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For many of us, the pandemic has fueled loneliness. The initial stay-at-home orders kept all of us physically separated from family and friends. Since then, we’ve all had vastly different experiences—some people have been working on the frontlines, while others have spent nearly every day at home—which means we are all in different places, physically and emotionally.
As vaccine distribution and lowering case numbers bring more of us out of our homes and into communal spaces, our different experiences—as well as varying stages we are all at in processing what has happened during the pandemic—can make it harder for us to feel close to each other.
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“What we need the most in this new unsettling time is connection,” says Laura McGladrey, psychiatric nurse practitioner at the University of Colorado’s Stress, Trauma, Adversity Research, and Treatment (START) Center. “The thing that’s getting in the way of connection is trying to be in the same place, either politically or emotionally or financially [as friends and family].”
Here, we talked with experts to understand the importance of human connection and why it may be harder than you think to feel close to people as society slowly begins to open up again.
Why We Want to Feel Close to Each Other
Human connectedness is key for protecting both mental and physical wellness, according to Jenn Leiferman, founder and professor of the Population Mental Health & Wellbeing Program at the Colorado School of Public Health. Connection at an emotional level, she says, “helps reduce our stress, which helps reduce our cortisol levels, which helps reduce inflammation, which overall enhances immune functioning and makes us more likely to be physically healthy and mentally well.”
Connection isn’t just about being in the same physical space: There’s also a need to be emotionally vulnerable. This requires that people—whether they’re together in person or virtually—feel safe to open up about what they’re experiencing and how they’re feeling. Not every setting or relationship is right for this type of vulnerability, but it’s unsustainable for a person to keep everything inside. “That’s going to lead to depression and anxiety,” McGladrey says. “We’re just not meant to do that.”
But how can we be vulnerable? How can we authentically connect with others when everyone’s in a different place regarding the pandemic and their experience of it?
Reflect on Where You’re At
Any parent who’s flown with their kids knows the drill: If oxygen masks drop from the ceiling, put yours on first. Then, help your child. The same holds true for mental wellness and our need for connection. Take the time to stop and acknowledge where you’re at personally. What’s been hard about the last 12 months? What are you grieving? What are you grateful for? How are those things shifting as restrictions change?
“We can experience multiple emotions at once,” says Trisha Raque, associate professor of counseling psychology at the University of Denver. “We can feel grief and we can feel joy. We can have some of our lowest moments during this time, but then we can also have moments where maybe some aspect of our career is thriving or maybe we feel connected to our support system more.”
Acknowledging our feelings helps us move through them—and it’s a key step in practicing self-compassion, which all of the experts I spoke to recommended.
Feeling unsteady emotionally when the world’s been erratic for a year is understandable. Even as we begin to shift toward normalcy, we can expect to face challenges. “If you’re an introvert at home, working with your cat, and you have to go back to the office, anticipate that that’s going to take some readjustment. It’s going to be hard,” McGladrey says.
Take it easy on yourself. And extend that same compassion to others.
Make Space to Be in Different Places
“The problem with everyone being in a different phase is it’s making collective healing very difficult,” McGladrey says. “We have to give both permission and space, and not assume that we know where [others] are in this process.”
One person may be excited about their upcoming vaccination and what they see as a beaming light at the end of the tunnel. Another may have recently lost a loved one and be reeling with grief, anger, and confusion. A frontline worker who’s been in crisis mode for months may just now feel the waves of sadness from watching patients die.
Understanding where we’re at personally can help us tune in to the assumptions we’re making about others—and it can help us offer space for those we love to be in a completely different place emotionally. Giving room for other people’s emotions, rather than trying to fix someone’s feelings, makes way for deeper connection and combats loneliness.
At the same time, we may need to adjust our relational expectations. The person we turned to for emotional support prior to the pandemic—or even six months ago—may not have the capacity for our needs right now. “We have to figure out what people are capable of giving us and what they’re not,” Raque says.
For close relationships where individuals feel like they’re worlds away from each other emotionally, Raque recommends identifying shared values and centering on those. “If they can find a way to join in a place of empathy, I think then the behaviors and the actual more concrete sources of conflict can dissolve because there’s the shared understanding of each other’s perspectives and values,” she says.
The bottom line—for self-care and for stepping into relational connection in a healthy way—is to give room for people’s varying emotions, name what’s happening under the surface, and go from there. Value connection over sameness. Recognize the logic of feeling off when the world’s been like a snowglobe shaken one too many times.