July 22, 2020

COVID-Brain Coping Relief

COVID Brain relief comes in many forms, and validation is one of my top favorites. It’s a maximum-effect-with-minimum-effort emotional intelligence practice.   

I began thinking about this last week when the UPS driver pulled up the driveway while I waited at the door. (Yes, I wait to talk to the UPS driver whenever possible. I have extraverted preferences and I’ll talk to anyone about anything these days.)

He was in the back of his truck for an unusually long time. 

When he came to the door, he handed me a package labeled with someone else’s name. As I handed it back to him, he looked embarrassed and muttered: I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I can’t seem to get the packages straight today.

I shouted out as he walked back to his truck: COVID Brain! I call it COVID Brain. We just can’t think straight!

He stopped. He turned around to look at me, and he nodded. The expression on his face was one of visible relief.

I made up the name COVID Brain a while ago to calm my anxiety, spaciness, and inability to focus and make decisions.Then I read this article last week.

In times like these, our brains tend to work differently. The prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for complex planning, working memory and analytical thinking, is swamped with ambiguous signals, impacting our decision-making abilities. Meanwhile, the brain scours its long-term memory systems for comparable experiences. Finding few precedents for this pandemic, it looks intently outward for guidance on what to do next. The combination of impaired analytical thinking and heightened external sensitivity creates what can be called ‘Covid-19 brain’ – a fragile, frazzled state that keeps our thoughts simultaneously on edge and unfocused.”

Hallelujah! COVID Brain is for real! We haven’t lost our minds! 

Okay, but now what?

There are many excellent articles on COVID coping including this one on resetting our expectations (written for managers, but really for all of us.) However, I believe there’s an even more potent practice, and it is the process of validation in conversation. 

I remember reading that at the end of Oprah’s long-running show, she noted the ONE thing that her 30,000 guests had in common: You guessed it. The need for validation, which we all know she offers in spades to everyone.

30,000 people is a pretty significant sample group, and science backs it up. We are literally wired to connect.

Validation, like empathy, doesn’t mean I agree with you. What it does communicate is that I see you. I hear you. You matter.

We’ve all experienced what it feels like when we don’t receive validation.

Like when you’ve just shared something important – maybe your excitement about a recent accomplishment, the frustrating challenges you’re facing, or an ouch! response to a colleague’s feedback. You’re sharing something real and authentic. 

And in response? You get N-O-T-H-I-N-G back. A grunt, a stare, a scowl, a change of conversation.

How does it make you feel?

Now think about someone who recently unloaded (with or without your invitation) something they are going through. Happy, excited, frustrated, confused – pleasant or unpleasant. 

How did you respond?

Were you too exhausted to make space for one more person who needs something from you? Or maybe you were bored or irritated with their issue? Or you had too many other things on your plate to care? With COVID Brain, the chances of being distracted are pretty high.

But here’s the good news.

Validation doesn’t take a lot of time. And it helps enormously to shift our fuzzy brains back into focus. It’s a powerful gift of connection and engagement we can give to anyone at anytime.

I have a relative who needs to be housebound due to her physical limitations and COVID. The other day she told me she was so bored with staying in the house. What did I say? “You need to be housebound! You have a beautiful home. Stay put!”

Shut her up fast, didn’t I? And I told her what to do even though she wasn’t asking. Another option might have been: “I bet you must be going stir crazy. What do you do to get some fresh air?” I would have then also learned more about her life these days.  

Now imagine your work environment. A colleague logs on for a virtual call and when you ask them how they are, they respond: Exhausted. I can’t keep up with anything anymore.

What do you say in response? 

  1. Nothing.
  2. You think you’re exhausted?  
  3. Everyone is exhausted right now.
  4. Damn you’re a downer.
  5. What’s going on?

Maybe you feel like the person is complaining (a). Maybe you feel way more tired than anyone you know (b). Maybe you just want to shut them up (c). Maybe you feel they’re a bottomless pit of need (d).

Or maybe, you could just take a moment and reflect back with empathy what you’ve heard, whether or not you agree with what they’re feeling. Like: “That sounds hard and overwhelming to be so exhausted. And it must make the week really long. I’m wishing you a bit of sanity wherever you can find it.”

Validation is not about fixing someone! Or taking responsibility for their challenges and telling them what to do. It’s not dismissive, it’s not directive and it’s not critical. It’s listening and offering back a reflection and connection.  

Validation increases employee engagement. In fact, did you know that just two short (2 minute) touch points a day with your individual team members is better than one longer connection a day?

Validation is powerful for many reasons. It calms our reactive, primitive, lizard brain. And when we feel safe and connected, our brains don’t need to sound the alarm to fight, freeze or flee.

Validation also increases endorphins and the happy hormones that are produced through connection. And connection sends positive signals to our pre-frontal cortex to make better decisions.

By reflecting back an emotion to another person, you give them an opportunity to recognize what they are feeling, while making the social connection that is so essential to our survival.

Today, I invite you to join me in this practice. Whether in person or online, listen with the intention to validate one person’s feelings – their pain, joy, excitement, confusion, questioning, hope, anxiety, whatever is up for them. 

Just like my exchange with the UPS drive, it only takes a moment of connection. (You are not a therapist – this is not an hour session!)

Then watch their face. See if it doesn’t visibly soften and relax.

I think you will agree. When we choose validation, we provide others a piece of COVID Brain relief. And that’s an EQ skill that will serve us well for months to come. 

To whatever you are feeling right now. All of it. 

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Emotional Intelligence, Empathy, Interpersonal Relationships, Stress Management
Deene Morris
About Deene Morris
Interpersonal Adventure Guide | Team Think Generator | Emotional Intelligence Facilitator | Conflict to Creative Solutions.

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