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“Tend and Befriend” to Break Down The “Pandemic Wall”

The “Tend and Befriend theory” is an amazing scientific encapsulation of the positive well-being phenomenon we experience when we take care of our family and friends (tend) and reach out socially to others (befriend) that can help break down the "pandemic wall."

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The concept of a pandemic wall has been raised since the summer of 2020.  Jennifer Senior, “We’ve Hit a Pandemic Wall: New data show that Americans are suffering from record levels of mental distress.” New York Times, dated August 5, 2020, available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/05/opinion/coronavirus-mental-illness-depression.html.  It can represent the distance we feel from friends and family as well as the larger networks of social support and social interaction that we have all been missing to some degree over the past year.  This pandemic wall has become a reality for many of us.  However, phrases like, “hitting the pandemic wall,” can serve as a sign of recognition, but not of hopelessness.  Judkis, Laura.  “‘Oh, we’re still in this.’ The pandemic wall is here.” Washington Post, dated February 9, 2021, available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/pandemic-wall-covid-vaccines-variant-winter/2021/02/08/d48e0722-6599-11eb-886d-5264d4ceb46d_story.html

The pandemic wall is not insurmountable or indestructible.  Just as in a running race, when the runner’s wall is hit, the runner has to find a way to persevere and finish the race.  This must apply here.  There must be a way. 

We can choose to tear down the wall of pandemic isolation and mental distress, and on the other side there will be newfound joys of stronger family bonds and new or renewed friendships.  There are many ways to improve well-being and decrease the negative effects of the pandemic wall.  Coping mechanisms can range from exercise, to gratitude practice, journaling, sleep, or creating a garden, and more.  Keen Living regularly covers these topics.  See more Well-Being posts on Keen Living at www.megandaviamikhail.com

Today, a new way to decrease isolation and increase well-being can be explored.  Did you know the natural human instincts of tending to offspring and befriending others can improve your well-being and overall physical health significantly?  This psychological theory known as “Tend and Befriend” has been scientifically supported and will be more broadly discussed here as it relates now specifically to how to break down the pandemic wall.   

First published in 2000, the “Tend and Befriend theory” is an amazing scientific encapsulation of the positive phenomenon we experience when we take care of our family and friends (tend) and reach out socially to others (befriend).  Dr. Taylor and her team at the University of California observed that, “human beings affiliate in response to stress. Under conditions of threat, they tend to offspring to ensure their survival and affiliate with others for joint protection and comfort.”  Shelley E. Taylor, University of California, Los Angeles, “Tend and Befriend Theory,” (2011), available at:  https://taylorlab.psych.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2014/11/2011_Tend-and-Befriend-Theory.pdf.  In fact, her theory declares that these are, “common responses in humans,” and familial ties, friendships, and social relationships are, “vital resources for managing the demands of the environment.”  Especially during stressful circumstances, Dr. Taylor found that, “…there are many reasons to believe that humans have used social relationships not only as a basic accommodation to the exigencies of life, but also as a primary resource for dealing with stressful circumstances.”   

More than the animalistic theory of fight or flight as a response to stressful stimuli, the “tend and befriend” theory takes a more humanistic outlook on how people really react to drastic changes in environment.  “When people affiliate in response to stress, they commonly experience social support….Social support is defined as the perception or experience that one is loved and cared for by others, esteemed and valued, and part of a social network of mutual assistance and obligations (Wills, 1991). Social support may come from a partner, relatives, friends, coworkers, social and community ties, strangers, and even a devoted pet (Allen, Blascovich, & Mendes, 2002).”

Dr. Taylor and her team studied the physiological effects of the practice of tending and befriending.  Not only does it have short-term wellness effects, but surprisingly, long-term health and increased longevity were found in those people who tend and befriend.  “The positive impact of social contacts on health is as powerful or more powerful a predictor of health and longevity than well-established risk factors for chronic disease and mortality, with effect sizes on par with smoking, blood pressure, lipids, obesity, and physical activity (House, Landis, & Umberson, 1988).”

