Social Connection, Mental Health and Spirituality
COVID-19 is a pandemic that came suddenly and that we largely were unprepared for. How would we then expect to know how to cope with the sudden work, family, financial, and social changes? A pastor recently interviewed me to shed light on some of these questions and I have provided some of the themes in this short blog to share.
Human Need for Social Connection
As humans we yearn for this verbally, physically and psychologically. It can encompass a variety of needs such as: love; respect; belonging; trust; friendship; support; human touch and intimacy; and to give and receive in the relationship- to name a few. Abraham Maslow created a Hierarchy of Needs which is a bottom up pyramid approach that sets out to depict our lifecourse requirements. It begins by moving up from ‘Physiological Needs’ right through to Self-Actualization’. Love and Belonging are centre to that Pyramid and to the goal of social connection. The manner in which we receive most of our interactions are through our various daily and weekly activities that largely center on public involvement such as work, play dates, social gatherings, centres of faith, school, family and friends. Further to these means are the mediums we use to maintain and accomplish those connections which have more recently been highly achieved through technological platforms such as text messaging and social media. While this shift to technological communication has been highly criticized for disabling social skills and personal connection, it has also been highly praised for the ability to reach geographical distant relationships and create new social connections and social groups.
Now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are heavily reliable on these criticized technologies in order to maintain work, school, faith and social life. The success of these technologies are fundamental to our ability to respond and cope in these times. However, it also delivers the initial problem: a threat to our social skills and personal connection. Where do we go from here? Remember how to stay present in the moment. This can be accomplished by being mindful of our current connections and their needs. Maintaining eye contact, putting down our devices more often, taking scheduled work and school breaks to connect with the family/people in the household, and identifying non-technology times- just like before.
But social connectedness isn’t only about meeting those goals of love and belonging, it is deeper than that. Love and belonging are interconnected within our neurobiology as a foundation for our mental heath. A basic example is the relationship between a mother or father and their baby when making eye contact and positive facial gestures together. This creates a shared oxytocin response (the happy hormone) which in turn builds trust and attachment: crucial elements for a baby’s social success. Now take that example and observe how a baby requires only a few general needs such as feeding, sleeping, play, and attachment. Now fast forward that baby to adult life and you have also multiplied that persons needs with his responsibilities. As those grow, so do the needs for social connections and then the challenges that ensue if those connections fail.
What prevalent mental health challenges can we expect to see?
Anxiety and loneliness have been at the forefront of this pandemic with the expectation to also see grief and loss as we continue to press forward into the midst of hospitalizations.
Anxiety is a state of worry that we experience as we see higher levels of cortisol in our brains. This can be perpetuated by financial distress, future uncertainty and fear of leaving the house or being in public spaces.
Loneliness from social isolation can be a symptom of depression and sadness. With COVID-19 social restrictions, these symptoms are at risk of becoming more problematic as people are also having to balance more roles and responsibilities. For example, single parents, parents who are both essential workers, people living alone, people unable to visit loved ones in health care settings, and people working from home while having to homeschool their children. All of these situations, and more, that people are forced into, can perpetuate symptoms of mental health with a decrease in ability to receive regular supports.
The good news: knowledge is power when it comes to mental health. The ability to identify the challenge or struggle and then the plan to break through the existing barriers can provide space for healing and positive resilience.
Here are some practical tips in maintaining mental health when social connections are threatened:
- Knowing how and when to reach out for support. Although support generally looks different these days, there is still some access to certain levels virtually.
- Utilizing virtual connections like family, friends, faith, and social support groups
- Limiting the amount of news reading and Internet scrolling and balancing it with positive news/affirmations
- Setting daily intentions and Positive Affirmations
- Thoughts are not facts: examine your thoughts and responses in your mind to determine the level of truth that should exist within each fragment
- Give yourself permission to feel the different emotions associated with the unprecedented changes happening in your life
- Guard your mental health by protecting it with the power of knowledge/self-awareness
- Ask yourself: what fills my cup and how can you work towards that in this new normal?
- What fills your families’ cup and how can you help them achieve that in this time.
- Be present in the moment and experience those moments with the people around you
- Being in mental vacation mode for changing your brain- managing expectations
- Managing your expectations for your everyday routines
- General prayer practice
- Deepening prayer: by giving your thoughts, worries, fears, successes all to God
- Practicing meditation in association with devotions and readings
- Getting up and getting dressed- assigning purpose to your day while also allowing for relaxation.
- Sleeping at appropriate times for your individual needs
- Mindful, healthy eating
- Balanced exercise/movement
- Be kind to yourself, allow for rest and processing the potential trauma you may have experienced
- Managing the screen time dilemma of relying on virtual social connections and balancing them with more present moments in the home
- Remember to have fun and use creativity
- Monitor online shopping and other addictive behaviours that may begin as trends
- Find and apply balance in your life
- Journal your experiences and emotions
- Continue social connections in creative ways
Connecting Mental Health and Spiritual Health
Mental health is deeply rooted in our spiritual health as spirituality is where we can find purpose, answers, peace, love and connection. It is easy to draw a parallel and observe similarities between the two because in spiritual health for example, we must have faith and rely on that faith in order to build a relationship with God. We can’t see Him nor can we see the Holy Spirit. It is instead a feeling we have, experiences we feel and observe within ourselves and through prayer. Similarly, with mental health, we cannot see our anxiety, depression, trauma, and personality disorders, rather we experience the consequences of them. What takes place in our brain is invisible to our eye and therefore we learn how to experience and feel these changes.
When we struggle with our mental health it could affect our theology- meaning we react with our emotions rather than with Gods word. One of my main teachings involves learning how to respond with our minds rather than react with our emotions. This is contradictory to the common Hollywood version: follow your hearts. When you then involve spiritual health in that guidance, you deepen the understanding by experiencing your mind being informed by God and the Holy Spirit. Once we learn how to respond in that manner, I believe we can remain in and restore good spiritual health. Being spiritually healthy though doesn’t necessarily protect you from mental illness. Mental illness can be prevalent through people’s life experiences and genetics. Spiritual health can instead provide more opportunity to move through mental health differently and potentially on a more successful level because of the experienced wisdom in hope, faith and prayer.
It is my belief that through strong spiritual health, we are able to enter deeper levels of self-awareness, connection and hope in the unseen. With this experience and strength, I believe we can have stronger mental health as we already know how to work with the invisible and follow a deeper level of understanding.
How have the social restrictions affected your mental health and what practical strategies have you practiced to break past those challenges?
If you are in need of virtual support for mental health or spiritual health and you are unsure how to access the appropriate resources, please do not hesitate to reach out through our website; with someone you trust; or with a place of worship for direction.
Article written by Michelle Aziz SSW BSW MSW, RSW Social Worker, Psychotherapist at Michelle Aziz Counselling http://michelleazizcounselling.ca/
Article themes adapted from Pastor Ben Last with Southgate Church https://southgatechurch.com/
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid. Retrieved from: https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-maslows-hierarchy-of-needs-4136760. Retrieved April 14, 2020
Pastor Ben Last: Southgate Church Interview Questions Paraphrased: Received through video interview on April 14, 2020. Website: https://southgatechurch.com/