Source: Fabrice Florin / Wikimedia Commons
I was walking my dog near my house when I saw a neighbor walking towards me on the sidewalk and crossing the street to avoid him. Then the thought struck me: I was in my own neighborhood, reacting defensively, anxious about getting too close. Taken to an extreme, the clinical term for this reaction is agoraphobia, the fear or anxiety of being outside the home, in a crowd, or in public places (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). The difference, during these times, is that COVID-19 health guidelines have urged us to wear masks and avoid unnecessary interactions.
Now, as more of us are vaccinated and many workplaces, restaurants and public events open up, many of us feel anxious to connect with the people around us, experiencing this. that has been called “return anxiety from COVID-19” (Bradley, 2021). Long months of social distancing, remote working, and COVID restrictions have severed our natural chain of personal connections.
Source: Christopher Michel / Wikimedia Commons
We have lost the habit of connecting with each other. Yet research has shown that personal relationships are essential for us to live healthy lives (Fredrickson, 2013; Seligman, 2011; Umberson & Montez, 2010). These bonds include not only close relationships with friends and family, but what Barbara Fredrickson called “micro-moments of connectedness” with our neighbors, the grocery store clerk, or anyone we meet in everyday life. With a simple smile, eye contact, a presence, maybe a kind word, these bonds benefit both people. They can dramatically improve our health, improve our mood, relieve stress, and reduce inflammation to promote greater physical and emotional well-being (Fredrickson, 2013).
As we navigate our new normal, we need connection and community to build a brighter future for ourselves and our world. The Hopeful Mindsets Project has discovered that cultivating a supportive network of friends, family and neighbors is one of the five keys to restoring our hope (iFred, 2021). Our challenge is: “How can we stay safe while rebuilding our personal bonds? “
Connections don’t just happen. Like the plants in our gardens, relationships need attention and culture to thrive. Start connecting gradually, one small step at a time, taking into account your feelings, your health, your immunization status and your life situation. You can practice “micro-moments of connectivity” at work or when you go shopping. Exchange greetings with your neighbors from a safe distance. Communicate with your friends in a comfortable way. You can connect with a text or phone call, arrange a Zoom tour, meet for a walk or have a coffee in a beer garden. Then you can start cultivating your connections with these five steps inspired by the Hopeful Mindsets Project (iFred, 2021):
- Listening with empathy to the people around you. Often times, the best gift you can give someone is to just let them know they’ve been seen and heard. Ask them how they are feeling, then take a deep breath and just listen, reflecting what you have heard. If your sister tells you that she is feeling tired, instead of automatically giving advice or starting to tell your own story, just say “it looks like you are feeling exhausted”. Then listen to what she says.
- Follow the 5: 1 rule. Give five positive comments for each review. Consciously seek the good in people around you and report it. This will not only improve your relationships and boost your hope, but increase the positivity around you. Psychologists know that positive reinforcement of a behavior increases it (Numan, personal communication, 2021).
- Perform simple acts of kindness. Do this not only with your family and friends, but also when you go shopping. Keep the door open for someone carrying packages or let someone with only a few items get ahead of you in the grocery line. Challenge yourself to do at least one act of kindness each day.
- Forgive yourself and forgive others. Our negative feelings are important signals. Fear helps us avoid danger, anger helps us defend ourselves, and guilt helps us recognize that we have done something that we regret. The key is to listen and learn from these signals, rather than dwell on them. We all make mistakes. When you think about a mistake from the past, demonstrate self-compassion, realizing that it is only human to make mistakes and forgive yourself (Neff, 2011). Ask yourself what you can learn from this experience, what you can do better next time. Then visualize yourself taking that step and move on. The same process applies when others have hurt or disappointed us. If you harbor feelings of hurt, anger, or resentment, ask yourself to reflect on one thing you learned from this experience and what you can do in the future. It can mean standing up for yourself and setting better limits (Neff, 2021). Acknowledge how you felt, allow yourself some self-compassion, then let go of the negative feelings and move on.
- Focus on the quality of your connections when you start reaching out to people around you. Your loved ones are your network of hope, a person or group of people who you can count on to listen to you, support you, and encourage you to achieve your goals (iFred, 2021). These are the people you can open up to and share your deepest feelings with. Someone who demeans you, makes you feel inferior, or drains you of negativity is just acquaintance, not someone for your hope network. Intentionally cultivate your network of hope, reaching out, listening, sharing and supporting each other as you build greater hope together.
By following these steps, you can safely and mindfully reach out to create greater connection, community, and hope in your life.
This message is for information only and should not replace psychotherapy with a qualified professional.
To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.