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Interpersonal Communication and Resilience during COVID-19 Chaos

This guest post is by Associate Professor Maria Venetis. Dr. Venetis instructs both undergraduate and graduate courses at Purdue, including Interpersonal Communication Theory, Introduction to Quantitative Research Methods, Interpersonal Health Communication, and more. Her research interests concern talking about health, particularly how patients and providers communicate and how patients and their loved ones discuss health concerns.

Talking to others can be a powerful way to manage stress and heal during a time of crisis. Some of my research examines how couples and families connect through talk to help them cope after a stressor has disrupted their lives. I think we can safely say that COVID-19 has altered our way of living in unprecedented ways. All around us, life as we know it is changing. Schools are closed, those who can are working from home, travel is canceled, sports are suspended, and we are practicing social isolation. Most recently residents of California and New York City, among other locations, are instructed to shelter in place. We are asked to “hunker down” in our homes to limit potential exposure to an invisible virus. These are uncertain and somewhat scary times. We are told “it will get worse before it gets better,” and we do not know when life may return to normal. 

As a communication scholar who studies talk in relationships, I recognize patterns of talk that can serve to create distance and harm; I study how people can also talk to each other in ways that reduce uncertainty, increase closeness, and promote wellbeing. As a mother and member of a family, I try to apply my communication know-how to help my family manage this COVID-19 chaos. Borrowing from the Communication Theory of Resilience (authored by Patrice Buzzanell) and reflecting on examples from research conducted by my colleagues and me, I offer a few thoughts and suggestions on using talk to be resilient during these challenging times.

1. Make efforts to maintain your and your family’s sense of normal. Be open to creating new routines and an adapted sense of normalcy.

Humans crave both novel experiences and the stability of routine. However, during this crisis, life is shifting quickly. Last week we attended school, went shopping, and had relatively stable routines. This week we don’t. The disrupted structure created angst for me and for my younger daughter. Like other parents, I created a daily schedule for the weekdays. I organized times to do routine, school-focused tasks like math, reading, art, and exercise. My daughters take dance classes, and we scheduled time for dance into our weekly plans. This week’s calendar did not look like last week’s, and next week’s won’t look like this week’s, but we are talking about how to maintain normalcy. Together we are working on how to make it feel as normal as possible to add consistency to our days. We will have to be creative to foster a sense of normalcy, but the presence of some structure, even shifting structure, can be comforting.

2. Stay connected with your communication networks.

As social beings, we crave connection with others. Right now we find ourselves cutoff from our friends. Thank goodness our electronic devices can keep us connected. It is important to recognize that even when isolated, we are able to share (virtual) space with others. To be connected, you may text your friends or connect via many platforms that allow for videoconferencing. This week I attended a Facebook live-streamed bingo game that over 25 families played together from the safety of our own homes. Friends are using programs like Netflix Party to watch movies together. Book clubs are meeting virtually. People are having virtual coffee and happy hours. Don’t be afraid to be creative to stay connected with your network.

Further, rely on your network for comfort. If you’re feeling distressed, reach out and talk to close others about how you are feeling. You may feel that you need to be brave for your family, but share your feelings of doubt and concern with a trusted other. Maybe that person is your spouse or maybe that person is a close friend or family member.  Don’t feel that you can only talk to one other person. Sharing your feelings can be quite beneficial. If someone reaches out to you to share their feelings, please honor those feelings. Avoid shutting down the conversation or dismissing their concerns. When we dismiss other’s concerns, we invalidate their feelings, which can threaten them and hurt our relationship.

3. Honor your identity.

Don’t ignore what makes you, you. Until this past weekend, many of my friends were avoid gym-goers. Similarly, I’ve had to find a new time of day to exercise and new ways to do it, but I have talked with my family about the importance of making time for this. I’ve enjoyed experiencing the creative ways that others have created opportunities for shared exercise. Yoga and dance studios are posting classes online; gyms are creating at-home workouts. Similarly, before last weekend, my family routinely attended religious services. We have talked and continue to talk about ways we can honor this part of who we are as a family while our places of worship are closed. 

One common struggle that my friends are expressing is the challenge to enact two conflicting identities of being a productive employee and an active parent. While children are home from school, parents have to creatively find ways to engage and parent children while attending to the demands of work. You may have to be creative to find ways to serve both identities; you may also have to adjust expectations of what it means to be an engaged parent or a productive employee. It’s also okay to talk to your family and let them know what you need to maintain your sense of you. Keep communication lines open to help all family members accomplish their goals, and work to help each other to maintain everyone’s identity. 

4. Look for silver linings.

During this time of social isolation and growing virus concerns, it is very easy to get discouraged. The future is very uncertain. Look for the silver linings that exist, and share these with your family and social network. Much of what I perceive as silver linings, are the increased opportunities such as free art classes and concerts that are broadcasted online. I learned about these events because my friends shared them on social media. I can’t wait to watch an astronaut read a book to my family; opportunities like these are definite silver linings to this COVID-19 crisis. Try to find joy in these chaotic moments; perhaps you now have time to try all those recipes you’ve been waiting to prepare. Maybe you will finally teach your kids to rollerblade. Perhaps your dog is getting more love and attention than ever before. We can all find joy amid the stress of disruption. 

5. Embrace humor.

This COVID-19 crisis is not funny. It’s very scary. However, it’s okay to laugh and find humor at that which scares us. Making jokes is great for stress relief. Maybe you’re laughing at the hoarding of toilet paper—I’ve seen some great jokes online in which people, in jest, egg on others to TP their yard. Maybe you find it too soon to laugh at virus-related humor. That’s fine, too; find levity in other topics. Making jokes with friends and family will help ease the time you are isolated together. 

6. Acknowledge this stinks and be proactive in moving forward.

Finally, this experience stinks. It does. We can’t predict if tomorrow or the next day our loved ones will show symptoms of the virus or what will happen to the economy. There is much we cannot control. Give yourself time to process our ever-changing environment. Take time to breathe and assess how the changes affect you and your family. However, dwelling and being fixated on the shifting landscape may be dangerous to your mental wellbeing. We can acknowledge this, accept it, and together through talk figure out how to move forward, to be stronger and safer than we were before. 

Wishing you and yours health and happiness.

References

Buzzanell, P. M. (2019). Communication Theory of Resilience in everyday talk, interactions, and network structures. In S. Wilson & S. Smith (Eds.), Reflections on interpersonal communication research (pp. 65-88). San Diego, CA:Cognella.

Buzzanell, P. M. (2018). Communication Theory of Resilience: Enacting adaptive-transformative processes when families experience loss and disruption. In D. Braithwaite, E. Suter, & K. Floyd (Eds.), Engaging theories in family communication (2nd ed., pp. 98-109). New York, NY:Routledge.

Lillie, H. M., Venetis, M. K., Chernichky-Karcher, S. M. (2018). “He would never let me just give up”: Communicatively constructing dyadic resilience in the experience of breast cancer. Health Communication33, 1516-1524. doi: 10.1080/10410236.2017.1372049

Venetis, M. K., Chernichky-Karcher, S., & Lillie, H. (accepted). Dyadic communicative resilience: Predictors and outcomes among cancer patients and partners. Journal of Applied Communication Research. doi: 10.1080/00909882.2019.1706098 

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