Adrienne: Not long ago we were all trying to find ways to adapt to temporarily working from home. But, as our routines at home start to gel, a lot of us are starting to wonder what’s next? Is there a long term way to approach isolation and our fears about an uncertain future? Today our Wellness Columnist, Scott McPherson is back to discuss a strategy he’s developed to help us all manage our state of mind during the pandemic. Hi Scott!
Scott: Hi Adrienne.
Adrienne: So, let’s start with the differences you’re noticing between now and when this all started. Are you seeing people’s needs change?
Scott: For sure. Before it was all about adaptation. Now, it depends more on the unique nature of each person’s situation. The solo people are struggling more with the isolation. For families or groups, it’s more about no space or sense of privacy. And for most couples, it’s also about too much time trapped together. Of course those things then mix with things like addictions, or health and financial fears, then it’s really a recipe for people to experience some pretty dark times. And that’s all happening all when we can’t lean on others the same way we might.
Adrienne: Okay, let’s start with the people alone. What are some strategies that they can use to stay healthy through all of this?
Scott: The biggest thing is contact. Given enough time alone, people today will almost always fill in the gaps with self-conversation, and we all tend to be very hard on ourselves. That can devolve into a kind of senseless spin that just depresses the person even more. That’s when people can often find themselves turning to substances to numb those feelings. But the truth is, we’re better to engage with those feelings than to numb them.
If we feel a sense of loneliness or hopelessness, that’s not a sign our life is hopeless or that we’ll always be alone. It’s a signal that we’re in a phase of thinking that way. The most enjoyable and beneficial way to escape that is to reach out. In most cases, people will be happy to hear from us. Plus, a lot of people are finding they feel best when they are useful. If we’re open about our struggles then we accomplish two things: It allows them to shift their own sense of helplessness and fear into one of one where they feel more useful and capable. And secondly, by being comfortable with our humility and by asking for help, we’re also modelling that behaviour to the other person. That can make it easier for them to ask for help when they need it too.
Adrienne: So for those alone, contact is the biggest lifeline?
Scott: Yeah, and we don’t have to worry much about video calls either. If they work, great. But the nature of the cameras mean that people don’t ever look each other in the eye. So a lot of studies are finding it has no advantage over a voice call, which is often easier to accomplish when internet speeds are taxed. It’s the tone of voice we need more than the face. There was some helpful discussion about that very thing on the last Spark episode on CBC. I’ve posted the link to that on the Relax and Succeed facebook page if anyone’s interested.
Adrienne: Okay, so now on to the families and groups. What kinds of strategies can they use to adjust for their lack of privacy and space?
Scott: One of the best things any of us can do is to work on maintaining a sense of awareness over how we’re feeling throughout the day. It should be a regular check-in for all of us. If we notice we’re getting irritated or angry, we can take that as a signal to react. If a parent sees it in a child, maybe it’s just giving the child a chance to run outside. For an adult it can just be time with music, or playing a video game, or reading, or even just a walk alone on a quiet street –which is all of them at the moment.
If those things start to turn into avoidance addictions, we’ll start to sense that. But otherwise, our desire to escape is a healthy response to our need to gather ourselves. Fortunately, nature taught us pack animals that it’s not a good idea to damage our meaningful relationships. So pretty much everyone feels the impulse to leave a situation if that’s what’s healthy. But for that to happen, if at all possible, that means that those around us need to respect the other person’s need for that space, and they need to accommodate it. And for our part, we have to avoid talking ourselves out of taking that space. We have to care for everyone in the house, ourselves included.
Adrienne: Does the same sort of approach apply to couples?
Scott: Largely, yes. Space and some time can often mean no further discussion is really needed. But if people are angry with each other, rather than space, they can actually want to fight. But if they do that too often it can undermine an otherwise good relationship. China saw a spike in divorce following their outbreak. That can be both good and bad, because some of those will have been very unhealthy relationships that were better to end. At the same time, a lot of those would have been Circumstantial Divorces, where it wouldn’t have even happened without COVID. But there are ways to manage around that. And those strategies also apply to the people in group settings, and for those stuck alone.
Adrienne: And what are those?
