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Changing the Subject: Setting Boundaries About COVID-19 Talk

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During the coronavirus pandemic, maybe every virtual business meeting you attend begins with a check-in on who’s healthy. Maybe your long-lost friends from college are reconnecting on Facebook to see how things are going in your area. Meanwhile, you’re worrying about how your aging relatives — and young children — are practicing social distancing.

These days, nearly every conversation seems to revolve around coronavirus. After all, it’s important to follow reputable updates so you know how to protect yourself and your family. Plus, sharing your fears and anxieties can make you feel less alone.

However, it’s also important to take breaks from thinking or talking about COVID-19 to avoid excess stress and anxiety, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Here’s how to create neutral space, call for a time-out and protect your mental health.

Understanding Boundaries

Setting boundaries in relationships poses a challenge even in non-crisis situations. In the middle of a pandemic, nearly everyone is on edge. But taking steps to cope with stress, including changing the way you receive and share information about coronavirus, is key to getting through this time.

Now, as always, it’s important to communicate with family and friends — and especially those who are living with you — in a way that makes everyone feel validated and not judged.

This healthy communication may involve setting new boundaries about what you’re OK with talking about, and topics you prefer to only talk about occasionally, or not discuss at all. Note that these lines can shift over time and in different circumstances. That’s why it’s important to revisit them, especially in a fast-moving situation like a pandemic.

Have a Household Conversation About Boundaries

Staying home during the coronavirus quarantine with your entire family isn’t easy, even if you generally have positive relationships. To set your mental and physical boundaries appropriately, have a household meeting to discuss topics such as:

  • Controlling news consumption, or setting a specific time or time limit for watching stories about the pandemic and only discussing it at that time
  • Creating physical zones in the house for different activities whenever possible, like for work, play, exercise and alone time
  • Designating places and objects that belong solely to one person and aren’t for sharing
  • Scheduling a deliberate time for stress-relieving pursuits, such as listening to music, journaling and playing games
  • Separating work and school time from family time

Continually check back in with each other to see how these house rules are working. What functioned fine the first week you’re at home together may wear thin later on.

You may not be used to talking so much about your feelings and boundaries. But by doing so with honesty and transparency, you can increase your family’s resilience. You’re a team, with each family member dedicated to each other’s mental and physical health.

To Set Boundaries, First Focus on Your Feelings

You may also need to do some work on your own to decide how, and how much, you talk about coronavirus. Start by tuning into your own emotions and feelings.

If a specific line of conversation makes you feel more anxious, resentful, frustrated or helpless, make note of that. Define how you want to feel instead — perhaps informed, alert, safe and supported — and think about healthy conversations and behaviors that would provoke these emotions.

For instance, you might feel safe when your spouse wears a cloth face covering at the grocery store, but frustrated when he or she turns on the nightly news when you’re relaxing. Think through these situations and write them down for reference so you can communicate with them effectively.

Communicate Clearly

After you’ve evaluated how you feel and how you want to feel, it’s time to share these boundaries with those closest to you. These conversations aren’t always easy, but they’re part of a healthy relationship and can help you and your family stay strong and resilient during these difficult times.

Pick a time when neither you nor the other person are feeling angry, fearful or overwhelmed. Go over what you need and why. Remain kind and compassionate while you do so, and show empathy, affection and understanding of the stress both you and others are facing.

Using “I” Statements

You may find it helpful to use “I” statements, like saying “I feel,” and “I’d like,” in your conversations. Avoid calling out the other person in a way that can make them defensive. Instead, focus on how their words and actions make you feel, and explain how you’d like to feel differently.

For example, instead of saying, “You are talking too much about the worst-case scenario and it’s scaring me,” try saying, “I value our relationship and I want us both to feel safe. I’m feeling vulnerable and I’m asking that you avoid this topic.”

Then, follow through. If the person brings up the subject again, reinforce your boundary by repeating your request.

Redirect Conversations About COVID-19, Respectfully

Sometimes, the people closest to you can violate your boundaries even after you’ve expressed them. In other cases, you might find yourself caught in an uncomfortable conversation with a more casual acquaintance.

Try these in-the-moment techniques to keep conversations calm and productive.

Be Honest But Firm
You don’t have to argue, but you can state your needs clearly: “I’m feeling overwhelmed right now. Can we change the topic, please?”

Make Boundaries a Two-Way Street
Listen to what others are saying and ask what they need to feel comfortable, too. Read their body language for clues that you’ve crossed their boundary line, like a lack of eye contact or leaning away, for instance.

Pause for 10 Seconds
Just halting the conversation temporarily can be helpful if you feel overwhelmed. This is especially important if you feel frustrated or irritated about what the person is saying. Allowing time before you respond can prevent you from overreacting with anger.

Avoid Stigma About COVID-19
Stop rumors that perpetuate stigma when you hear them. If someone shares something you know is false — for instance, that garlic or hot baths kill coronavirus — share the facts about COVID-19. Direct them to reliable sources of information instead, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the World Health Organization.

We’re Here for You

We’re committed to providing the latest information to keep you and your family healthy. To stay updated on COVID-19, and learn how to protect yourself or what to do if you or a loved one feels sick, visit our Coronavirus Resource Hub.

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