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The 180 Blog May 15, 2020

Back to Basics: Quality Time – How Connection Is The New Vitamin C

Photo cred: NDABCREATIVITY

By Sheila Ohlsson Walker, Ph.D.  |   @DrSheilaOWalker

Whether in the workplace, at school, or home with our family, we social animals operate not in isolation, but in the context of relationships with others – where emotions are contagious – for better and for worse. At this moment, hunkered down as we are – some with three generations living under one roof – any stress engendered by existing family dynamics is compounded by the myriad challenges related to COVID-19. Toddlers are still throwing tantrums, teenagers have rock-solid conviction that they know more than their parents, the adults in the room are – as usual – jockeying for control, and everyone is overdosing on screen time. With our nervous systems in overdrive, how do we even think about focusing on “quality time?”

Despite the unpredictability and emotional highs and lows, this extraordinarily surreal period offers a window for us to experience our children as never before. From the moment they roll out of bed in the morning, throughout their school day, until they drift off at night, we get to observe their amazing gifts in an unfettered way: their curiosity, creativity, intellect, humor, generosity, kindness and altruistic spirit. We also get to see their impertinence, defiance, strong opinions, and an occasional touch of the rascal in them! We get to see who they are – physical and virtual, attentive or inward, happy or sad. We get to breathe them in, let go of the need to control, and smile with our eyes.

This “get to” (vs. “have to”) mindset invites us into an expansive perspective of growth and possibility, one that can help us find a “flow state” with whatever might be happening in the moment. That’s the very definition of quality time.

 

It’s essential to note that what is quality time for some, particularly during this chapter in our history, is extraordinarily difficult for others. For instance, less traveling by parents and more home time to connect has been a positive aspect of sheltering in place for many, but not for all. Home life can be difficult, and for some children it can be scary, especially when it is colored by violence, hunger, or mental illness instigated or exacerbated by the pandemic.

For everyone, however – regardless of job status, ethnicity, health condition, or zip code – quarantine job descriptions have us wearing multiple hats, and often they are hats we’re not accustomed to wearing. All of this is pretty EXHAUSTING and can lead to an emotional numbing called “experiential blindness,” a feeling of being underwater, not sure which way is up. Adversity happens inside our bodies and brains through the biologic mechanisms of stress, and without offsetting, positive experiences, the emotional, psychological and physiological repercussions can loosen our grip on the proverbial steering wheel.

Regaining any sense of the directional control necessary to even start to reach for that sweet spot of quality time requires developing routines and setting boundaries in the context of the human need (and especially the human child’s need) for:

  1. Safety
  2. Trust
  3. Structure
  4. Truth
  5. Love

The experiences we have – or don’t have – relating to these universal requirements map onto our unique genomes (roughly 20,000 genes) via epigenetics, shaping and re-shaping the individuals we become in distinctive ways. Even identical twins raised in the same household with the “same experiences” are never 100% alike in any characteristic or behavioral trait.

There is no average human being: individual differences are evident across the behavioral spectrum, and include response and reactivity to stress (are we hearty dandelions or delicate orchids?), psychological make-up (do we ruminate or move on?), and personality traits (introvert or extrovert?). All of these genetically mediated differences shape what stress on the inside actually looks like on the outside. Bottom line: ALL OF US benefit from routines and safe, consistent, supportive relationships – which infuse dynamically into our DNA and serve to build resilience, or “The Three Rs

From the comfort of a concrete set of boundaries and familiar routines, we naturally start to develop a feeling of solidarity with those around us. The felt sense of being a cohesive unit rather than a set of individuals living under the same roof transcends words, but does not transcend quantum physics or neurobiology. Collective efficacy provides a sense of calm, stability, safety, and willing collaboration that promotes the achievement of goals that benefit the broader family system. As the saying goes, “There is no “I” in “TEAM.”

Once the household, classroom or office takes on the “team” mentality, then quality time is possible. But to kick-start all of it into motion, it is the adults who need to place their oxygen masks on first. We need to learn how to down-regulate our “fight, flight or freeze” sympathetic nervous systems in order to allow our “rest-and-digest,” reflective and proactive “human being” (rather than “human doing”) take the steering wheel.

