Connection in a time of social distancing
The Coronavirus does not only hit us physically and economically, it attacks the links between people too. Humans are social beings and crave connection. From our very early life we are in relationship with others, in fact we literally depend on our early carers to keep us alive and enable us to develop both physically and emotionally. As adults, we can develop deep and long-lasting relationships, not only romantic relationships, which sustain us over time. This way of thinking links back to a particular strand of psychoanalysis. The great psychoanalyst and paediatrician Donald Winnicott stated there was ‘no such thing as an infant.’ (1960) meaning that a baby depends on a mother or carer to look after them physically (dressing, changing, carrying) and to help them regulate emotionally (cuddles, soothing, talking, playing). This early relationship, according to Winnicott, literally enables the baby to grow into a person. Sue Gerhardt writes about this in her book, Why Love Matters (2004) - she says that the emotional regulation a baby receives from their primary carer stimulates the growth of neurones in the brain and minimises bodily stress responses in a way that enables the baby to develop emotionally and physiologically and sets the pattern for their relationships later in life. In the beginning, an infant and their carer are like a couple: later on, as the baby gets a little bit older, they go on to develop relationships with others within the family and outside it. In this way - if things go well - our real-world social networks grow and deepen, hopefully throughout our lives. The majority of us need emotional and social connection to sustain our mental well-being.
Relational psychoanalysis, which originated in the U.S., has now permeated into our British therapy culture too (Frankel & Perlman, 2009). One of its key ideas is ‘intersubjectivity’ which describes the way we are emotionally connected to others, affected by them and having an effect on them in our turn. An example would be talking about the virus with a family member who is really worried about it and coming away from the conversation realising you are now feeling more anxious too. They have managed to transfer their anxiety to you. A bit like the virus, anxiety transmits invisibly and there is much to be anxious about at the moment. Thankfully, positive feelings such as joy and hope can also be transferred in this way and it is important to find ways to sustain these feelings too for our wellbeing and resilience.
During this difficult and worrying time, although we cannot physically be with some family members, we can keep in touch with our loved ones via the telephone, Skype or social media. These forms of connection do not provide a physical closeness, but can offer an emotional intimacy that is of great comfort when we cannot visit or socialise with those we love and care about. The voice on the phone or the sight and sound of a loved one on the screen triggers a physiological response which floods our body with serotonin as described by Gerhardt (2004). This bolsters our immune system and can help prevent us from becoming depressed or anxious, or to manage these feeling states better. It is not necessary for us to be in the same room as someone for this to happen. Remote connection will never completely replace real-world social connection, but it can provide a link that is equally valuable in a different way, especially in the current unprecedented situation. We may be socially distanced, but we can remain emotionally connected.
Frankel, J. and Perlman, F. (2009) Relational psychoanalysis: a review. Journal of Psychoanalytic Social Work 16(2) pp.105-125.
Gerhardt, S. (2004) Why Love Matters. Hove: Brunner-Routledge
Winnicott, D. (1960) The theory of the parent-infant relationship. IJP 41. pp.585-595
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About Clea McEnery-West
Clea McEnery West MA, MPhil, is a psychotherapist, supervisor and lecturer. She trains counsellors and psychotherapists at Birkbeck College, University of London, supervises counsellors in a mental health charity and has a private psychotherapy practice in London and St Albans. She is a registered member of the British Psychoanalytic Council.… Read more
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