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When Brooklyn-based author Isaac Fitzgerald posed a question to followers on Twitter asking them to share the object in their home that holds the most significance, he wasn’t sure what kind of response he’d get.
For the past week, Fitzgerald has been in self-quarantine as a precaution due to recent travel. In a moment of self-described procrastination from work, he focused on a sword hanging on a wall near his desk and thought about how much it meant to him.
“It dawned on me that so many people must be doing the exact same thing,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
And so he asked Twitter: “What’s the object in your home that means the most to you?” He posted a picture of the sword hanging above his desk, which he says was given to him by the King of Bhutan.
“I was really curious to hear about the treasured objects that people keep around them—not only because they're meaningful and highly personal and fascinating, but also because in the course of our daily lives, those objects can become overfamiliar,” he said. “We don't notice them so much, or maybe we even stop seeing them.”
Hundreds of responses poured in: a teacup that belonged to someone’s grandmother. A portrait of a woman’s mother, painted by her 16-year-old son. A World War II lighter that belonged to the grandfather one man had never met.
Dr. Rajita Sinha, professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience at Yale and director of the Yale Stress Center, tells Yahoo Lifestyle the tendency for this kind of connection on social media is part of an active coping strategy that could have positive benefits for those feeling stressed about the coronavirus.
“We’re in a situation where the stress is uncontrollable and life is unpredictable, so people are looking to do things that can relieve the stress, that can get them thinking about positive memories,” she said.
“They really kind of free our minds, they give us control again, they connect us to people,” she said. “I noticed from the Twitter thread that a lot of the objects that people were talking about had a lot of significance. Not just for value, but for connecting to someone else who is important to them: parents, friends, someone who has been in their life… and so there’s a double way of invoking that connectedness with a community that you don’t know but you’re bringing in a sense of belonging.”
Mark Byrne, who shared a photo of his late father’s last pack of Liggett cigarettes, says there’s something poignant about sharing the memory of his father.
“The fact that it's half-full, something he meant to finish; my fond memories of him sitting on our back porch, staring thoughtfully off into the lawn while he smoked; the absurdity of the brand choice,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Like, have you ever heard of Liggett? I have never seen this cigarette brand in any other context.”
Dr. Lynda Doyle, EDD, a therapist in Portland, Maine, says in times of stress, people always return to their relationships. “It’s up to each one of us how we want to deal with it,” she said. “Each of us has a responsibility to — not make it light-hearted — but to remember what’s important, and to reach out and do the best job we can and be there for one another.”
Tara Martello, who runs a meditation and yoga studio in Philadelphia tells Yahoo Lifestyle Fitzgerald’s Twitter thread was also an important exercise in mindfulness.
“Even though we’re social distancing, we are in this together. We are here all to hold hands to get through it together,” says Martello. “It’s people stepping back and taking a moment for gratitude, to find joy for the small things in their life.”
She says using social media to celebrate the beauty in life is crucial right now. “I’ll just use an example from my own life: I run two very small businesses that are based solely on interaction with people. I teach mindfulness, I teach meditation in the studio and also I’m an occupational therapist for children.” She says she runs on small margins and within three weeks, she won’t be able to pay bills on her home and studio. And, she’s a single parent.
“I could focus on that and drive myself insane for two weeks thinking about how I’m going to afford groceries or the basic necessities. But where is that going to get me,” she said. “That’s going to get me sick with fear, anxiety and panic. And that’s not going to make the best use of this time...and so I'm grateful that I’m healthy, my son is healthy, and I’m grateful for the home that I do have right now. You can only control this moment in time.”
Dr. Sinha says many of those sheltering at home or in quarantine become hyper-vigilant in the wake of the pandemic; worried about the risk of infection and having enough resources. She co-authored a study that shows how this heightened state of stress could lead to burnout and irritability as well as emotional eating and binge drinking.
“That shift does have an impact on the brain and the body,” she said. “It tends to not allow us to be as ready to respond to acute stress, we might be more easily overwhelmed and more easily reactive and irritable.”
But she points to scientific studies that highlight how positive interactions that focus on reminiscing about happy memories can reduce stress levels and increase resiliency.
It’s one reason why Renee Zuckerbrot, a New York-based literary agent, shared her sacred object on Twitter: a Miep Gies signed copy of Anne Frank’s diary. Gies was one of several Dutch citizens who hid Frank and her family from the Nazis during World War II.
“I was the editor of Doubleday's 1995 translation of Anne Frank's diary,” Zuckerbrot tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “So I have a personal connection to it. I keep the diary face out on my bookshelf as a reminder about resilience, and the power of the written word to inspire and embolden us.”
And for Fitzgerald, the king of Bhutan was once his high school classmate – at the time, he was the crown prince of Bhutan. Over a decade ago, he visited Bhutan and had the opportunity to visit his former classmate, who by then, became the king.
“Our meeting coincided with my 25th birthday, which I'd planned to keep to myself, but His Majesty remembered and celebrated the occasion by gifting me with a small sword,” he said.
Fitzgerald says that in a time of social distancing, social media has allowed a new level of sharing stories and memories with each other. “Hopefully some folks took a little comfort in realizing the simple fact that their homes are filled with beloved objects,” he said.
For the latest news on the evolving coronavirus outbreak, follow along here. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC and WHO’s resource guides.
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