The only thing more viral than COVID-19 may be stress—both at home and in our collective psyche. Practically overnight, our way of life has altered, with little time to on-ramp. Work and health concerns abound, and soon we will all look like masked bandits entering our grocery store for what has become an anxiety riddled outing.
As many people have been asked to work from home, couples are finding themselves around each other 24/7. Many are finding some enjoyment working from home, as they have more time together. But others are dealing with highly stressful work situations and the additional stress their spouse is facing now permeates the home.
I want to speak specifically to a question that has surfaced: “How can I help my spouse when they are stressed?”
I wrote about the ABC’s of Managing Stress here to help individuals manage their stress. There's a printable PDF for easy reminders. When dealing with stress as a couple, the focus is both/and: you are both responsible for your own self-care, AND there are steps you can take to be a support to your partner.
Odd as it may sound, many people are not aware of their stress level until someone brings it to their attention. Short tempers are often a red flag that someone’s stress level has reached an unhealthy level. Stress is not inherently a bad thing—we need a little bit of stress to keep life interesting. No stress at all for an extended time can cause life to feel purposeless and boring. Too much stress, especially when out of our control, becomes overwhelming.
Getting this issue out on the table where you can address it as a team is the first step.
Stress internalizers vs externalizers:
People respond to stress differently. Internalizers tend to hold the stress inside, wanting to appear strong or not be a bother to others. Somatic symptoms such as headaches, hives, anxiety or depression, or GI issues can all indicate a high level of stress.
Externalizers tend to act out their stress, displaying uncharacteristic anger outbursts, criticism of others, or verbalizing catastrophic thoughts.
Either type may experience difficulty sleeping. Some may turn to alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, or shopping as a way to cope. Most of these, in moderation, are not an issue (illegal drugs the exception) but it can become destructive if the root is not acknowledged.
Ways to increase awareness:
- How would you rate your stress today, on a scale of 1-10 (10 being the highest). Depending on their response, share what you observe. “You say a 5, but just this morning I heard a string of words that don’t normally come out of your mouth when you spilled a glass of water. That isn’t like you…do you think your level might be more of an 8 or 9?”
- Or, using “I” language, something like “It seems like you are very stressed. What I observed is_______. Would it help if we talked about it?”
- Follow up—What does this compare to that you’ve experienced before? How did you get through that time?
It's easy to lose our perspective when we are overwhelmed. And right now, extremely competent people are overwhelmed, as there is so much unknown in the coming weeks and months. Slowing down to remind ourselves of previous situations that we have come through is one way to restore hope.
Boundaries are especially important when dealing with someone else’s stress. While their stress is not YOUR responsibility, it can spill over, affecting everyone in the house.
If someone has trouble seeing how their stress or anger outbursts affect you and/or your kids, I sometimes use this analogy: imagine that your family is watching a tv show together, and you are in the same room, trying to open a can of paint, You finally get it open only to find it’s the wrong color. In frustration, you hurl the can of paint across the room and leave. You might feel better (temporarily), but you left a mess, paint dripping from everyone in the room. It is YOUR responsibility to clean it up.
It is good self-care to ask for boundaries while one or both of you are working from home. If your spouse is on heated phone calls all day, ask that they close the door, or lower their voice. Again, the unique challenges of our current situation has made everyone feel like prisoners in their own home sometimes. We might have gone to a coffee shop or walked with a friend, to take a break from the stress of non-stop calls, but these options have changed.
Boundaries may include:
- space (where is work done?)
- time (try to find mutual starting/ending times for work).
Asking for what you need to make your home a more peaceful place will keep you from internalizing and stewing.
Communicating as a team
- Ask open-ended questions: “What can I do to help?” is a great starting place. The stress may be a work situation that you can’t directly impact, but knowing that you are seen and cared for is a huge part of being a great team. Take in what they ask for, and if you’re able to support in that way, then let them know you’re all in.
- Brainstorm some ways to communicate and get on the same side of the line. Because some of our typical outlets are unavailable during this pandemic, it may take some creative strategy to come up with mutual solutions. I’m not sure why, but sometimes people turn on the very one that is closest to them when they feel trapped or overwhelmed. You are not the enemy, and it’s important to voice that if it has felt that way. Then name the thing that is causing stress, and TOGETHER, get on the same side of the line with a strategy to move forward.
- Loving your spouse in their love language is another way to reach out to your partner. Do you know their love language? (Words of affirmation, receiving gifts, physical touch, quality time, acts of service) Even if your spouse can’t come up with what they need right now, you can’t go wrong loving them in a way that resonates for them.
Simple actions for hard times
Things that would be hard at any time are even harder now that we are unable to gather. Many have lost loved ones, and are unable to grieve together with family, or at least not in the way they would normally do. Others say they are just numb and don’t have much to give to their spouse. That’s when simple actions can tide you over when the feelings of love may be overshadowed by the magnitude of this time. Reach out for your partner’s hand, or sit together to watch a show when words feel too hard.
Most of all, practice gratitude and be gentle with each other. Now is not forever, and we will get through this together.
Which area do you and your spouse begin with?