I am worried about my brother and wondering if there is any way to help him through his fear of Covid. It’s prevented him going out for all but essential errands and appointments since the beginning of the pandemic (neither he nor his wife go out to work). At the root of it is a very understandable concern about infecting his wife, who has some underlying health conditions. But they were happy to socialise for many years before Covid – the risk of catching coughs/colds etc was not a major concern (they’re both healthy in other ways). Sadly the lockdowns seem to have triggered a general paranoia about germs, infection and mingling with other people. This is despite also being fully vaccinated and boosted.
I’ve gently tried to coax him into socialising in a safe setting – at the park with just me and my wife, getting a coffee outside, and offering to do LFTs in advance for extra reassurance – but he’s still anxious about face-to-face contact and declines. My worry too is that he and his wife are subconsciously feeding each other’s fears – made especially intense with them being at home all day – and that they can’t get themselves out of this way of thinking and behaving.
By spring he will not have put himself in any real-life social situation for three years. If being fully vaccinated doesn’t help to restore his confidence to venture out in a relatively safe setting, I’m not sure what will. I don’t want to put pressure on him, since I respect that everyone has to make a personal choice about risk. Yet I am really worried about the mental toll of such an isolated and anxious existence.
I understand how worried you must be. You say they don’t go out to work, and I wasn’t sure if that’s because they don’t work or they work from home, and if the latter was something that happened before Covid. In other words, I’m wondering how much your brother was quite insular before, perhaps without you fully realising it. But really the crucial thing is, is he worried about the situation? If he’s not then there’s little impetus for change.
I went to UKCP registered psychotherapist Nicholas Rose who has worked with people with CPTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder). “I feel a real empathy for you,” he said. “To see a family member struggling can leave us feeling helpless – even a bit lost, maybe.” But he was also curious about your relationship and what your dynamic was before this. Are there other siblings? Are they worried?
The reason the dynamic is important is that it may be you’re the fixer in the relationship, or maybe your brother staying at home means more to you than him.
It really wasn’t clear which facts were established – you say things like “at the root of it” and “seem to” but we weren’t sure if this was a conclusion you’ve come to or something you and your brother have actively, and clearly, spoken about. People often say they’re really worried about a situation and when I say: “Have you explained this to them?” they say: “Well, no, not really.” You’ve tried to “gently coax” but Rose wondered if a more direct approach – something like saying: “I’m concerned; I see a change in your behaviour and I am worrying about you” – might give your brother the opportunity to be clear about why he/they are taking this position. I think it’s important your brother understands you’re concerned, rather than thinking you’re worried about him not going out per se – the distinction is subtle but important.
Once you really know what you’re dealing with, then go back to being gentle, but nonetheless challenge him about what the evidence is for his fears. But ultimately I’m afraid you cannot force your brother to do anything, however much we want to.
Something may have changed for them that you don’t know about; maybe your sister-in-law’s condition has worsened. But also sometimes something comes along that provides an excuse for people to change the way they live. I was never a fan of hugging almost everyone as a greeting and Covid has given me an excuse not to. “It could be,” suggests Rose, “that your brother and his wife have decided that their quality of life is better living in a different way and in that case the problem is that you might be missing the interaction.”
You may see their existence as “anxious and isolated” and frustrating, but it may not be so for them. In the meantime, keep communications with him going by whatever means acceptable. I think it’s great he has such a concerned sibling but I hope you also have someone to think about you.
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