We are wired to connect – and that instinct can counter the damaging effects of stress and anxiety. So how do we stay connected, and help our patients and families feel cared for, while staying safe?

Humans are a social species. Our need to connect with others is instinctual, beginning at birth and continuing to drive many of our life’s decisions. That’s a good thing, and more important now than ever: social connection helps us manage the effects of stress and anxiety.

A wide bank of research, helpfully collected by the University of California, Berkeley, shows that much of our evolutionary history is based on a biological necessity to connect with those around us. Connection and communication are as gratifying as physical pleasure – and as crucial to our growth.

On 31 December 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, Hubei province, China – and a few months later, the world is grappling with a range of social-distancing and self-isolating measures that put our need for social connection on hold, just when we need it the most.

The coronavirus disease pandemic is causing a great deal of stress and uncertainty for healthcare workers on the front line, says Ronel Groenewald, a counselling psychologist at Mediclinic Kimberley. And while it may seem as if you are cut off from your social support system, there is a lot you can do to find human connection during this time.

How to manage your own stress and anxiety

“To take care of your families, patients, colleagues and communities, first, you must take care of yourself,” says Groenewald.

●      Take a break from watching, reading or listening to stories regarding COVID-19, including social media. Hearing about the latest news can be alarming and upsetting. 

●      Take care of your body: eat healthily, exercise, do not indulge in alcohol or drugs and sleep enough.

●      Make time to unwind and get busy with things that you like doing, for instance hobbies and family games.

●      Stay connected with others and talk about general things, plan holidays and family dinners – stay away from topics that can be upsetting.

●      Manage conflict the moment it flares up and find practical solutions for unresolved issues.

●      Speak about the impact of the lockdown on the family, involving children in family discussions about practical solutions.

How to help someone else manage their stress and anxiety

“Always make sure that you and your family understands and remembers that danger is real, but that fear is a choice,” says Groenewald.

●      Give them a sense of time. There are so many uncertainties over COVID-19 and that can cause a person to feel overwhelmed. Using words like ‘today’ and ‘this week’ will reassure them that this will pass. Examples are: 'Did something happen today to make you more anxious?' or ‘Let's think of ways to get you through today and this week, then’.

●      Talk about close relationships. Words like mom, family and parents are very helpful. They acknowledge that you are worried about these people's safety, but knowing that they are there brings hope and stability. 

●      Normalise the fear. Help your family to understand that everybody is uncertain now and that everybody has fears about these very uncertain times.