Coping with crises is often considered from the individual’s perspective: What can I do to cope. However, the social perspective that emphasises the community is equally important.
We have a need to be in contact with each other. In addition to those closest to us, we easily sense togetherness with like-minded people. We can also feel connected to people with whom we have shared a significant experience. Sharing the wonders of nature or an impressive musical performance with others makes the experience even richer while also connecting those involved.
The hard times due to the coronavirus indeed compel us to consider how this era is uniting us. It is true, of course, that the coronavirus does not treat everybody in the same way. Some people become seriously or even fatally ill, whereas other people avoid the infection or have no symptoms at all. Some people have lost their livelihood, while others get more work or come up with a new business idea.
I recently attended the funeral of an older relative. At the beautiful memorial event, we shared memories from various points of our uncle’s past life. We took turns being sometimes greatly moved and sometimes amused by the stories that reminded us of his humour and caring. We were intensely present there and then, sharing together something precious to all of us. It felt comforting – especially as the coronavirus pandemic has forced us to be apart from those closest to us.
Emotions could be a uniting factor between us during this pandemic. Many of us have been afraid of infection, or of spreading the infection unknowingly. On the face of crises, negative feelings and emotions such as fear, anxiety, hate, and sorrow are common and pertinent. In a prolonged crisis, like in the conditions of this unpredictable pandemic, such emotions may persist, which is harmful to our well-being. Therefore, the ability to keep one’s emotions within reasonable limits is important.
Emotions can be regulated alone, but also together with other people. In recent research, the analysis of events in everyday conversations has been combined with physiological measurements. This has showed us what kind of joint emotional regulation is taking place between adults, for example in couples therapy or when telling a story to another person. Emotions and feeling are studied holistically, by means of visible emotional expression, physiological reactions such as heart rate and breathing, and through the meanings given to emotions jointly and individually.
In a study involving a number of colleagues, it was found out that sharing a painful experience by talking about it with another person helps balance the emotional load related to the issue: The narrator calms down while telling it and the listener becomes activated while receiving the story. In our study entitled Relational Mind, we showed how a therapist’s gentle and comforting style of speech was transferred to the client, who began to speak gently and calm down while talking.
In couples therapy, a client joined in the emotional experience of her crying spouse, mirroring the spouse’s movements; as a consequence, the crying ceased gradually and both spouses became considerably more relaxed.
Emotions are easily transmitted from one person to another. Not only joy and excitement, but also fear, anxiety and panic can spread rapidly within a group of people or in social media. For this reason, skills for joint emotional regulation are also important.
How could we help each other calm down in these hard times? What experiences could we share to provide common joy and energy? And how could we act to cool down overheated debates?
Right now might be just the right time to call your older aunt or the grandpa living alone next door.
The writer is a docent of clinical psychology, a senior lecturer in psychology and a researcher of social interaction. She is inspired by the beauty of the creation of social connections and therefore ready for still new journeys in the wonderland of science.
Kykyri leads the “Relational Mind” research project, which investigates how the experience of a joint encounter emerges among several people, and how the connection constructed during the sharing of emotions and experiences can be observed at different levels of interaction: from speech, non-verbal interaction, the synchrony of movements and physiological reactions, and the experiences narrated by participants.
Kykyri is also a senior lecturer at the University of Tampere, in the specialist psychologist programme for work and organisation psychology.
Photos: Virpi-Liisa Kykyri on Morsiussaari Island in Kokkola. The landscape that touches her most deeply includes a shoreline. “Watching the movement of water is always relaxing,” she says.
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