|Written by Jen Marr
It is a growing certainty among educators that the emotional consequences of the past few months on our schools and communities can barely be understood. How are we addressing mental health issues now? How do we manage the emotional toll we anticipate in the fall?
Even before the COVID-19 Pandemic brought unthinkable levels of isolation, our world was increasingly lonely, socially distanced, and hurting. Depression, loneliness, suicide rates and anxieties were on the rise. In the depth of this pandemic we know countless among us are hurting.
This time demands that we do a better job of caring for one another. But even when we care deeply, our skills are often woefully underdeveloped, leaving us unprepared to help our most vulnerable, especially at a time like this.
Therefore, to combat the feelings of loneliness and isolation, the goal must be to make sure people feel cared for. Not empathy, not sympathy – care.
That is comfort.
The skill of comfort, which is the cultivating of human care and connection, is something that can be taught and learned. There is a process to the skill, and when the steps are practiced repeatedly, the human empathic response is engaged and awakened. Connections happen and our core human needs of belonging, trust, and safety are met.
We are living in a time and place where we know that most everyone around the globe is dealing with overwhelming change and stress. It’s a time when we can without a doubt assume that any person we interact with is struggling with something. We don’t know when it will all end, and the uncertainty just adds to the stress. When this long-term stress is unchecked, it takes an enormous toll on our collective physical and mental health.
What offsets this stress? How can we emotionally recover?
Dr. David DeSteno, Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University explains, “When our bodies endure long term stress, the wiring to offset this stress is found in human relationships and connection. We need human connection to feel safe, to cope with stress and to manage fear.”
uman relationships and social connectedness are so critical in times of stress that Dr. Arthur C. Evans JR, CEO of the American Psychological Association, recently told a nationwide Town Hall tha
t above everything else, social connectedness is what is needed at this time. He stated “There are hundreds of studies that go back decades that show that the amount of social support that you have – people in our lives who support and help us – is directly related to our physical health, our mental health and generally how we do in life”.
In the past decades, there has been an increased focus on mindfulness and meditation – to self-regulate our emotions in order to help ourselves manage stress. But just maybe we should be redirecting some of that inner self-focus outward: towards caring for and connecting with others and letting them care for and connect with us.
Comfort begins by putting the focus on others, not self. Instead of requiring the one suffering to initiate action, comfort equips those around the sufferer to be the ones to reach out and help. This is critical because when someone is hurting, alone, isolated, struggling, anxious, or depressed, they may not be able to initiate a cry for help.
Comfort is an action not an emotion like empathy or compassion. The skill of comfort can be broken down into five steps. Two steps include perspective taking and three steps are steps of efficacy.
When these steps are combined to close the “Circle of Comfort”, emotions such as empathy and compassion are naturally carried along. Our human empathic response is engaged and awakened by completing the cycle. And even better than that, by giving comfort, you are yourself comforted and more emotionally grounded.
Comfort equips us to open our eyes and hearts to those in need. It then goes deeper to teach our ears how to listen, our hands and mouths how to communicate, our feet how to show up and our brains how to remember this skill. We acquire concrete skills when we learn how to comfort others, enabling us to catch those suffering before they head into crisis.
If I’ve learned anything over my many years in crisis response, it is this: there is always something good that can come out of the most horrible of situations. In the case of where we are today, what if that good was an increase in our connectedness and our relationships with each other? What if we can make the world a little less lonely by learning to care a little more?
“Comfort is a skill, not a trait. Research shows it can be developed if people adopt a growth mindset,” says Dr. DeSteno. “Evidence also shows that those who suffer from adversity will be more motivated to help others. They feel more equipped from witnessing the effects small gestures had on themselves. Teaching comfort skills during this time is like feeding those that are hungry. This is a time we are most open to learn.”
Dr. John Draper, Director of the National Suicide Lifeline, Vibrant, wrote these words in the foreword to my book, Paws to Comfort: “The mental health community and our dear pets can’t do it alone. The world needs all of us to know how to connect with those that are struggling too”.
Let’s change our perspective on human care and rise to the opportunity we have been given to mend our hurting world.
Jen Marr is Founder and CEO of Inspiring Comfort LLC and Author of the book Paws to Comfort. To learn more about how you can bring Comfort Skills Programming to your school or community, visit www.inspiringcomfort.com or email Jen at firstname.lastname@example.org.