Disclaimer: Please be aware that this piece, although written by medical staff, should not be received as medical advice and we are unable to answer any personal medical questions. If you require a doctor’s assistance please contact your doctor’s surgery.
Let’s start with the many benefits of being part of a community:
We’re going to start by talking about community, then move on to how this related to what’s on all of our minds; COVID-19.
Community matters to me. Community matters to my family. It matters to my neighbours, my friends, my colleagues and my patients.
Community matters to everyone and yet many of us underestimate the importance of being part of a community.
Community matters at home.
At home, I rely on my family to help me with child care, listen to my worries and share my little moments of joy.
I am lucky enough to have a great bunch of neighbours who help with school runs, take in my parcels, pop in for coffee and put my bins out when I am away from home.
They encourage me to get out for a walk at night despite the fact that half the time I end up offloading my worries onto them.
Community matters at work.
I have a great work community. With the recent changes in the NHS, my work community is growing by the week it seems.
Days in general practice are long, bust and often stressful (and sad) and I wouldn’t be able to keep going without the other Doctors, Claire the Practice manager and all the healthcare administrative staff.
Community matters here too...
And then, there are all the other communities that support me throughout the week.
I know I wouldn’t enjoy the gym without a chat from Lara and Grant.
There is always a parent at the school gate with a spare pound if I’ve forgotten money for the kids.
The coaches and parents at all my kids clubs work really hard to build a community that the kids and parents can feel a part of.
What about online communities?
And then there are communities of people who support me despite me not actually seeing them for weeks or months at a time.
I mean the Whatsapp and Facebook groups and the people I interact with on social media platforms like Instagram.
I am well aware of the negative aspects of social media but, if you are careful who you choose to interact with, there can be a lot to gain from these platforms.
Sometimes a funny or thoughtful message from one of my cousins, one of the mums from school or one of the people I chat to on Instagram will come in just when I need a bit of cheering up. It’s almost like they know when I am having a bad day.
Or someone else will message to say that they are having a hard day too, knowing I can relate and that I am here to give them a bit of support.
This is what community is all about.
It’s about the sharing of ideas.
It’s about the give and take of kindness and goodwill.
The sharing of common interests or beliefs.
It’s about the sense of solidarity; of “being in this together.”
The sense of community is a feeling of belonging and feeling valued.
Feeling that you matter.
That’s why community matters.
The importance of human connection.
Science in women has shown a “tend and befriend” system.
When they spend time with their families, children or friends they feel connected and it stimulates the release of a hormone called oxytocin.
The oxytocin inhibits the release of stress hormones and helps to calm the central nervous system.
Science shows us that spending time with the people in your community or “tribe” can increase resilience and sooth your nervous system.
Sounds good to me!
What other benefits can you gain?
Another big plus of nurturing a support network is the motivation factor.
It’s been shown time and again that you are more likely to succeed if you attempt to do something as part of a group.
If you want to take up a hobby or get more active you could find a friend to go with you or join a group to gain extra support.
You can gain real life benefit from speaking to other people about things that really matter to them.
For example, their families, their job, their worries or their dreams.
This reminds us that we are all on our own journey and it’s okay to not always be travelling in a straight line.
It’s okay to eat a whole pack of biscuits when you are trying to cut sugar.
It’s okay to worry about your kids going to a sleep-over.
Lots of people are worried about paying for Christmas or concerned their child is struggling at school.
These types of conversations reassure us that we are all human and all have problems, worries and hang ups.
They help us develop compassion and empathy; two of the most important character traits when it comes to nurturing relationships.
So, why am I writing about the importance of community when everyone is talking about COVID-19?
Well, I have spent much of the last few weeks dealing with questions from my family, my children, my friends and my patients about the Coronavirus COVID-19.
It’s fair to say that everyone is worried about what may happen in the weeks and months ahead.
How are most of us dealing with this worry? What are we doing? How can being part of a community help with COVID-19?
Most of us are following the endless stream of news on the TV or radio.
Many of us are scrolling through social media for hours on end. Here, you can access some really useful information, but there is also A LOT of really negative content out there.
And then there are those looking to benefit from the panic that has set in by making false claims about things that can help prevent or treat COVID-19.
This can have a very negative impact on the human brain.
Lots of people are anxious.
