When social distancing brings us close together (oh…and don’t panic about the toilet paper!)

My first coaching client for the week walked into my office this morning and we didn’t shake hands. Instead, like the responsible citizens that we are, we practised what has come to be known as “social distancing”.

But we immediately got into a really interesting discussion about one of the unexpected, positive consequences of social distancing – greater connection with others!

With his kid home from school for at least the next two weeks, business slower than usual, and no Grand Prix to take clients to, he had found himself at home over the weekend spending lots of quality time with his family. They had gone out to the park he said he had seen an unusual amount of people out and about together doing exactly the same.

It brought to mind that Facebook meme “There’s no wifi in the forest, but I promise you’ll find a better connection”. And it made me reflect that perhaps there is a silver lining to this whole coronavirus thing.

Like most people, I felt a tiny bit anxious over the weekend. As an asthmatic, I am anxious about my health. And it was confronting seeing empty shelves in the supermarket. But I ended up reaching out to others and found some solace in connection. And with social events cancelled, I spent time alone – meditating, exercising, cooking and catching up on sleep.

I mean, I also watched Netflix, but I made sure I capitalised on the downtime deepen my connection with myself and others. And I started the week feeling great – just like my client.

Have you been feeling anxious about what is happening in the world? Probably, right?!

Well, here are five things that might help:

1. MAINTAIN PERSPECTIVE

Remember, people have lived through worse. It is unfamiliar and disconcerting to see empty supermarket shelves or hear about the government cancelling flights, sporting events and maybe even school. But taking a breath and remembering that there are 7.2 billion other people sharing this experience with us can help. As can reflecting on how people lived through two world wars, with food stamps and rations, and the collapse of communism, where the shelves were empty of everything – and they ended up being ok.

2. MANAGE ANXIETY

On a related note, of course, it is good to realise that we are in the early stages of something unknown, and the mind – whether our own or that of public health officials – tends to fill that vacuum with worst-case scenarios. It’s just how the mind works. It even has a name – negativity bias. Try to recognise the tendency of this habit to try to take over (as the brain’s “fear centre”, the amygdala, tries to hijack things), and focusing on what is actually happening at this moment can help. Try to spend less time focused on “what if?” and more time focused on what is. And remember – stress lowers our immunity. At a time that we want our t-cells to be functioning at their best!

3. USE THE TIME TO MEDITATE

Of course, that can be easier said than done. The mind just loves catastrophising and worrying, and the news reports don’t help! Which is why it makes sense to train our attention so that we can stay focused on what is important, rather than getting swept away by hysteria. Taking even just a few minutes a day to meditate (perhaps using one of the free meditations available on my website) strengthens the parts of your brain that help manage anxiety and strong emotions – as well as making you more focused and boosting your memory. And let’s face it, if we are stuck inside for a couple of weeks, we can no longer make the excuse that we don’t have the time to meditate!

4. CONNECT WITH OTHERS

And of course, we have more time to connect with those who truly matter. With large gatherings banned and even smaller social functions being disrupted, this is a unique moment to reassess where we out our energy. You could just scroll through the lives of your “friends” on social media, or like my client, you may decide to invest in the relationships that really matter. Why not take this opportunity to reassess? As author Cal Newport writes in his amazing book Digital Minimalism, it is genuine, face-to-face connection with people we care about that makes us happy, not how many friends we have on Facebook. Call your family. Go for a walk in the park together. Let them know how much you care about them. This virus thing will be over and we will get back to “normality” all too quickly!

5. CONNECT WITH YOURSELF

It’s not just connection with others that is important for wellbeing. Connection with ourselves is vital too. But not many people stop to think about that, let alone do anything about it. In his bestselling book Lost Connections (there are two books to read now – but hey, suddenly we have the time, right?!), author Johan Hari outlines how important this sense of connection with ourselves is – and how living in a distracted, disconnected way can lead to depression. So why not take some time to meditate, exercise, sleep and otherwise tale care of your basic needs. Turn off the TV and get away from your phone for a few hours and rediscover the simple joy of being present. You may need to get over the hump of technology addiction and the tendency to avoid boredom and anxiety with distraction, but if you persevere you will notice a stillness and simplicity that is the foundation of living a healthy life.

Perhaps try out one or two of these suggestions and see whether it helps. I would love to know how you go!

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About me

Hi, I’m Dr Richard Chambers – clinical psychologist and internationally recognised expert in mindfulness.

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