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COVID and Mental Health: Therapists’ Tips to Create Healthy Boundaries at Home

COVID and Mental Health: Therapists’ Tips to Create Healthy Boundaries at Home

Advice that can help your family during this unprecedented time

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The coronavirus pandemic has affected Americans throughout the spring, summer and fall of 2020. With the arrival of winter and spiking case numbers across the country, many people will be spending extended time at home. For those living with close family members, the stress of feeling confined in close quarters along with the financial struggles and other anxiety stemming from the pandemic can put a strain on your relationships.

“Relationships are literally built on boundaries and time spent apart,” says Dr. Casey Gamboni, a therapist and teaching and supervising faculty member at the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at The Family Institute at Northwestern University. “With the pandemic taking that away, it’s naturally bringing up tension.”

Here are some tips from Gamboni, as well as Nicolle Osequeda, LMFT, clinical director at Lincoln Park Therapy Group in Chicago, on how to create boundaries to maintain healthy relationships and support each other’s mental health in the months ahead.

Understand struggles are normal right now

Understand struggles are normal right now

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The pandemic and spending time at home has taken its toll on couples and families across America. It’s important to remember that it’s totally normal for your relationships to be impacted as well. “With couples especially during the pandemic, they’re like, ‘My partner’s really bothering me, I just don’t know why.’ Well, you’re now under the same roof 24/7 and relationships are built on boundaries and time spent apart, so naturally it makes sense,” Gamboni says. “Every relationship is filled with ebbs and flows, and you’re going through challenges at a time where everyone is quite possibly going through a hard time.”

Take care of yourself first

Take care of yourself first

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Helping to flatten the curve via social distancing has become a marathon rather than a sprint, and while you might’ve been able to make it this far without properly taking care of yourself, it’s not too late to adjust. “When you’re not taking care of yourself, you’ll burn out and you’re not able to be there for [others] in the long term,” Osequeda says. “It’s going to be too much.” Allocating time, energy, space and resources toward self-care and taking some “me time” is crucial.

Adjust your self-care to the indoors

Adjust your self-care to the indoors

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Going to the park, going for a run or going to the gym might’ve been your go-to self-care practices earlier this year, but weather and safety regulations might take away those options for you. Once you identify what self-care practices have been beneficial to you so far, Osequeda recommends clarifying what about those activities help you in order to brainstorm alternatives than can be done indoors or during the winter months.

Do some self-exploration

Do some self-exploration

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On top of recognizing what you need to do to take care of yourself, give yourself time and space to consider what you need from your partner or close family members to feel supported in the months ahead. “‘Right now, what do I need to feel loved?’ How often does someone sit down on the couch and really ask themselves that question?,” Gamboni says. “Put really conscious time and effort into thinking about what we need right now during this health crisis while we’re under the same roof to feel loved, supported, admired and then ... come together and talk about it.”

Talk it out

Talk it out

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When feelings or issues are “suppressed and not talked about, it grows and festers in the dark when it’s not talked about or communicated,” Gamboni says. It’s best to bring problems to light and talk about them, no matter how small, to nip them in the bud.

Collaborate with each other

Collaborate with each other

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Sometimes it’s hard to name exactly what we need or what’s bothering us. Be comfortable discussing uncomfortable feelings so you and your loved ones can work together toward a solution. If you’re feeling that something is unpleasant, tense or emotionally charged, even if you can’t quite name it, bring up your feelings to your partner or family member. You can collaborate on discovering what’s going on by being a sounding board and bouncing ideas off of each other. “To be able to assist in coming to those conclusions is very significant and actually grows relationships,” Gamboni says.

Ask for alone time

Ask for alone time

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One of the most basic boundaries many people might be missing due to the pandemic is alone time. “It’s normal to want to have some alone time,” Osequeda says. “It’s not a reflection of not enjoying your partner’s company. It’s normal to want to have a little bit of space without having someone around or even just in your proximity.” Don’t take it personally if your loved ones want time apart from you as well. If you have limited space, work together to come up with solutions that work for your household.

