Relationships and COVID-19

​Brad Oxnam talks with Janet McCutchen, LPC, of Work/Life Connections-EAP about advice for maintaining or improving relationships during the COVID-19 pandemic situation.

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Brad Oxnam: Welcome to this edition of the Vanderbilt Health and Wellness Wellcast. This is Brad Oxnam with Vanderbilt Work/Life Connections filling in for our regular host, Rosemary Cope. This month, I'm joined by Janet McCutchen, one of our Licensed Professional Counselors with Work/Life Connections EAP. Today, we will be discussing maintaining your relationships during the stressful time of our current pandemic.

COVID-19 has caused a multitude of stressful issues, not only for individuals, but for families, couples and cohabitators as well. We can all feel on edge at times. Many couples and families are working from home where work stress is coupled with relationship stress, not to mention feeling the fatigue caused by virtual online sessions, social media and so on. Janet, what are some ways we can improve or maintain our relationships during COVID-19?

Janet McCutchen: Thanks so much, Brad. You know, there are many people that have said how much they've enjoyed the extra time with their partners and family, so, when we talk about this, certainly, we don't want to infer that it's all been a bad thing, but we know that it's been incredibly stressful, and one of the ways that we know that we tend to cope with stress is by "checking out." What I mean by that is that we often binge T.V., are on our phones, we are surfing the internet, and so, my first suggestion would be - put down your phone.  When we are in close quarters, it's important to remember that, with the stress we are experiencing, we often long to have somebody to turn to for comfort, and ideally, for most of us, it's our partners. When we do this, we need to keep in mind that our partners may not always be in a good place to be fully present for us, I mean, even when we turn to them and ask something like, "Is this a good time; I really need to connect with you and talk about what's going on with me for five or 10 minutes?"  The other piece of that is that we need to be able to give them a right to say that it's not a good time.  People are working from home, so we are sort of bringing the stress and the pressures, the issues, of work into our homes. So, when our partner maybe says that, they could also maybe give us some options, like, "This isn't a good time right now, but I want to be able to meet with you and talk later." So, we have the responsibility to ask for what we want, and then, we also have to allow our partners room to postpone. But if we put down our phones and reconnect, we can really look at each other, we can practice active listening without judgment, and really offer each other just kind of these mini compassion breaks when we are not looking at our phones or checking out. 

One of the other ways I recommend people improve their relationship is to think about taking a break before you need it. This is good advice in general. You know, at Work/Life Connections, we often encourage our clients not to wait until they are overwhelmed, but to really tune in to what is going on with respect to maybe the exhaustion they feel, or the sadness they feel. So, the best time to reach out is before you hit a wall and perhaps become too overwhelmed to have the energy to reach out or motivation to take care of ourselves. Many times, you know, Vanderbilt employees are caretakers in some form or another, you know, whether you work on the medical side or on the university as an instructor or coordinator. We all, regardless of our work responsibilities, have a tendency to minimize our need for support. So, talking with someone objective, if you don't want to burden your partner, other family member or friend, can really make all the difference. So, take a break before you really need it, before you become overwhelmed. 

The third suggestion I have is practicing gratitude and giving during this time, and I really don't want to paint too rosy a picture. You know, I don't want to infer that this isn't a difficult time and create a "silver lining," if you will, that isn't there, but at the same time, many of us are enjoying more time with our families. I mean, the other piece of this is - we have time to connect during the day with our partners and family, we have less time in traffic, we have the opportunity to try something new, read that book that we've postponed reading or finally clean out the garage, but not every rewarding activity involves some exciting event or accomplishment. Sometimes, it's a good idea to pause and think about what we are grateful for, and it can be the simple things. So, we have that opportunity to gather around the dinner table or, you know, let our partners and family know what they mean to us. We have to also embrace some other ways of connecting in our communities with respect to giving. You know, maybe we can give of our time or money. I mean, there's ample research out there around the positive impact of gratitude on our brain just neurologically. A study at UC Berkeley found that people who actively practice gratitude by giving time or contributing to a charitable cause demonstrate more activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is the decision-making and learning portion of the brain. So, there's that altruism that really can have an impact on just our day-to-day function, which can be really very important and can reduce those feelings of anxiety and distress. Relationships really make a difference and learning how to build those skills and look at things from a different perspective can really help.

Brad Oxnam:  Thanks for the advice, Janet! I would mention, if you are feeling excessively stressed during this time, if you are a Vanderbilt employee or spouse, you are welcome to call and make an appointment with Work/Life Connections EAP and talk to a counselor.

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