Times are really, really tough right now. And they’re tough for so many of us in so many different ways. I often remind myself that I’m not homeless or hungry, and that things could be so much worse. But that only helps for a second, right? We still have to get up out of bed and try to make sense out of all the conflicting news, advice, and warnings and somehow get out there. We have to continue our jobs, or find a job, and we have to parent our children.
There is so much already out there about how to deal with the stress from Covid-19… I see it every day, on TV and social media, and I hesitate sometimes to repeat it to my clients. We all know we need to exercise more, drink less, eat healthier. Knowing it is one thing; doing it another. I want to focus today on one thing I learned last week in a training by Kathryn Rheem and Jennifer Olden for EFT therapists. And that is, there is no such thing as self-regulation or self-soothing. When we are stressed out and trying to calm down, we’re not ever really calming ourselves down.
At first, that sounds so against everything we thought we knew. All our lives we were told to calm down, take care of ourselves, breathe deeply, count to ten, etc. It turns out that none of that works by itself. When self-soothing does work, it’s because our subconscious self brings the internalized representation of a loving other to mind. In other words, we sort of conjure up the memory of the soothing presence of a loved one, and it happens so fast we’re not aware that we’re doing it. Recent science tells us that the only thing that really works is co-regulation (see A General Theory of Love by Lewis, Amini, and Lannon). Because we are wired to connect and bond, being self-sufficient is just a sort of stop-gap, or temporary solution, until we can get to the real stuff—a caring other. Think of that Intro to Psychology study of the rhesus monkeys: the little orphans chose time and time again the soft, comforting wire “mother” covered in a terry cloth towel over the one without the soft covering holding the bottle. We need contact, care, and comfort, or we will suffer.
So, yes, do exercise and all the healthy things, but also make sure you have a soothing other. Look for that partner, friend, loved one to help you calm down and feel less anxious. We know that secure attachment means emotional responsiveness and emotional availability; go to those that can provide you with those things if you can.
If you feel so very alone in your life right now and you don’t think you can find a secure attachment, a therapist can help. According to Kathryn and Jen, a therapist forms a sort of template for a caring relationship that you become able to relate to the real world. In therapy, I work with anxiety in clients in part by co-regulating with them: staying with the feeling, validating it, being understanding and responsive. This attunement helps to reduce the intensity of the feeling. In therapy, we also work to understand the emotional blocks that keeps us from connecting with others and how to minimize those blocks. We do grief work and help heal past traumas so that the client is more freely able to connect with others. A therapeutic relationship is in fact a microcosm of a secure attachment, and thus a co-regulator for the client. Similarly, in couples therapy, our goal is to create a secure attachment to help the couple be emotionally available and responsive to each other, in essence to co-regulate each other.
In these stressful times of Covid-19, connection is more important than ever. Luckily, we can emotionally connect and physically distance at the same time, through phone calls, conversations that matter with our household members, small masked gatherings outside, or online therapy. When you’re feeling anxiety or stress, consider using that anxiety as a signal to reach out in one of those ways. There are no Top Tens or multiple bullet points in this article, just somehow: connect.