Don’t judge others for how they spend their downtime

Don’t judge others for how they spend their downtime

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Self-care looks different for everyone, so it’s important to not cast judgment on your loved ones for how they spend their downtime or alone time at home. Your partner’s or family member’s stress-relieving hobby might look like “a huge waste of time” to you, Osequeda says, but it feels good to them. “That’s their time of restoration outside of other responsibilities.” Even small things like scrolling through social media or playing mobile games can be big stress-relievers. “Those built-in things that you used to do like riding the train home when you might just zone out on your phone reading silly stuff, that’s not built into your day anymore, but it might’ve been really important to you,” Osequeda says. “Recognizing those things and communicating that to your partner can help them respect that it’s important to you.”

Find space wherever you can

Find space wherever you can

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It might feel impossible to find true alone time when you and your family are all under one roof. However, Osequeda recommends finding any space you can, even a closet or the bathroom where you can take a couple of moments to yourself to take a breath or just sit in silence. If you drive and you’re coming home from work or running errands, you can also spend an extra few minutes sitting in your car closing your eyes or listening to the radio.

Create separation in other ways

Create separation in other ways

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Even if you are sharing the same space, you can still create some separation from the people around you. That could simply mean doing different activities, such as someone watching TV while the other person reads. Put your headphones in to simply block out sound or listen to music, an audiobook or a podcast. A sound machine can also help create a sense of alone time because it can block out distractions going on around you as well as create a sense of privacy. For example, you can use it while on a phone call with a friend that you don’t want everyone in your house to overhear.

Alter your environment

Alter your environment

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If you or a loved one are feeling restless or anxious at home, change your scenery in a small, sensory way, such as changing the lighting, temperature or smell of a space. “Go grab an ice pack and you stick it between your hands — it’s like shifting something in your being. Anything that can shift our environment and the way that we physically feel can help us shift our mood.” Turning your attention to your five senses is also a mindfulness technique that can help you focus on something besides your frustrations or anxious thoughts.

Get outside

Get outside

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As the sun sets sooner and temperatures drop, it’s harder to spend adequate time outside. But it’s still beneficial to get in any outside time you can during the day, even if you only get bundled up for a simple walk to the mailbox. Fresh air and sunlight are both refreshing sensory changes that can boost your mood and give you some alone time outside of the house.

Establish norms around work and personal time

Establish norms around work and personal time

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Different expectations about what quality time looks like for couples and families can cause frustrations and resentment. Work and school can easily seep into downtime, so households can set general rules to help distinguish those boundaries and keep each other accountable to them. According to Osequeda, it’s important to define time as a family, time as a couple and alone time as well as what that looks like, what’s a part of that and what isn’t. Examples could include after 6 p.m., laptops are down and put away; no laptops or phones at the dinner table or in bed; and no interruptions during certain work, e-learning or homework hours.

Decide on rules for shared spaces

Decide on rules for shared spaces

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As you spend more time at home, standards for your household and how frequently you need to clean might’ve changed. Although clutter might not bother one person, it might eat away at the other, affecting their mood, ability to focus and more. As a household, have open conversations to decide how you want to treat common areas, how you want to split chores, how frequently they should be done and more.

Be clear about safety expectations

Be clear about safety expectations

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Coronavirus safety is constantly evolving based on a variety of factors, including workplace, city and state protocols. It’s important to have household conversations about what safety measures everyone should be following and what behaviors people are comfortable with. “We all have expectations of people, but if we’re not being explicit with them and communicating with them, then we might be on a different page, which will disappoint or possibly build resentment,” Osequeda says. “When you’re stuck inside together, that feels a lot more tense than when you can more freely leave your house.”

Share concerns regarding coronavirus safety

Share concerns regarding coronavirus safety

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Different people in your household might have different comfort levels when it comes to COVID-19 safety precautions, while others are put into different situations because of work or school that might make others at home nervous. “Share any concerns or what you would like to see happen,” Osequeda recommends. “[Hear] from the other person about what they can do, what they’re willing to do. There might be some compromise that has to happen.” After expressing your discomfort with a situation or behavior, offer solutions and ask how you can support your loved one in that instead of placing the burden entirely on them.

