Reconciling Family Connection With Social Distance

For healthcare workers, family is a vital part of your emotional wellbeing. Family keeps you grounded and stable. In times of crisis, this is doubly true – yet for their safety and your own, social distancing is crucial. So how do you reconcile these opposing needs? How do you stay safe, and sane?

Most people in a state of lockdown have their families to lean on for emotional support. Healthcare workers don’t. Instead, you spend your days on the frontline, fighting a global pandemic.

Coronavirus disease spreads by invisible droplets in the air, released when someone coughs or sneezes. Social distancing is a crucial factor in containing the spread and keeping you safe from infection. But this protective measure takes a toll – in a time of crisis, how will you cope with extended periods away from your family?

“These are extreme circumstances for all,” says Nicky Abdinor, a clinical psychologist at Mediclinic Milnerton. “Healthcare workers are already at high risk for burnout, so a pandemic can only make them more vulnerable. It will not be easy to cope emotionally with self-isolation and long, difficult hours in the hospital. There will likely be an increase in burnout, depression and anxiety.”

These effects spill over into the home. “Families of healthcare workers will also experience high levels of stress,” she says. “On top of all the anxiety and uncertainty right now, there is the added concern about family who are on the frontline at a higher risk of infection.”

Is there anything you can do? Yes – and it’s a lot easier than you might think.

“It is important to acknowledge that these feelings are a normal response to an abnormal situation,” says Abdinor. “Encourage regular and open family discussions about each person's feelings and concerns. A support network is essential during these difficult times.”

For children, make sure these conversations are age appropriate. “Encourage kids to express how they feel and validate their feelings. It is okay and normal for a young child to feel scared at a time like this. Recognise their need to express that, and look out for signs. Anxiety and stress in children can present as irritability, physical complaints, poor sleep and acting out.”

Speak with honesty about your own levels of stress. “If you are okay, say so; frequent video calls with your family, for example, will help them to see that you are coping, which can be reassuring. If you are not, say so; this will encourage family and friends to reach out and offer help.”

Abdinor recommends sticking to family-based routines and traditions to foster a sense of comfort and stability. “Good sleep, regular meals and some exercise will help everyone cope a lot better,” she says. “Perhaps the whole family used to come together for a meal on Sundays – so use technology to include grandparents and other family or friends who would normally join you at home.”

Everyone will need more love and attention than usual, she explains. Be kind and gentle with each other during this time.