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COVID-19 has suspended lives all over the world. It’s changed how, where, and if we work. It’s created economic concerns, made us fear for our safety and the safety of our loved ones, and brought up feelings of anxiety in even the least anxious among us.

It’s important to give yourself some grace, says relationship coach Margot Schulman, the author of Choose Love: A Simple Path to Healthy, Joyful Relationships. “I would encourage people to not be hard on themselves,” she says. “This is a new way to live and it is scary and weird, and it’s OK to feel weird about it and to feel you don’t know what to do or how to entertain your kids.

“But keep in mind that we will get through it together. I think it’s something that will be talked about for decades, and there’s something powerful about feeling like you’re part of history.”

Schulman also believes that trying times offer an opportunity to focus on building habits that can deepen our relationships and improve our resiliency. We talked to her recently, and she offered many strategies for dealing with the challenges of the moment and beyond. Here’s what she had to say:

Experience Life | Why is the pandemic an opportunity to build self-love, trust, and resiliency?

Margot Schulman | One of the big things I encourage people to think about is the stories of people who survived 9/11, plane crashes, environmental disasters, and other traumatic experiences. These experiences end up bringing people closer and can build trust and deepen relationships.

I believe that we can relate that to our relationship with ourselves. Whatever the challenge you’re facing — divorce, job loss, or a pandemic — being with yourself, holding yourself through all of the emotions, giving yourself that space to feel whatever you need to feel and being there to comfort and support yourself through it all builds that same really strong bond of trust and resiliency in your own relationship. Meditation is a good tool that can be used for getting in touch with your emotions as well as alleviating stress and anxiety.

Once you’ve built trust and acceptance within yourself, then you can go out into the world and start building it with your closest circle of people. In this moment, that circle is around us all the time. We may be feeling like we’re stuck at home with our kids and partners. But the thing that I often hear from clients is, ‘Oh, if I had more time. If I could just get a break from life then I could focus more on my relationships, focus more on my well-being, and on all of the habits I want to start creating for myself.’ Well, now we’ve got that time whether we wanted it this way or not, so I think it’s the perfect opportunity to grow those bonds and build habits that can make us more resilient. 

EL | What are some habits that we can work on building to help us in this particular moment?

MS | It’s key to try focusing some time each day on finding gratitude and joy. It’s very easy to get caught up in all of the things that we don’t have right now and all of the ways that our lives are limited. That’s how the human brain works. (Researchers have found that the human brain is hardwired with a negativity bias that helps protect us from threats.) But if we set intentions and put actual time into practicing looking for the opposite — in this case looking for gratitude — then it becomes easier and easier over time.

One way to do that is to write five things you’re grateful for before you go to bed or when you wake up. You can keep a notebook and pen by your bed. Or you can also just say them out loud to yourself.

I encourage people to whom this might feel really weird to start very basic by citing things like: I’m grateful I have a bed. I’m grateful I had a good dinner tonight. I’m grateful my children are safe.

If gratitude is a hard way to frame this, then write things down that make you feel joyful or happy. Begin by writing a list of at least 20 things that make you giggle, or feel delighted or joyful, and then make sure to do one every day. If you have kids, encourage them to create their own list and make sure to participate in each other’s joyful activities at least once a day. As you notice more things that bring you joy throughout the day, add them to your list.

EL | What is on your kids’ joy lists?

MS | My 9-year-old daughter wrote that playing with our new kitten, cookies, dancing, listening to music, coloring, and reading bring her joy.

My son is 13, so he’s a bit of a different story. I think this, so far, has been harder on him because he’s missing his friends a lot. But he loves designing spaces and drawing so that’s what he said along with playing basketball and texting and talking with his friends. (For more on helping your children cope with the stress of the pandemic, see this article.)

EL | What other things did you plan to do as a family during this time?

MS | We created a list of projects — cleaning out closets, books, and toys; working on a garden together; and lots of creative tasks like working on a comic book together and writing stories together.

I actually just saw someone post on social media a really great idea for a drawing where someone starts a picture of a person by drawing the head of a character. Then they fold the paper and the next person draws the torso of a character, then you fold the paper over, and a third person draws the legs and the feet.

There’s lots of other things you can do as well with your kids, as well as friends and family members who are sheltering in their own homes. You can learn a language together online or through apps like Duolingo, or take Zumba or yoga classes online, or join a Zoom dance party to keep up healthy, active habits that boost immunity and ease depression and anxiety.

EL | Any more tips for starting a gratitude practice?

MS | Feeling gratitude is like a muscle: The more you use it, the stronger it gets and the easier it becomes to perform the exercise. It’s OK to feel weird about this at first. Most skills feel weird when you are first learning them. I challenge you to take two minutes every day for seven days to practice gratitude — either by yourself or with your family.

  1. If practicing this as a family, take turns going around the table at breakfast or dinner with each person saying something they are grateful for. (If the term “grateful” is unfamiliar, ask each person to finish the sentence, I feel lucky that I . . .) Make sure each person has at least three turns.
  2. If practicing this by yourself, pick a time every day to do it (for many people first thing after waking or right before falling asleep is easiest).
  3. Take two minutes to list out loud things that you feel grateful for in that moment. Do not stop before two minutes is finished. Push through the resistance feelings and thoughts of I can’t do this!
  4. If practicing this as a couple, pick one person to speak first. Give the practice some structure by either planning to each say a particular number of things you are grateful for in the other person or a specific time each person speaks for. When the first person is finished, they say, “I am complete.” The listener says, “Thank you.” And then you switch.

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