 

Self-care is giving the best of you, instead of what’s left of you.”

Katie Reed

 

Self-Care Before Caring For Others:

  • The basics: Get enough sleep, exercise at least 30 minutes every day, make healthy nutritional choices, and moderate consumption of alcohol and non-essential medications.
  • Some necessary extras: meditate, practice gratitude and generosity, prioritize time with people who fill your soul with sunshine and catalyze the neurobiological “upward spiral.
  • Target and re-adjust goals so that they are achievable. Goal completion fortifies self-efficacy and reinforces a narrative of confidence and competence.
  • SHAKE UP your routines! Surprise yourself once a day. Get out of the house if possible.
  • BE INTENTIONAL about scheduling calming activities. Block out time on your calendar, just as you would a meeting, for a walk with a friend, reading, needlepoint, listening to music – whatever “centers” you.
  • Make a non-cancellable date with yourself! Find time for solitude (emotionally fueling and neurobiologically distinct from isolation). Go outside, look up at the sky, and surrender to the natural feeling of awethe ultimate “collective” emotion.
  • Pause, label and reflect, THEN Name It To Tame It! Accurate emotional attribution can reduce destructive emotion contagion.
  • BE GENTLE WITH YOURSELF. “Wholeness lies beyond perfection.”

Once we’ve recharged our mind-body-spirit batteries, a landscape of possibilities to create beautiful micro- and macro-moments with those we love opens up.

Cultivating Quality Time With Others:

  • While we’re not able to hug our friends right now, we can hug our family. Physical touch is essential for human flourishing.
  • Activate your child or student’s altruistic heart by performing a random act of kindness together.
  • Get out of your own heads and into Mwe, and help the others do the same (guide a simple meditation, discuss mindfulness, express your gratitude).
  • Capitalize on “goose bump moments” by celebrating them when they happen, and mention them at dinner, encouraging others to do the same.
  • Make the most of family meals. Get everyone involved in planning and cooking, or making a stack of cards for table topics!
    • Phones at the dinner table reduce connection and enjoyment. Put them in a “phone bowl” before dinner starts and place it out of eyesight.
    • Encourage conversation. Make sure everyone participates by going around the table clockwise, or counterclockwise, or by age, or names alphabetically.
    • Name It To CLAIM It! Notice and share positive character attributes you witness in family members and students – ones that unfold in the off-moments that warm your heart. Awareness will help reinforce these adaptive qualities into their self-narratives.
  • Don’t forget to PLAY and be playful!!!
    • SING out loud, LOUDLY! Belt out your favorite tune!
    • DANCE to music that each child, in turn, chooses.
    • Unbridled laughter is medicine… feel the happy endorphin wave roll through! Tell jokes or funny stories, though never at the expense of another.
    • Play cards or board games, charades or Pictionary.
  • Just “be” together in parallel activities (one reads, one knits, one writes a letter, two people work on a puzzle).

If we so choose, we get to double down on the type of authentic human connection that is the wellspring for the biologic “upward spiral” – one that pays multi-generational dividends. We get to double down on health-sustaining lifestyle choices that help transform the vision we hold for our very best selves into a real-world reality. We get to invest in the types of rich and real relationships that inspire parents, children, and grandchildren to live in the same neighborhood by choice, and to spend time together at holidays: for safety, trust, structure, truth and love.

The strength of our communities, our countries, and our future world rests entirely with the rising generation. The values they carry forward, what choose to fight for, and the habits, skills and mindsets they learn in these days will inform what they will one day share with THEIR grandchildren during quality time together. It will be the story of how this period in their lives shaped their hopes, their dreams, and who they became.

“The most valuable thing we can give each other is our attention – especially when we give it from the heart.”

-Rachel Remen


Take a few moments to reflect on what resonates for YOU. What are the things that will quiet and rejuvenate your mind, body and soul, hence creating conditions for quality time with your children, family and students? Coming up next week: the vital importance of surrounding ourselves with people who fuel our emotional gas tanks, or in other words, choosing the faucets and avoiding the drains!

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