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The Myth of ‘Self-Soothing’ During the Coronavirus Pandemic: A Psychologist’s Perspective

This advice from clinical psychologist Laurie Ferguson, PhD, is a good reminder of the importance of staying virtually connected with others to fight loneliness and isolation.

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In our hyper-individualized culture we have created a story that everyone should be able to “self-soothe.” That phrase suggests that if we are evolved or mature enough, we can take care  of our mental and emotional needs for care and comfort all by ourselves.

For some psychologists, self-regulation and emotional self-reliance are a goal of childhood development. But further research on attachment and emotional growth suggests that it is actually co-regulation” that helps us maintain our emotional balance and our sense of safety in times of stress.

What does this mean about our present situation?

We are social distancing as a society right now. Those of us who have already had social contact limited by our physical limitations now have even less opportunity to engage with others. The isolation is frightening for many. Any subtle judgement that we ought to be able to “rely on ourselves” only heightens our sense of aloneness. There are fewer ways to “co-regulate” our emotional systems.

But it is the mutual sharing of support, care, and compassion that will help us balance and find a place of calm in the midst of this unfathomable storm.

There are ways to be in relationships with others right now that can help us manage the anxiety and isolation. Many of these suggestions you already know.  But even if we know what to do, we don’t always do it, or recognize the value.

I am underscoring the important fact that being with other people virtually — even though that is new and strange for many of us — makes a difference in our nervous systems and provides a sense of being okay.

Make it a point to be in contact with at least two people every day in some way that you can see or hear them. This means more than an email or text. Call someone so you can hear each other’s voices. Use a video platform like Zoom, Skype, Facetime, or Google hangout to look at someone else’s face. This activates your “mirror neurons” and helps to provide a connection to sustain us. If you don’t’ know how to use these software tools, there is no better time to learn.

One of my clients and a friend watched a movie together. In their separate homes they had the same movie on at the same time and connected through Google so they could comment to each other. Another client played a game on Zoom. There are lots of ways to “be together” that don’t involve just talking. Though of course talking is good too, as long as it helps you be positive.

Do something for someone else. This is a way to connect and help yourself feel better by focusing on someone in need. What’s up with your neighbors? What older person do you know who could use a call? How can you reach out? This connection helps us feel related to the wider world in positive ways.

Pets and nature count too. While we are wired for human contact in order to be at our best, when we hold a pet or touch a tree or smell a flower, that also helps.

If you can’t be in touch with someone personally, another “second best” is listening to the positive words of a favorite teacher or spiritual leader or someone you feel akin to. Letting their voice touch you — say, through a radio show, podcast, or YouTube video —  can be quite reassuring for your nervous system.

Let me know what creative ways you are finding to be in some kind of connected relationship, even as you maintain your physical social distance.

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BY: Laurie Ferguson, PhD

March 27, 2020