Taking Care of Ourselves when Talking about COVID-19 Vaccines

Over the last year and a half, both in my work and my personal life, I’ve spoken with a lot of people who have spent significant time and energy trying to convince friends, family, coworkers, and sometimes internet strangers, to change their minds about the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccine. Many of them are people in positions of high risk—immunocompromised people, medical professionals, parents with young children – expressing the importance of not just personal safety, but the risks of being unvaccinated for other people. As we approach two years and hundreds of thousands of lives lost during the COVID-19 pandemic, the stakes are very high and I’ve witnessed increasingly polarized perspectives around this subject as the pandemic has progressed.

So, with that said, I am writing this blog post to anyone finding themselves in a similar situation. My goal is to provide some context for taking care of ourselves when having difficult and charged conversations of any sort so we can keep going without completely burning out.

Making sense of the situation

On multiple occasions, people have shared with me the distressing feelings of talking to a family member, friend, coworker, or patient with very different views around the idea of getting vaccinated. To paraphrase, here are some of the concerns I’ve heard

“Doesn’t [friend or family member] know that I care about them and their health?” 

“I’m saying it as a doctor who understands this subject and also as a friend, but it’s like they just disregard my hard work to become an expert in this area.” 

“It feels like a personal failure when they don’t listen to me.” 

It can be so hard to sit with this distress and confusion when someone else’s viewpoint is so foreign to your own. How could they say that? What am I doing wrong? Maybe if I just figured out the right way to say it, I could get through to them. These are questions and frustrations I’ve heard expressed (and have thought to myself) time and again when trying to make sense of someone disagreeing about something that seems like it shouldn’t be controversial in the first place. There are a number of reasons that someone may have a different take on a topic than you and it’s important to consider outliers when engaging in conversations on polarized topics and not lumping everyone together.

Disagreements and taking a big-picture perspective: What’s in your control

What I think is important to recognize in this kind of situation is that you can’t ever know what another person is thinking. Even if you could, you ultimately can’t control the direction of someone’s thoughts or behaviors. You can try to create an environment that feels safe to discuss and explore ideas, listen carefully, and demonstrate you have another person’s best interests at heart, but what you can’t do is force someone to think differently. Trying to do so can cause others to feel hurt or disrespected, and possibly dig in their heels and become further entrenched in their beliefs. It’s not a battle that can be won through grit or sheer force of will, even though that’s how it can feel sometimes. 

Disagreement isn’t a sign that you’ve failed or done anything wrong. It doesn’t say anything about your abilities to get information across, persuade, or care for others. If someone isn’t ready to change their mind, that just speaks to where they’re at right now. Their position often says little about you at all. If you believe that you must persuade someone or get them to come around to your way of thinking, then any other outcome is going to feel like failure—that’s a pathway toward becoming burned out and feeling demoralized. How you think about and mentally frame your efforts is just as important as those efforts themselves. 

So, if we’re really committing ourselves to talking about hard subjects with others, making space for discussion, and (hopefully) persuasion, then we must also take care of ourselves and avoid that kind of hopelessness and burnout. This kind of work is a marathon, not a sprint. So, two important elements of doing this work, then, are (1) recognizing when we’re getting tired and need to take a break, or that the conversation is no longer healthy for us, and (2) making sure we’re ready before we try again. 

We have to authorize ourselves to actually stop. We can remind ourselves: I am allowed to take a break. If I burn myself out, it’s not going to help anyone. This is bigger than just me—I can’t take on the whole burden of the cause by myself. Committing to this work means committing to doing it sustainably.

Self-awareness and checking-in with ourselves

In addition to changing the ways we think, we also need to be aware of how these efforts impact our bodies. Self-assessment is important to do in all aspects of life—not just during difficult conversations. 

With that said, what are the signs that tell you when you’re tired or need to set a boundary? Each of our bodies respond differently to stress, but there are some signals that are universal. When we experience increasing amounts of stress, our nervous systems can go into an elevated state—often called “fight or flight”—where our heart rates increase, our breathing changes, our sense of time becomes narrower and more focused on the moment than the big picture. We might feel more motivated to argue and try to forcefully convince someone, or we might want to just find a way out of the conversation. Conversely, there is also a “freeze” state, where we can become more detached or dissociated from what’s happening, where things seem to matter less and we feel like giving up. Those are signs that we’re already past our limits, and a serious signal to take a break and cool down (or warm up) before returning to the conversation.

How do I cool down?

There are a lot of ways to ground yourself or regulate your nervous system. For this post, I’ll focusing on briefly describing one method called “square breathing” or “box breathing.” This is an intentional breathing technique that many people can do to help normalize their heart rates and help their bodies go back to a calmer baseline.

Square Breathing technique:

Imagine a square where each of the four edges represents an equal period of time. When working with clients, I usually start with 4 second intervals and increase or decrease depending on what each person can handle. We’ll do the whole process a few times (usually around five times total) until they feel a little more calm. The four edges represent the following steps:

  1. (4 seconds) Breath in through your nose
  2. (4 seconds) Hold your breath
  3. (4 seconds) Breath out through your mouth
  4. (4 seconds) Hold your breath
  5. Repeat this whole process at least three and up to ten times

This technique helps to regulate your heart rate and relax your nervous system by equalizing the oxygen going in and out of your lungs. The consistent rhythm of counting can help you narrow your focus to just your breathing instead of whatever was getting you stressed in the first place.

Here are links to two videos that visualize and explain this process:

  1. Square Breathing Technique explanation and brief practice
  2. Longer Square Breathing Technique Practice


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