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Easing the Emotional Toll of the Coronavirus Pandemic

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The enormity of the Coronavirus pandemic is beginning to take hold.  As we make day-to-day decisions — whether to attend religious services, whether to send children to school, whether we should opt to work from home for now — we’re all struggling with the anxiety of the unknown. Every aspect of life is affected, from finding toilet paper to the value of your 401(k).

The idea of “social distancing” is offering some hope of protection from the virus as we all await word on abatement and hope for an eventual vaccine.  For now, it feels like our lives are on hold, as we wait for more news and direction about how to protect ourselves and our children.

Amidst all this, there’s something powerful we can all do to buffer the pandemic’s stress-inducing emotional effect: Remember that social distancing doesn’t mean emotional distancing.  Staying six feet apart doesn’t mean we can’t reach out to others with a smile, a nod, or a look of compassion.

Human beings are resilient creatures, with certain social engagement behaviors that hard-wired into our brains, insuring our survival. (Neuroscientist Dr. Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal theory supports this fact.) Touch is certainly a significant form of social engagement, but at times like this, we need to pull others from our toolbox. We can bypass the touch mode and use our other senses, calming our nervous systems, and reducing anxiety.  Teachers, parents, school workers, hospital workers—everyone can engage in emotional connection in spite of social distance.

We can also make powerful use of body language, including the look on our faces, the tone of our voices, and the posture of our bodies. These modes can provide messages even more powerful than our words, enhancing our connection to each other and to our children.

In the coming days, keep these ideas in mind to buffer the effects of social distancing:

  • Be mindfully and compassionately aware of your emotional state. Allow yourself to sense what’s happening in your body and mind, to respect it and acknowledge it. Place your hand over your heart (literally or figuratively) and soothe yourself as you would a vulnerable young child. This way of silently acknowledging your own vulnerability can help calm the nervous system. This is one way you can share resilience with others, including your children and the children you work with.
  • Be aware of your facial expressions. Be compassionately aware of your feelings, open to the idea that you are not alone, and that you can connect with the children (or colleagues) you work with through a smile, and caring look. Human beings communicate comfort through facial expressions.
  • Be aware of your tone of voice. Our voice projects our emotional state. When we are stressed, our voice can become pressured, monotone, quiet or flat. Children pick up on this subconsciously. Brighten your heart and your voice will brighten as well. We can soothe others through our tone of voice.
  • Play with children by following their lead about what they want to do or the themes they choose to play out. It’s a perfect stress reducer for them because it helps the brain manage fears in a safe and enjoyable way. 

Bottom line: When we pay attention to our own state, and allow ourselves to soothe our own anxiety first acknowledging the gravity of the Coronavirus situation, we will be better able to soothe vulnerable children through our body language. All of this is compatible with the rules of social distancing.  Human engagement buffers the effects of social distancing, and sharing love with others will get us through these trying and uncertain times.

I share more about how to support children emotionally in Social and Emotional Development and Beyond Behaviors. 

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