Scott: The biggest one is to express our love for others by giving anyone who needs it, Room to Rant. Life can be pretty frustrating. Kids have tantrums because a lot frustrates them because they don’t know how to navigate the world yet. But adults learn to avoid a lot of childlike frustrations, and we can manage our way past the rest. But on the times when we can’t, then we too will feel the impulse to get really really mad.
Adrienne: But is that something that healthy for us to indulge in?
Scott: Again, not as some addictive go-to destructive behaviour. But in the right context, it can be a very loving thing to give someone space to just go through what they’re going through. Note, we’ll do this for a death. If someone is unreasonably angry about a death, there is more forgiveness from the people around them because they understand the context. We have that advantage here too. Everyone understands our context, and everyone is surfing these emotional highs and lows with us. The important part is to find healthy ways to manage those reasonable bouts of frustration.
Adrienne: How do we create a ‘healthy way’ for someone to be really angry?
Scott: We need to pre-define what we’re doing as being separate from the relationship itself. People who love each other can compete at something really fiercely and then still be in love after the deal or game is done. We compartmentalize our feelings about the competition. Most of us would feel we’d been a bit childish if we let our loss bleed into the larger relationship.
Adrienne: But this isn’t a game, it’s someone getting really angry. What does that look like in practice?
Scott: I’ll give you an example from before the crisis. I think a lot of people listening can relate to my friend’s frustrations over being stood up, or ghosted by fake people in the dating scene. There are times when she comes home from a date really hurt, and she is super angry. Pain and fear are always the sources of anger. But she’s worked with me, so she knew to have a strategy. And now she’s got other friends who will do this for her now too. She’ll call and say “Hey, could you do a rant call right now?” And if I can, I will. Because the faster the better in most of these cases. But if I can’t, we’ll schedule a time for her to rant. And just knowing she’s got that in her future will often help her feel better. Then, when I get time, I’ll call back and we’ll start.
When we enter a Rant, we know it’s a take-nothing-personal zone. This isn’t about content, it’s about expression. There’s unpleasant chemistry going on and she wants to burn it up. So the truth is, for about 5 minutes she’ll be pretty abusive. I’ll get blamed for every dumb thing every guy ever did. And she’ll focus on me too, using real events from our life. Those are the trickiest to hear, because my job in receiving a rant is that they are in a safe zone where later on, we wont hold what was said there against them. If that seems hard, it’s a lot easier when people are each doing it for each other. Then they each see the value, and the price seems more reasonable.
Adrienne: So she just yells at you for a while?
Scott: Not all the time, but if that’s what helps her get back her balance quickly, yeah. She can be super harsh, but I am super loving back. It feels like lifting her when she’s down. She does the same for me. We stop seeing their anger as anger, and we start seeing it as a loved one in pain. And like all of us can learn to do, she can really clearly feel when she’s burned it off. At that point she’s generally grateful and the vulnerability has made us even closer. Before that, being angry was what she truly felt compelled to do. Since I care about her I let her feel what she needs to feel. It’s the fastest way I know of to get people from super upset to quite calm. But it needs that loving listener to create that safe space.
Adrienne: That certainly seems more likely if we know that the ‘room to rant’ really can help. Thanks Scott. Scott McPherson is our wellness columnist. He is a writer, speaker and instructor at relaxandsucceed.com, here in Edmonton.
I regularly join Radio Active‘s host Adrienne Pan, on CBC Radio One here in Edmonton. You can listen via AM740, FM93.9 (in Edmonton), or elsewhere through the CBC Listen app, or via the web on Radio One at CBC.ca. Today we’ll be on at 5:40pm.
Once the show has aired, if there is an audio version available I will add a link to it here. A listing of all of the columns is here. For those without audio versions, I will attach a transcript of the column to the bottom of this post within a few days of airing.
As people come to accept the long term implications of the pandemic, it has forced many of us into unavoidably stressful situations on a routine basis. That being the case, it is critical for a health person to have a response ready to meet this challenge. Today’s discussion about how the most loving thing we can for those we care about, is to give them some emotional space.
If you get to hear it and haven’t before, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the show. They have a great team.
Take care everyone. Here’s to a grateful day for all of us.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.