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13 ways to change the conversation when you can’t talk about COVID-19 anymore

Mary Grace Garis

Mary Grace GarisMarch 27, 2020

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Photo: Getty Images/Cavan Images

I was enjoying a virtual happy over a FaceTime call with my friend Andrea for no less than 90 seconds before we found ourselves caught up in THE COVID-19 conversation. You’ve had this conversation, too, to be sure: What’s shutting down, who’s getting sick, who lost their job, how you feel about certain fools in governmental positions of power, 10 to 20 variants of “this is f**king wild” —all of it. Finally, Andrea and I decided we need to change the conversation from centering on the pandemic to something decidedly more positive.

We ultimately settled on making our own respective gratitude lists. As I noted what I cherish—my New York City apartment, my chic gold-buttoned jumpsuit, and Andrea—I realized that in that very moment, I was mostly just grateful for the distraction from the distressing news that’s been occupying my mind constantly.

“There’s a limit of how much intense, negative, and scary information human beings can absorb before we get overwhelmed, depressed, or panicked,” says relationship therapist Debra Roberts, LCSW, and author of The Relationship Protocol: How to Talk, Defuse, and Build Healthier Relationships. “Everyone has a different tolerance level, some more than others, so it’s important to pay attention and gauge when you’ve hit your limit, or—better yet—when you’re starting to feel uncomfortable.”

“Over-talking about the pandemic can rile us up in a negative way. Be more protective of how you spend your energy, especially since no one knows how long this crisis is going to last.” —Debra Roberts, LCSW

I, for one, have not felt comfortable since March 9, but I get Roberts’ message: It’s legitimately detrimental for our own mental health and that of our loved ones to only talk about the pandemic. “Whether or not you realize it, the more you talk about it, the more you can become stressed,” Roberts says. “Over-talking about the pandemic can rile us up in a negative way. I encourage everyone to be more protective of how they spend their energy, especially since no one knows how long this crisis is going to last. Try to stay positive, distract yourself, do some self care. And talk to people who replenish, not deplete your energy.”

But, uh, what else, really, is there to talk about? Well, redirecting to three simple topics can help change the conversation toward a direction that feels more joy-inducing. Find those topics wrangled up below, along with a few helpful specific ways to change the conversation, all recommended by mental health professionals.

Activities to talk about to change the conversation away from COVID-19

Simply put, we want to try to keep our thoughts moving during this strange time when we’re physically staying in place. And one expert says we can use channel the low din of constant worry into something genuinely helpful.

“Worry is productive to a point because it gets us to put a safety plan in place. Once that’s in place, work your plan and concomitantly work hard at achieving other goals during this time,” says psychotherapist and relationship expert Laurel Steinberg, PhD. “Some examples could be learning a new language or working toward your fitness goals.” Here are five other examples of ways you can speak about actual activities to distract yourself (and conversations you have) from the overarching sense of worry surrounding COVID-19.

1. “Which everyday routines have you changed since being at home? Will you continue any of them after this is over?”: I’ve become the biggest cheerleader for routinized living, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) vouches that sticking to rituals and schedules during this time will allow for retaining a sense of normalcy amid this uncertain time. So ask everyone what they’ve started incorporating into their schedule, whether it’s meditating in the morning, at-home Pilates, cooking, or, hell, just embracing that TV show you’ve been bugging them about forever.

2. “What personal projects are you working on? How are they going?”: Full disclosure: You don’t need to complete everything on your to-do list right now. Nobody’s forcing you to write King Lear when your mind is mostly focused on survival. But it’s also wonderful to cheer on our friends and see where they’re looking to become better.

“This gets people to remember that they are capable of working toward goals,” says Dr. Steinberg.

3. “Can I show you what I’m working on?”: This gives you an opportunity to showcase that fresh loaf of sourdough that you’re proud of. Or maybe you want to give your friend a virtual tarot card reading, because you kinda-sorta know what some of them mean now. “This strengthens relationships and is good modeling,” Dr. Steinberg says.

4. “Can we plan to do something together?”: And not in person, to be clear. Rather, we’re all about making technology our bitch in 2020, and that means strengthening our connectivity through virtual shared activity. Dr. Steinberg recommends booking something that’ll strengthen your bond when you can’t be near others. If you’re an introvert in isolation who wants to keep the conversation down to a minimum in the first place, watching a movie on Netflix Party could be the move. For something less low-key, you could try out a digital class with a few of your pals.

5. “What new books have you been reading?”: Reading is a mindful intention, centering, distracting, and there to lower your cortisol levels. See if your friends have any recommendations for when you suddenly plow through Daisy Jones and the Six like, eight months after you started it.

Personal questions to ask to change the conversation to something happy

Plain and simple, people love to talk about themselves. In fact, research supports that talking about yourself releases dopamine, the feel-good, self-rewarding hormone that we associate with pleasurable things, like great sex and better pizza. Here are a few personal questions to pepper into the conversations you’re having.

6. “How did you meet your partner?”: If your friend was already with their partner when you met, and you’re just now meeting the S.O. in the periphery of video chat, you might as well learn their meet-cute story.

7. “What was your favorite vacation, and why?”: Because we all want to go back to the seas of Santorini, the streets of Paris, the temples of Chiang Mai, but it may well be a hot minute before any of us hop onto a plane. So, let’s use the power of nostalgia to transport us in the meantime.

8. “What’s the best compliment you ever received?”: There’s no way this one won’t be instantaneously heartwarming.

9. “What’s the best date you’ve ever had?”: I love this one, but I also love its mirror: “What’s the worst date you’ve ever had?” Posit one to enjoy the romance, posit the other to recount a hilarious time when your biggest problem was Bumble Mike taking you to a house party and refusing to buy you a tall boy at the bodega.

10. “What are three things I probably don’t know about you?”: Even if it’s someone you’ve known for literal decades, there are always some secrets to trade.

Positive-thinking prompts to share with people to change the vibe of your conversation

“As a motivational speaker Zig Ziglar, said, ‘Positive thinking will let you do everything better than negative thinking will’,” says Roberts. “Too much negativity holds us back, and it affects our mental health. In contrast, positivity opens up our mind. It creates lighter energy, movement, and it allows us to come from a place of strength and generosity.”

Below, find three positive-thinking prompts to inspire your friends to think happy thoughts.

11. “What positives will come out of this experience for you, your family, or your work?”: A lot of terrible things are happening right now and will likely get worse. And yet, I find it helpful to look at uncertainty with opportunity instead of fear.

12. “How do you stay so positive? What’s your secret?”: You know your one strangely sunny friend who is somehow crushing quarantine? Like nothing has squashed their sense of optimism and boundless charity? Now’s the time to take a page from them and see how they’re keeping a high mind amongst all the chaos. You know they’ll appreciate the compliment, and they may introduce you to a new coping technique.

13. “What three things are you most grateful for during this time of uncertainty?”: New York City, my jumpsuit, and you.

It’s easy to fall down an emotional well right now, so here’s how to halt negative thinking. And it might stabilize you to incorporate a few basic self-care actions in your daily quarantine routine.

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