September 29, 2020

How to nurture healthy relationships in stressful times

Tips from a Kaiser Permanente mental health expert for developing stronger connections to help you face challenges with patience and resilience.

Many of us have been in close quarters with other people since COVID-19 stay-at-home orders were announced, while other people haven’t been able to be with those they love. The change in our normal routines and fear about the coronavirus can cause stress and anxiety, which can test even the strongest of relationships.

“When we spend a lot of time around the same small group of people, it’s easy to displace our emotions about everything that is happening in the world on those in our immediate environment” explains Nima Sharif, MD, a psychiatrist for Kaiser Permanente in Southern California, describing the behavior of taking out your anger or other emotions on someone else. “This is unfortunate, and it can really strain our relationships.”

However, Dr. Sharif says relationships can actually improve under stress when the people involved are willing to nurture deeper connections by directly addressing conflicts and actively supporting each other. See his recommendations for creating stronger connections during challenging times below.

Establish healthy boundaries

For many of us, the boundaries that usually define our lives, both physical and emotional, are blurring. To maintain a healthy relationship, make sure you give each other space. Carve out specific times and places for self-care to stay connected with yourself.

Notice your reactions

If you find yourself in a disagreement, catch yourself and take the time you need to calm down. Notice your feelings and explore whether there is something deeper bothering you. Pay attention to see if your reactions are more intense or last longer than you think the current situation warrants. If you can share what you discover in an honest and open way, it can deepen your relationships.

Choose your words carefully and use them kindly

The language we use in our interactions can make all the difference.

  • Try using words that decrease tension and foster cooperation and understanding.
  • When making your needs known, speak in a nondefensive manner.
  • Listen patiently and carefully reflect what you hear to make sure you understand each other.
  • Focus on the issue being addressed, slow down, and stay present in the moment.
  • Avoid assigning blame or generalizing.

If you’re open and kind when you communicate, you have a much higher likelihood of getting what you need.

Engage in caring behaviors

Sometimes actions speak louder than words. Try writing down ways your loved one can communicate care to you, and vice versa. Each request should be specific and easy to complete. For example, your list might include:

  • Bring me coffee in the morning.
  • Bathe the kids.
  • Let me sleep in.

And don’t forget to say “thank you.” Small, intentional, caring behaviors, coupled with a sincere thank-you, can be a powerful way to express gratitude and show that you value each other.

Share your challenges

Find ways to connect with others and exchange ideas about how to support each other in difficult times. Shared experiences help you bond with people and remind you that you’re not alone.

Find your silver linings

Disruptions to our lives can be an opportunity to explore what really matters. Use this time together to try new things. Prioritize activities that make you feel healthy and connected. Take this opportunity to improve your relationships by focusing on the positive aspects and getting to know your loved ones better than ever.