This was not how I expected to begin this column…

When I was given the opportunity to write a mental health column for ENM Magazine, I was excited, and considered all of the different topics to address in the first entry. Should I discuss jealousy and how it relates to mental health and well-being? Should I dive into attachment styles in non-monogamous relationships? Methods for finding lifestyle-friendly counselors? Perhaps a light-hearted discussion of love languages, or a deep dive into relationships with someone with personality disorders? The page was ready for a myriad of ideas.

And then COVID-19 happened.

The landscape of our focus and priorities has taken a profound shift. Social distancing has cancelled events and conferences and play parties and orgies and travel plans. Restaurants, bars, hotels, theaters, and many other traditional date locations have closed. Physical contact has changed from a driving force to a liability for many people. To quote a colleague, “Polyamory just isn’t top of the mind at the moment.”

All of that being said, our relationships do go on. Whether we are self-quarantining with our nesting partners or trying to maintain relationships in long-distance isolation, we still have the same needs to feel connected, appreciated, loved, and desired. Being in the midst of a global crisis changes the means and opportunities to meet those needs, however, and adds a laundry list of new concerns to every human interaction. Managing those concerns, and still making sure your needs are met, feels like the most important and timely topic to cover this month.

To start, let’s talk about the impact that the COVID-19 outbreak has on mental health in general. Yes, there are many concerns related specifically to the virus and associated health concerns, but the impact goes far beyond that. Businesses are closing, people are being laid off, food and other necessities are growing scarce, and there are few signs of the crisis ending soon. Our collective stress level has gone through the roof, and this is on top of the normal stresses that we carry with us every day. 

Stress, by itself, isn’t a bad thing. Stress activates our fight or flight responses, which helped our ancestors escape hungry lions and helps us escape creepers at the local swinger bars. The complicated part comes when those stress responses stay activated too long. All of the things that helped our ancestors make an escape, like raised blood pressure, hypervigilance, and difficulty falling asleep, are extremely harmful, and sometimes fatal, when applied to humans for more than brief, critical moments.

The other factor that differentiates us from, say, a zebra, is that we have those same stress responses triggered by things that are not within our control. Running away from a lion makes perfect sense, but running away from empty store aisles or news reports won’t have nearly the same benefits. By engaging those same stress responses over and over again, often regarding things that we have zero direct control over, we overload our systems, leading to increased risk of anxiety, depression, and a host of other physical and mental ailments.

How do we combat this excessive stress response in the face of something as overwhelming as COVID-19? The first, and most important, step is to identify, realistically, what you can control and what you can’t. The news, and most of our social media feeds, shows image after image, statistic after statistic, of things that are outside what we can control. Engaging too deeply on a global or national scale with what’s happening during the crisis can be entirely overwhelming to many people, so disengage if you feel yourself becoming anxious over things happening in other regions of the world. Turn off the flow of information, breathe and distract yourself, and then come back if and when you have the mental and emotional energy to absorb it.

However, sometimes we can’t turn off what we can’t control. The stress related to making sure ourselves and our loved ones are okay, especially when those we care about are at increased risk for COVID-19-related health concerns, isn’t something that can be set aside. In those cases, the best approach is often to focus on what you CAN control. You can isolate as much as possible, you can wash your hands regularly and thoroughly, you can clean and disinfect your living space as well as possible. You may not be able to control the nation’s sudden excessive hoarding of toilet paper, but you can take reasonable steps to get yourself and your family the supplies that you need to get by. Seeking out what you can control can give your stress a useful purpose, and most importantly, accomplishing tasks can signal to your brain that the danger has passed.

Once our survival and safety needs are managed, at least as well as we believe they can be, the next thing that we seek out is connection to other humans. Normally, non-monogamous folk are quite good at developing and cultivating these connections. However, social distancing puts a significant damper on most of our means for connecting with others. We are fortunate to live in an era where technology allows us to close that gap, through messaging, video chats, and social media. Maintaining ongoing communication with partners at a distance, by whatever means you can, will help to stave off depression, reduce feelings of isolation, and keep your relationships strong. A bonus: video chats are a good reason to get yourself showered and dressed up (or undressed!), which will also help reduce stress and improve your mood.

Unfortunately, distance communication does not address one of the most important human interpersonal needs: touch. Physical contact with others stimulates the release of oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine, which reduce stress, stimulate pleasure, and increase happiness. Not having physical interactions with others can lead to touch starvation, which can increase feelings of depression, loneliness, and anger, as well as increasing the risk of alcohol and drug abuse. The good news is, there are other, natural means of meeting touch needs, even when alone. A hot bath can stimulate the nervous system in some of the same ways as touch, as well as helping to relax. If you have pets, holding and petting them can also help replace human touch. Finally, you can stimulate oxytocin and dopamine through orgasms, so if you don’t have anyone else to touch you, touch yourself!

If you’re in quarantine with one (or more) of your intimate partners, then a lack of touch probably isn’t your first concern. Instead, the larger issue is probably managing sharing a confined space with other people for long periods of time. Setting up a stable routine can help prevent conflicts, although some breaks from the routine are important as well. Plan out how space will be used, and be sure that some space is left available for when someone needs privacy or some time alone. (If you have outdoor space, like a backyard, balcony, or the like, so much the better!) Finally, remember that everyone is experiencing stress during this time, not just you, so cut each other some slack. Tempers will flare, but try to focus on the root of problems instead of someone’s tone or their verbal lashing out. 

Whether you are facing the prospect of social distancing alone, or being confined in your home with others, the COVID-19 outbreak presents new and unique issues to manage. Fortunately for you, non-monogamous folks have been working together to manage new and unique issues for a long time. Keep using the communication and creativity that has helped make your relationships strong, use common sense and self-care, and we’ll get through it together. (Also, don’t forget to use birth control for your quarantine sexcapades, unless you want to be part of the coronavirus baby boom!)

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