The stay-at-home mandate due to COVID-19 is hard for many. We’re wired to be social creatures, to hang out with our loved ones, friends, neighbors teachers and co-workers.

We talked with Amy West, president of the Center for Unlimited Possibilities, a Spring Lake-based counseling center, about how people can learn to cope with such drastic changes to every day life.

Her life has changed, too – she now offers virtual visits and phone chats for clients.

Q: Do you have a sense of how our community members are handling the stay-at-home order?

A: During this unprecedented time, we are largely living in a space of unknowing. Things we thought were true now seem untrue. Things keep shifting. Who would have thought kids would be mandated to stay out of school for a month? Who would have thought there would be a mandate to stay home and stay safe? Who would have thought a virus, which originated half way around the world, would have such an impact on those of us who live in the United States? An interesting time for sure. When our world gets turned upside down (trauma), our brains change to help us survive it. I once heard a quote that sums it up, “When we are born our brains are wired for connection. When we experience trauma our brains re-wire for protection.” (author unknown)

As a practitioner, I see and hear first hand how some community members are responding. As we experience many changes in a short period of time (i.e. schools closing, restaurants closing, and stay home stay safe mandates), there is a natural reaction of fear, anxiety and the feeling of being out of control, like worrying about toilet paper hoarding, and postings filled with fear on Facebook. When there is a threat, real or perceived, humans are wired to go into self-preservation mode – fight, flight, or freeze. When this happens humans will come up with ways (behavior) to feel in control and safe, and, sometimes this behavior may not be relational or make sense, such as fighting over or hoarding supplies.

Q: How can we help each other?

A: Show compassion, give each other grace, and practice patience when we see behavior that seems extreme or doesn’t make sense. If you really listen to a person’s thinking and understand what they have experienced in life, it will make sense why they are behaving the way they are. Another thing that can calm a person is being in connection with those we feel safe. Remember, today we have many ways of connecting that don’t require physical connection. For example, call someone you know who may not have a large network of social connections, reach out to someone who lives alone, stay in contact with the elderly people who are in your life as they are vulnerable, hug those who live in your house, and let the people you love know it. Lastly, practice good self-care. Get plenty of rest, go for a walk, get outside, create a routine, eat well, etc. When you take care of yourself, you will have more capacity to be there for others in a loving, relational way.

Q: How does ‘social distancing’ affect us?

A: The governor and others are recommending, “social distancing.” I interpret this to mean we are to practice “physical distancing”, a different way to look at the Stay Home, Stay Safe order. Physical distancing is very different than social isolation. Human beings are social beings and we are born with the need to be connected to other humans, even though some of us have less need for social interaction. In fact, a baby would die if it didn’t have at least some connection to its caregiver. (Russian Orphanage Study). Even though for some, isolating may be a welcome relief, over time it can be detrimental to a person’s well-being. In fact, studies show us social support has a strong inverse relationship with one’s risk of becoming depressed. Stay connected in any way you can…telephone, social media, Facetime, email, Zoom, Google Meets, Chats... So many ways to stay connected today, while practicing physical distancing.

Q: What lessons can we learn from this experience?

A: As a relational therapist, I believe we have a wonderful opportunity to strengthen our relationships. We also have the chance to practice compassion for each other and ourselves, reassess our priorities, and share appreciation for those who are our essential care providers. Some questions we now have the time to ask ourselves: What matters most to me? Who am I as a human? How do I want to be in the world? In the end, the big question to me is, what kind of legacy do I want to leave behind? Generally, we cannot control what happens to us, we can only control our response. We have a great opportunity to craft a thoughtful response to this situation.

Q: What about people who live alone? And kids separated from teachers and classmates?

A: At this time, it’s important to practice a high level of self-validation, as well as to reach out to your loved ones. I am so grateful for my loved ones right now. Staying in contact through video chat, phone, text and relationship is important. Maybe imperative. Remember, even when you feel alone, you make sense. Your feelings are valid. You are enough. You are safe. You are loved. You belong. Everything is going to be OK.

Contact Marie Havenga at mhavenga@grandhaventribune.com

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