Hidden Risks of Physical Distancing and Social Isolation

The single most important and essential step being taken worldwide to contain the spread of the COVID19 crisis is what is widely known as “social distancing.” But in fact this is physical distancing that heightens the risk of social isolation, conflict and stress. This necessary physical distancing is only tolerable for the most introverted of introverts, leaving the rest of the population in a state of periodic unrest at best, and deep distress at worst.  We are then faced with not only the possibility of disease/illness caused by the novel corona virus – we are faced with the dis-ease of daily living.  When the environment to which someone is compelled to retreat is a relatively safe haven that provides nurturing and encourages creative solutions to the inevitable frustrations and stress, the outcome will probably be okay at least – perhaps even resulting in some new and healthier patterns of daily living!  But the reality is that for far too many, the environment of “home” is a place of emotional tension, sometimes even emotional and/or physical danger.  For those who are “essential” workers – like many nurses – the workplace where they are now compelled to spend a considerable amount of time is one where their own physical well-being is at risk, and the culture may be also less than nurturing or pleasant – even abusive.  Even the best of circumstances can easily erupt into harmful conflict and emotional tension at a moment’s notice, ignited by the stress and tension of the uncertainties and dangers that we all face in this pandemic.

Now more than ever the world needs nursing – the practice of caring for others informed by the knowledge and the wisdom passed along in the theories and philosophies of nursology.  To me the unifying unique characteristic that is so vital as we face the COVID19 pandemic is the holistic nature of nursing theory and practice.  There are many insights that any of us can tap into in any of our theories – now documented on this website and accessible through the site’s galleries.

My theory and practice of “Peace and Power” is among those that directly address the challenges of social and emotional conflict and distress – distress that also compromises physical well-being.  The theory was developed as an approach to group process that shifts away from the power-over (often damaging) approaches that dominate group interactions, and toward an approach that nurtures all, that respects each person’s humanity, and that deals with conflict in ways that nurture growth and healing – not harm and hurt.  The “group” can  be as small as two people!  Shifting to this approach is not easy and it is especially hard to start learning in a context already stressed by the current pandemic – but it can be done!  The specific theoretical concept and practice is “conflict transformation.”  This abstract concept is possible to translate directly into practice – into the realities of every-day life – starting with awareness of the potential for unrest during this challenging time, and the commitment to  start practicing even with the smallest tension!   Here are a few practical ideas for using this approach where you live and work now.

When you are directly involved in a stressful interaction:
  • If you can, acknowledge the situation as soon as you even suspect that this might escalate.  Do not try to “fix” the conflict, simply acknowledge that it is happening, and ask for others to take time to reflect and find a new direction.  If it is now already escalated, step in to share (briefly) your sense of what is happening, and to ask everyone to take time to breathe and reflect on what is happening. This may be a few minutes, or a few hours – maybe a couple of days.
  • During this time, take deep breaths every few minutes to calm and center your spirit.  Focus on your own body/mind/spirit feelings and your own hopes for how this situation will unfold. Recognize and take into account the stress of the situation around you – in this case the pandemic and the real-life stress everyone is experiencing.
  • Shift to a place of inner calm, where you move away from blame and toward understanding of the situation as a whole.
  • Clarify the underlying values that you believe everyone in the situation shares.
  • Prepare your own “critical reflection” that you will share with the others involved.  This reflection consists of these elements:
    • I feel … focus on your own feelings without blaming others
    • When (or about) … describe factually what happened when your feelings came to the surface.
    • I want, I offer .. describe what you envision happening next to move away from or resolve (transform) the conflict, even if it seems impossible to happen.
    • Because … name the value, goals or ideals that you share with the others who are involved.
  • Take a deep breath, and return to the situation ready share your reflection and invite the others to also move away from conflict toward peaceful and health-promoting interactions. Listen carefully to what everyone shares, and join with them in finding a path forward.  The path might still be rocky along the way, but you will now have a foundation from which you can build.  Keep the process of transforming conflict alive and well as you navigate troubled waters.
When you observe a stressful, potentially harmful interaction:
  • Acknowledge what you are observing, even if it is not immediately clear that something harmful is happening.
  • Offer to serve as a mediator or facilitator, bringing awareness of the situation to light, and encouraging a move away from harm and toward understanding
  • If others are open, share the “Peace and Power” process of conflict transformation as an approach to deal with the situation.