COVID Q&A: The Stress of Living With Others

We spoke to Diana Samuel, MD, Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, about how to live peacefully among family members and roommates during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Columbia Psychiatry: With so many of us staying at home, it can create a lot of stress in the house. How can we diffuse the stress and live more peacefully with others?

Dr. Samuel: Making self-care a priority is essential. Self-care may mean different things for different people. It could mean doing yoga, taking a bath, or spending time with friends and family with virtual hangouts. Also, finding time to spend alone every day is very important, even if it is only a few minutes. Using self-care and alone time to help you recharge will provide you the space needed to hopefully return to stressful situation with more clarity and calmness then before.

Columbia Psychiatry: How can we be more mindful about giving others their "space," especially when physical space may be lacking in our homes? Is this a matter of establishing boundaries?

Dr. Samuel: Asking others directly about what their needs are during this period is essential. During this time, what people might need is different than what they might normally need outside of a pandemic. By directly asking someone this question, it provides them the opportunity to consider and request what might be helpful for them to cope with a stressful situation such as space limitations of working from home.

In addition, trying to set physical divisions in your home (even if they are not large) can help the members of your household feel that they have some space to themselves.

Columbia Psychiatry: How can we simultaneously manage our various roles and relationships (family, work, school) in a shared space? It seems like communication would play a big role in making this work.

Dr. Samuel: Communication is essential. Attempting to set a flexible but clear schedule that is reviewed in advance can help all members of the family understand expectations for the day/week. It can also help everyone understand which members of the family are doing what during what times of the day. Keeping this schedule in a shared, easily accessible space can serve as a reminder to all members of the family about what everyone has going on.

Also, knowing when to ask for help is important, whether it's from your partner or your children, because there might be times when the schedule is not working or something comes up last minute that cannot be avoided.

Columbia Psychiatry: How should one handle a child or roommate interrupting a work phone call or virtual meeting? How can such interruptions be prevented?

Dr. Samuel: In the moment, I would apologize to the person(s) you are speaking with and ask the person who interrupted if the issue they are interrupting for can wait. If it can wait, I would be clear to them when you will be available to speak so that you do not have any more interruptions.

Interruptions might be prevented by allowing members of your household to know when you are working and busy and when you are not. For instance, when you close your door that might mean you are working and no one should enter or interrupt you. Also, attempting to coordinate conference calls with a roommate or partner in advance might be helpful especially in a small space where noise disruptions might occur if more than one person is on a conference call at the same time.

Columbia Psychiatry: A more serious problem that we've seen on the rise since the beginning of this quarantine has been domestic violence. Should someone find themselves in a domestic violence situation, what help is available?

Dr. Samuel: The National Domestic Hotline, 800-799-SAFE is a great resource that is available 24/7 and provides confidential support to help victims, survivors as well as family and friends who are concerned about a loved one. They also have a live chat option on their website. They can provide assistance in considering different courses of action such identifying red flags and legal actions.


COVID-19, Stress