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How Couples, Families, and Individuals Can Best Cope with the Coronavirus Pandemic

We are all facing enormous challenges these days due to the coronavirus pandemic, quarantine, social distancing, and the economic effects of this major disruption to our lives. Some groups -- particularly lower-income Black and Brown persons, are suffering more than others. My colleague Dr. Wonyoung Cho of Lewis and Clark University and I co-authored an article in the current Special Issue of the journal Family Process in which we suggest that there are four categories of coping with this unique challenge: Reaching Up, Reaching Down, Reaching In, and Reaching Down.

“Reaching Up” includes accessing our spiritual, religious, and ethical values. These times require more than just the usual good psychotherapeutic advice about engaging in good communication and problem-solving skills, mindfulness practices, equitable division of time for work and time spent taking care of kids and managing home life: We need guidance from our higher values to bring compassion, patience, courage, fortitude, and acceptance of things we cannot immediately change. We need to answer for ourselves the following sorts of questions: What are the essential components and features of a reasonably secure, satisfying, meaningful life? How much -- money and material goods, novel and exciting experiences, influence over life outcomes -- is enough? And what can we do without? How can we go on living with a sense of hope and purpose in the face of a situation that may bring great reductions in our material wellbeing, and that may result in illness and death? What is the source and nature of courage, of hope, and of faith in a better future, and how do we sustain those qualities and energy? How can we maintain a core sense of serenity and peace in the face of realistic sources of hardship and anxiety? How can we treat our partners, our children, our friends, neighbors, and colleagues with patience and compassion during these stressful times?

“Reaching Down” includes ideas and practices that foster a revised relationship with the Earth and its resources, and that engage individuals, couples, and families to participate in activities that aid the Earth’s recovery from decades of human-caused damage. We've got many crises going on at the same time -- the pandemic, struggles to end local and structural/systemic racism, and the so-called Climate Change crisis, which is really much broader -- it's an Earth Destruction Crisis. Think about small or larger ways that you can reduce your wastefulness and your carbon footprint. For instance, I recently bought a little machine that turns flat water into carbonated water. And I ordered a set of organic flavor liquids (including genuine Kombucha mix!) that I can add to the water. As a result, I am now free of buying single-use plastic and glass bottles, and I'm doing my part to reduce this major source of waste that takes decades to decompose and often ends up in the ocean.

Plus, being in nature has been shown by Japanese researchers who study "forest bathing" (Shinrin Yoku) to lower stress, lower blood pressure, and enhance our general sense of well-being. Get out of the house or apartment and go to a park! Stand in front of a tree, as I do everyday even here in urban northern Manhattan, and breathe deeply and mindfully, and maybe, practice a little Qi Gong (Chinese internal martial arts, a kind of mindful movement meditation similar to Tai Chi), and take in the smell of growing things. Watch the birds.

“Reaching In” represents a turn towards experiences available in the mind and in shared minds in relationships that provide pleasure, excitement, joy, and peace, given that external sources of these emotions are of limited availability due to quarantine. It's a great time to read all those books you ordered and have never cracked open. It's a great time to listen to all that music you downloaded and haven't listened to (or, in my case, all those CDs and even LPs sitting in racks in my apartment!). With your partner, and your kids if you have some, get off your screens and play games, make origami, paint, write and perform plays, do stand-up...remember, there was a time before commercial distribution of music and movies, before TV and radio, before there was a whole world of concerts and clubs, when families had to entertain themselves. Time to rediscover how to entertain yourselves. Take your "singing in the shower" and sing in your living room, with one another.

“Reaching Around” involves rethinking the unfortunate term "social distancing” to engage social connection and support while maintaining physical distancing. Social support is one of the most well-researched positive influence on mental health and emotional well-being, as well as couple and family well-being. Don't become a hermit! Reach out through Zoom, FaceTime, phone, or even, heaven forbid, write a letter or send a card

To read the full article by me and Wonyoung, go to my list of publications -- it's just a click away!

Dr. Peter Fraenkel


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