Get to the root of your safety frustrations

Get to the root of your safety frustrations

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If you have resentments or frustrations about how a loved one is handling COVID-19 safety precautions, examine what assumptions are at the root of them. “If there is a collision of differences, there’s a much more deep-rooted narrative that’s not being acknowledged or explored,” Gamboni says. These could include: “They’re selfish,” “They’re not thinking about me” or “They’re not thinking about the impact that could have on our home.” Once you can name these, you can more effectively communicate how your loved one’s behaviors make you feel.

Practice ‘generous assumptions’

Practice ‘generous assumptions’

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Living in close proximity for extended periods of time means you and your loved ones are bound to start to get on each other's nerves. However, it’s important to not jump to negative assumptions and to give each other the benefit of the doubt when it comes to frustrating behaviors. “When something happens that might irk you or irritate you, take a moment to give that person the generosity of assuming that they were doing their best,” Osequeda says. “This also makes us feel a lot better. It doesn’t start to build that negativity and tension.”

Find time to touch base with each other

Find time to touch base with each other

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Even though you might spend more time in each other’s presence, you still need to be intentional about communicating. Get into a routine of checking in with each other at a regular time, whether that’s in the morning over coffee, pillow talk before falling asleep or talking about your day right after work. These moments can have a big impact on how you all feel going about your day.

Cool down before confrontation

Cool down before confrontation

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These check-in touchstones can also serve as times to discuss any tensions or conflicts that arose throughout the day. “You don’t always need to say something in the heat of the moment,” Osequeda says. “Maybe you need to calm down and wait until the work day is over or waiting until it’s a good time to talk.” Avoid “you” statements, name-calling or leading with criticism. Instead, approach your loved one with “curiosity and inquiry trying to understand what happened instead of judging and placing blame.”

Discuss what kind of accountability you want

Discuss what kind of accountability you want

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One of the boundaries that you might need to put in place is what ways would be helpful for your partner or parents or siblings to hold you accountable. You might need to establish that commenting on certain things isn’t helpful and should be avoided or reign in on how often a loved one checks in on you about something. For example, if you’ve been applying for jobs for days, weeks or months, having a loved one ask how many jobs you applied to every day could be discouraging rather than supportive.

Clarify a hierarchy

Clarify a hierarchy

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Many households might have college students or adult children who have moved back home during this time or aging parents that have moved in. In these situations, it’s important to establish a hierarchy of who has the final say when it comes to safety concerns, delegating responsibilities, resolving disagreements and more. “Proper boundaries and structure and hierarchy is what breeds functionality in families, so if parents can set the ground rules and boundaries for them, that brings functionality,” Gamboni says. “You can be the kind of parent that’s ‘my house my rules’ or not — as long as it’s being communicated.”

Don’t put pressure on yourself to be someone’s sole support system

Don’t put pressure on yourself to be someone’s sole support system

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Not seeing anyone outside your immediate household could mean you’re only seeing one other person. But that doesn’t mean you should be their only cheerleader. “Trying to take on the role of boosting someone up all day long is exhausting, whether it’s your partner, your daughter, your mom. It’s too much for one person,” Osequeda says. Encourage loved ones to reach out to and keep in touch with other friends and family in their support system.

Talk to a therapist

Talk to a therapist

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Ultimately, if you want to get an outside perspective, process with someone who is unbiased and get personalized help, consider talking to a therapist, either as an individual or as a couple or family. You don’t have to consider therapy only “because there’s a huge crisis happening or huge problem,” Gamboni says. “I think everyone can benefit from therapy because it’s a space to learn about yourself. … Ultimately, therapy provides a path to help you live the life you want to live.” If you want to talk to a mental health professional, here’s how to find a therapist who’s right for you.

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