Now, given the negative effects of the pandemic wall in the forms of isolation, sadness, anxiety, depression, and overwhelming amounts of stressors induced by all of the changes caused by the pandemic, the “tend and befriend” theory can and should be applied, where it can be safely, to break down the pandemic wall. 

First, the pandemic challenges us to get creative about how to tend and befriend.  What has been difficult since March 2020 is the inability to reach out physically to hug or meet within six feet of friends or family without necessary precautions.  While tending can happen for immediate members of the household in the form of cooking or baking together or snuggling on the couch watching movies together, tending to other family members can be more challenging.  This type of tending can still happen, but may come in the form of a gift ordered and sent directly to their door.  Or maybe this means calling a restaurant local to them and ordering a meal to be delivered.  Reaching out to connect though can simply be via calling on the phone to actually catch up on more than what can be covered in a text. 

Next, befriending can be challenging as well during the pandemic, but Dr. Taylor’s theory supports the idea that keeping our friendships alive or even making new friends during this pandemic is vital to our health and well-being.  Our social nature has been restrained by the pandemic, but the need to socialize remains.  If taking time to meet a friend or neighbor can be done in a safe and respectful way, then there is so much science given in this theory to support doing so.

Of course, connecting safely is key – wearing a mask or two, keeping a 6 foot kindness bubble, keeping track of any symptoms, quarantining as needed, etc.  But, let’s get creative and push ourselves to find ways to connect face-to-face.  Run outside six feet from a friend.  Meet for coffee to go and take a walk with a friend.  Give our kids a rest from screens and refresh in the outdoors for anything – a walk, building a snowman, a snowball fight, a snow angel contest, sledding, or snow fort building (it is snowing a lot this winter!). Reconnecting with family and friends in person can be done safely and respectfully when you think outside the box.   

The well-being effects of tending and befriending can also apply to tending and befriending pets.  In Dr. Taylor’s research, social support was found to come from family, friends, peers, and also pets.  No wonder so many families and people in general have decided during the pandemic to get a pet.  Locally, a huge increase in puppies joining families has happened during the varying tiers of restrictions.  Hitting even closer to home, we chose to adopt a sweet pup in November 2020 from the Animal Rescue Foundation (www.arf-il.org) after years of begging from our daughter.  What was a choice that we made for our children’s happiness and development has turned into a choice that has brought happiness and connection to our whole family.  The delight each of us has from loving our puppy and her loving us back is a surprising and wonder-filled experience. 

The unexpected joy she brings has been the most eye-opening experience.  Never having had a dog before, the relationship has taught us all so much about ourselves and caring for others.  The experience of extending ourselves to her and rescuing her has ended up connecting us as a family and connecting us to other friends and families in unanticipated and wonderful ways.  It is an incredible experience to tend and befriend a sweet puppy.  I highly recommend considering adopting a puppy, especially from a foster-family based rescue foundation. 

“Like our animals, we are wired to connect, to reach out, to love. But unlike them, with us other things get in the way – jealousy, insecurity, irritation, anger.” Arianna Huffington, “Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder” at page 107, full chapter excerpt available at:  https://thriveglobal.com/stories/furry-friends-with-different-benefits/ .  One main inhibitor to the “tend and befriend” theory, in addition to the physical barricades of the pandemic, are our own jealousies and insecurities.  We need to reach out, to love and connect, but these issues can hold us back.  The pandemic can teach us a lot of lessons, but one may be that we don’t have long on this Earth.  We need to overcome our insecurities and break down the pandemic wall of isolation by reaching out.  Even today, calling one friend or making a plan to meet outside somehow – even in the snow – can be the first crack in the wall.    

The positive social impacts and health effects shown in the “tend and befriend” theory are incredible.  Who knew that the immediate effects of feeling happier after meeting up with a friend or taking special time to bake or play a game with your son or daughter could make you live longer?  But they do.  Putting yourself out there, extending yourself, asking questions of family and friends to connect and plan ways to get together can be intimidating, but it is a way to break down the pandemic wall that can have lifelong benefits for everyone. Now who doesn’t want that?

© 2021 Megan Davia Mikhail

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