Many of us are scared.
Some of us are angry.
Fear, anxiety and anger are not things you need to deal with on your own.
If we let these emotions drive our communities apart we are in deep trouble.
What can we do? Community and COVID-19
We need to replace the images we have seen of people stockpiling toilet roll, soap and hand gel with those of people helping their neighbours and doing something kind for someone else.
Performing an act of kindness not only creates a sense of well-being and happiness for the person on the receiving end but also for the person who has performed the act in the first place.
Create community spirit
Community matters. Community spirit is created when people come together to share their ideas and resources for the benefit of everyone involved.
We need to share our resources. To help one another be less scared, less anxious and feel less alone.
We need to create that feeling of understanding, belonging and security that arises when people interact with our “neighbours.”
I have already seen several glimmers of hope that lots of you are thinking the same way.
Someone on my local community Facebook page has suggested we use the page as a way of letting people know who in the community may be in need of help, support or supplies while we fight COVID-19.
Another local shop has made up packs of hand soap and masks to hand out for free to local elderly people.
Someone else who runs another local group on Facebook has started a Whatsapp group of volunteers who are happy to drop off food and supplies to those who are self-isolating.
Lots of people have been donating to the foodbank via the drop-off in my local supermarkets and a friend’s mum has used all of her Whatsapp groups to ask people for donations for the local foodbank too.
It feels like there is a wave of community spirit starting and I am getting behind it.
Don’t stigmatise people who have COVID-19
As per the guidance on Mental Health Considerations during COVID-19 Outbreak from the World Health Organisation, we should be “empathetic to those affected in and from any country. Those with the virus have not done anything wrong.”
Don’t refer to people with the disease as COVID-19 cases, victims or the deceased. They are people who have COVID-19, people who are being treated for COVID-19 or people who are recovering from COVID-19.
After this they will go back to their lives as normal.
Things to try to reduce your anxiety
Again as per the WHO guidance:
“Avoid watching, reading or listening to news that causes you to feel anxious or distressed.”
Instead; “Seek information mainly to take practical steps to prepare your plans and protect yourself and loved ones. Seek information updates at specific times during the day once or twice. The sudden or near constant stream of news can increase anxiety.”
“Protect yourself and be supportive to others. Assisting others in their time of needs can benefit the helper as well as the person receiving support.”
“Look for positive stories and positive images of local people who have experienced COVID-19 and have recovered or who have supported a loved one through their recovery.”
How to support children
“Help children find positive ways to express disturbing feelings such as fear and sadness. Every child has his/her own way to express emotions. Sometimes engaging in a creative activity, such as playing and drawing can facilitate this process. Children feel relieved if they can express and communicate their disturbing feelings in a safe and supportive environment.”
“Maintain familiar routines in daily life as much as possible, especially if children are confined to home.”
“During times of stress and crisis, it is common for children to seek more attachment and be more demanding on parents.”
“Discuss the COVID-19 with your children with honest and age appropriate information. If your children have concerns, addressing those together may ease their anxiety.”
Children will observe adults’ behaviours and emotions for cues on how to manage their own emotions during difficult times.
How to support older adults
Older adults, especially in isolation and those with cognitive decline or dementia, may become more anxious, angry, stressed, agitated, and withdraw during the outbreak while in quarantine.
“Provide practical and emotional support through informal networks (families) and health professionals.”
“Share simple facts about what is going on and give clear information about how to reduce risk of infection in words older people with memory loss or dementia can understand. Repeat the information whenever necessary. Instructions need to be communicated in a clear, brief, respectful and patient way. It may also be helpful for information to be displayed in writing or pictures.”
“Engage their family and other support networks in providing information and helping them practice prevention measures (e.g handwashing etc.)”
“Encourage older adults with expertise, experiences and strengths to volunteer in community efforts to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak. For example the health retired older population can provide support and neighbour checking.”
Community matters even for people in isolation.
Stay connected and maintain your social networks.
“During times of stress, pay attention to your own needs and feelings. Engage in healthy activities that you can enjoy and find relaxing. Exercise regularly, keep regular sleep routines and eat healthy food. Keep things in perspective.”
When patients tell me they feel helpless I tell them that they are not.
If we work together we can make a difference to how COVID-19 affects us and our communities.