We are living in a time in which we are rethinking much of what we take for granted in our daily lives. The pandemic has sparked contradictory emotions, created uncertainty about the future and changed our ways of interacting with others. The measures of distancing which have been implemented to protect health in many countries worldwide, have dramatically altered our social interactions. In stressful and uncertain situations, people react intensely physiologically and psychologically. Most often we hear about the “fight or flight” response, but some of the pioneering work in health psychology by Shelly Taylor has also identified the “tend and befriend” response to stressful conditions, which refers to the tendency to affiliate with others, to help and support each other, when threatening circumstances arise. Our work on the impact of another recent disaster — hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico — showed the deep sense of connection with others provoked by the shared trauma; the solidarity of a community surviving together and the empathy for the suffering of others.
Ironically, in the current situation of a threatening pandemic, the stay-in-place and quarantine measures in many ways block us from precisely these relational contacts and gatherings, which would be beneficial to our health in times of crisis. One of the first articles published on the mental health consequences of the pandemic was in early 2020 in the Lancet, and it spelled out the risks of quarantine. It recommended several ways to limit the impacts of isolation, one of which is to realize that it is an expression of altruism toward others. These days we do not shake hands, we have even stopped the elbow bumps, we avoid getting close to anyone outside, and see people rushing to the other side of the street when we pass each other on our brief daily walks. The masks we wear when in public hide our smiles. But we adjust — we greet each other in creative ways, we learn to notice how the eyes smile above the masks. We drop off meals on the porches of elderly neighbors, we offer our professional services and create neighborhood volunteer groups to protect and support the vulnerable people in communities.
We are being challenged to rethink the definition of what it means to be together and what unexplored options there are to connect — the creative ideas about celebrating together virtually and at a distance are abundant. People are also reflecting on the qualities they would like to see in their relationships. They are finding new depth in friendships and conversations. The physical separation, the existential questions provoked by the crisis, the time for reflection, have encouraged people to talk about what they find meaningful, how meaning has changed, and what most matters to now.
How can we nurture the supportive, fulfilling and resilience enhancing aspects of social relationships especially in the context of a crisis requiring social separation? How can we melt those barriers erected by the computer and plexiglass screens — at first eliminate them symbolically, and later dismantle them physically. And perhaps, we can take some of those changes in depth of dialogue, warmth of empathy, mindful listening, collaborative creations — which are now fostering meaningful relational worlds — into our lives as we move into post-pandemic times?
The resources we have chosen this month offer timely ideas for fostering relationships, dialogues and resilient communities, and discuss their implications for coaching. They can be relevant for deepening our own relationships, being in the dialog with coaching clients, and for supporting clients in exploring their relations worlds.
The health benefits of social support have been confirmed by health psychology over decades of research, which shows that social support is a buffer to stress and significantly increases life expectancy. It has beneficial effects for mental health and physical health including immune function, telomere length and the microbiome. The focus research article in the Coaching Report is a systematic review of the research on the benefits and challenges of social ties in times of natural disasters.
Director of Research
Institute of Coaching
The IOC is a global community of coaches.