Reframing communication in a Pandemic World

Part 1 | The stories you tell yourself about yourself…

There is a saying that World War III will be the war of communications. Whoever controls the pathways for communication has the power to determine outcomes. In this Pandemic World we find ourselves in, the survival of our human race will depend upon communication.

There are three universal truths we must uphold related to how we communicate with ourselves and each other:

1. To paraphrase Dr. Bessel van der Kolk: Healing is not possible in isolation.

2. Community is not possible without communication — Bhuddist Thich Nhat Hanh

3. In the words of holocaust survivor Victor Frankel, while we may not be able to control the conditions imposed upon us, the last of human freedoms is found in how we choose to respond in any given set of circumstances.

For more than ten years and in more than 15 countries, I have been working with ‘vulnerable’ and ‘marginalized’ communities to reframe communication skills and storytelling interventions as tools for psychosocial wellbeing, leadership development, and community engagement.

Our heroes from the Syrian refugee community in the Middle East, and creative youth and caregivers navigating violence and poverty in Honduras and Mexico, and youth in war-ravaged Kashmir have much to teach our world in this moment of quarantines, social distancing, financial falls, and closing borders. In the pre Pandemic World, the marginalized are unjustly portrayed as in need, at fault, weak, and helpless.

In fact, today, COVID-19 has unveiled how inequality suffered by one infects the freedom, rights, and security of all of us.

In the Pandemic World, the only constant is disruption, and those best served to teach the rest of us and help us learn how to navigate constant uncertainty and change are those the world has turned its back on — -the one’s they call ‘vulnerable’. While data shows that minority groups and communities impacted by inequality are at higher risk of illness and death from COVID-19, they are also under a higher level of resilience, creativity, and community-engagement — things our world on fire needs right now.

In listening and learning from these ‘vulnerable’ communities, here are 5 communications concepts and exercises to help fortify our internal and interpersonal communication during a pandemic.:

  1. Social distancing and quarantines must be taken seriously. 2015 data from the United Nations suggests our planet is home to more than 120 million people over the age of 80. There are more than 500,000 homeless in America. Globally, approximately 10% of the world live on less than $2.00 a day. 65 million are forcibly displaced. To ignore the very real threat of this virus means directly putting the most vulnerable and exposed people on earth at risk of more harm. However, social distancing and quarantines are not synonymous with isolation and silence. Remember, healing is not possible in complete isolation. Have a list of friends and family to speak with over the phone or video chat each day, and set these engagements as routine check-ins each day or each week to listen and support one another.
  2. Physical contact and gatherings should be limited, but non verbal communication through body language and eye contact are in some cases more powerful than words and physical contact typical of curated social gatherings. To again take from Dr. Van der Kolk: our bodies talk all the time. When walking in a park, or getting supplies at the grocery store, or running into your neighbor, or driving in your car — -pay attention to what your body is communicating to the people around you. You’d be surprised at how certain types of eye contact or tones of voice or hand gestures can engage empathy and reduce anxiety.
  3. Gratitude practices are a good antidote to anxiety or depression stemming from lack of social interaction. As part of this practice, at the end each day before bed, it is useful to write a list of the things in the day you are grateful for — -big or small: running water, a hot shower, shelter, internet to video chat with loved ones.
  4. There is growing research suggesting that walks in a forest and nature can reduce anxiety and stress in the body. In Japan this is known as ‘Forest Bathing’. ‘Mindfullness walks’ in a forest or garden can set the mind to the present setting, and support short term relief from the unknowns of the future. Exercise routines are also an important tool to physically and mentally fortify yourself from elevated stress and anxiety. YouTube is filled with at home — no-equipment exercises that can be done in 30 minutes or less from your living room. There are even yoga-for-kids tutorials online.
  5. In times of stress and fear, it is easy to become afraid of and unfamiliar with our own physical bodies. This dissociation disrupts internal communication and can negatively impact our relationship to our surrounding environments. At the beginning of each morning, before looking at your phone for the latest on the virus, lay in bed or find a quiet nook and practice internal communication. Here is one #MeWeIntl exercise that you can do in 5–10 minutes:

a. Lay down on the floor, take 4 deep breaths in through your nose, and exhale slowly through your mouth.

b. Listen to — — do not judge — -what your body is feeling and telling you, beginning with the head, moving to the ears, the eyes and shoulders. For example, is your head hot or cold? Full or calm? When you get to the heart, place the right hand on the heart, and feel the heart beat. How is it beating? Fast? Slow? Gradually move to your stomach and legs and feet.

c. After listening to your own bodies, write a positive strength-based message back to your body as you start your day.

d. Share your messages with each other as parents and listen to what your kids have to say.

6. Parents and caregivers should apply some of the above practices with their kids. Children’s routines, school, friend networks are now broken. This break in routines and lack of positive social spaces will result in more tantrums and weaker emotion regulation. Talk to your kids about what changes they notice and feel in the world around them, and establish new routines. The worst thing to do is to communicate with our children as if everything is normal. Be real about our world being a different one that it was last year. Try beginning each day with a body scan exercise with your kids, like the one mentioned above. Another narrative tool is to have a prompt on sticky notes saying “ I wish my family knew…”. Have your kids fill out and complete the sentence at the end of each day, and allow a pathway for empathy and non-judgmental communication.

In our work with refugee and migrant communities with #MeWeIntl, we drive home the conviction that, ‘the stories you tell yourself about yourself shapes how you treat yourself. And, how you treat yourself shapes how you engage with the people and planet around you.’ Earth is reminding our species in this historic moment how we are all interdependent — Me-We. The stories we tell ourselves — as a human species — will shape how we treat each other and our planet for generations to come.

As policy makers and pundits attempt to normalize this pandemic through reopening economies and borders, how will we as individuals, neighbors, and communities ensure we see, feel, and do differently than before the pandemic? The fate of people and the planet — the story of us — depends on it.

Written by Mohsin Mohi Ud Din, Founder of #Meweintl.

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