“Who then is this whom even wind and the sea obey?” – Mark 4:41
I imagine the apostles were both shocked and comforted by Christ’s calming of the sea. It was a revelation of his Divine nature in response to very human fear and panic. I think we can all relate to the intense fear and panic that is evoked in moments of uncertainty. In times like these, we often turn towards each other and wonder, “Are you there for me?”, hoping our loved ones will come alongside us to help us through. Christ answered the apostles with a miracle and followed up with a question of his own, “don’t you trust me?”. The strength of Christ’s response can serve as a model for us as we seek a calm to our current storm in life.
It’s been about a month or so since the most significant measures were put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19. You may have found some sense of normalcy (as much as is possible during a pandemic) or you may still be feeling quite anxious, overwhelmed, disorganized, or a number of other painful emotions. It’s important to highlight that there is no one way you “should” be responding to the situation. These are unprecedented times and none of us have been through this before, so it makes sense that we all have our own unique response. It’s completely understandable for many of us to feel like we’re out of our comfort zone and to experience some “growing pains” as we try to adjust to our new reality. My hope is that I can offer some guidance to make this ongoing process of adjustment smoother.
Where do we find safe harbor?
Through neuroscience, we’ve learned (or rather confirmed what we already knew) that humans are hardwired for relationships. This means having access to safe and secure relationships is vital to our very survival, especially during times of high stress. Spending time developing a strong connection can really bring a family together and help establish a sense of trust and reliability. This can provide a buffer against the chaos of the outside world. The same can be said for friendships, especially during times of limited social contact in which many of us may be prevented from spending time with family.
Although it’s best to connect in person, this can be done virtually as well. As I transitioned my therapy clients to virtual sessions, I was concerned it wouldn’t be the same. With a little teamwork and some adjustments, I’ve been able to conduct sessions that feel relatively similar to in-person sessions. There’s a formula for connecting effectively: being available, responsive, and engaged. This happens by really tuning into each other’s worlds. A saying I use with my clients is to “make the inside, the in-between”. This often looks like listening to one another, spending consistent time together, and of course having fun! It can be helpful to take time and discuss this together: when is everyone available (i.e. not working or tied up with a task), what activities does each person enjoy, and how can this be implemented. Check-in along the way and adjust based on feedback.
Creating stability as a family
First, I think it’s important to establish a routine. Try to recreate a routine similar to you and your children’s typical daily schedule. This can help you get into your child’s world a bit; ask them to show you what their day looks like at school. You could also ask them what they love to do for recess and play with them; make it fun and silly! If you have older children, this might mean watching their favorite YouTuber, listening to some music together, or trying to learn how to play their favorite video game.
Meditation, stretching, prayer, and exercise are great ideas to help release some of the stress and tension in the body. Remember, it’s about doing these things together; they don’t have to be perfect or “productive”. It’s an opportunity to slow down and get the body moving. Slowing down helps us savor our experiences better.
Working on a project together or tackling some household chores can be a good way to work as a team. I suggest asking everyone how they’d like to help the team out to increase buy-in and follow-through.
Maintaining your connection as a couple
I recommend a morning pow-wow to clearly lay out what both partners have on their plate. Be honest and as accurate as possible with what you need to focus on. Identify any areas of conflict such as overlapping commitments, limits on space/time, household responsibilities, and take turns offering solutions (things you are willing to do to help).
Having a daily plan can help you keep your boundaries clear. While you are working, try to treat it like a normal workday by limiting household chat or other discussions that you wouldn’t be able to have during a normal workday. Emergencies or unexpected challenges with the children may be exceptions, so if this happens, come together to reset and adjust.
Take time to connect and create space for what it’s like for both of you, as long as it’s private and safe. Share your experience, starting with where you’re holding the stress in your body. Layout how different parts of you may want to respond to this stress. Explore what you long for when you feel this way. Face each other, listen and repeat back to each other without offering solutions. End the conversation with something comfortable to both of you, perhaps a hug or embrace. Remember to stay flexible; we’re all feeling a bit raw and this may come out. A little extra patience might go a long way.
Continuing to work together to support each other is crucial. Encourage boundary setting, be sensitive to each other’s energy levels and needs, and support concrete actions that build each other up. It’s important that both of you get time to yourselves to recharge and care for yourself. This might mean taking turns spending time away from the kids, limiting media consumption, doing something fun/creative, taking a bath or something soothing, or reading a book.
Christ’s question is relevant to us as well: how might we be able to use our faith to find comfort and reassurance?
Being forced to suddenly abandon our routines can sometimes stir up things we’ve lost contact with within our inner world. The busyness of life can provide us with a distraction from these things, offering protection from facing the tough stuff. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Putting boundaries around our pain and healing is important. Purpose and intention are what make the difference between healthy versus unhealthy distraction, with the exception of something that is actively threatening our wellbeing.
So, if you’ve found yourself suddenly confronted with emotional pain that you’re not used to dealing with, it may be helpful to take this as feedback from your body and put some boundaries around “the work”. Pacing is so important, especially when it comes to our wounds. Think about it: the reason we have these wounds in the first place is most likely because they were suddenly cast upon us when we were ill-equipped to handle what was happening. Repeating this in the name of healing may sabotage the process. This is your permission to dip your toe into what’s stirring, instead of diving into the deep end.
If this fits for you, try taking 10-15 minutes a day to explore and reflect on what’s coming up for you. If it feels comfortable, invite Christ to sit with you in your pain. Write down any insights, and then imagine putting everything into a mental box and storing it in a safe room in your inner world, entrusting it to God. If trying to explore what’s coming up is too much, you can use this exercise to contain the distress until things settle down in the world. No matter where we find ourselves in life, we have access to a safe harbor that is always available.
Jonathan Dixon, LMFT
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist at Alpha Omega Clinic