New environments often require setting new boundaries.

Since August, the Virginia Tech community has come together to create an environment that fosters connections while adhering to the public health guidelines to fight the spread of COVID-19.

In the coming weeks, many Hokies will disperse to celebrate holidays and finish the semester in a virtual format. Some will find company with those maintaining similar precautions related to the global pandemic, while others may encounter an uncomfortable and concerning level of risk accepted by family and friends.

“It can be really difficult to identify what you do and don’t feel safe doing right now, and even harder to draw boundaries with others around their choices,” said Amy Epperley, director of Hokie Wellness. “However, it’s very important to be assertive about your needs, and it’s totally possible to do so in a kind and calm manner that will help create a restorative environment, rather than one that’s mentally and emotionally draining.”

Using the acronym, “THANKS,” Hokie Wellness has created the “Give THANKS, not COVID-19” campaign to help individuals navigate difficult the conversations and situations that may arise, this season. Follow Hokie Wellness for Students on Facebook or Instagram to keep up with the effort.

Giving “THANKS,” encourages Hokies to:

T — Think about your own boundaries

Consider what you are willing to allow and how you want to be treated in order to feel safe and respected. Sometimes those boundaries align with those close to you, other times they may be unique to you. Regardless, identifying and communicating them prior to entering a challenging situation can help you feel more confident and be less likely to engage in behavior that doesn’t align with your values.

“Setting boundaries may mean asking yourself questions like, what values are most important to me as I prepare for the holidays or what are ground rules do I need to set with myself and the people I care about in order to embody my values,” said Swathi Prabhu, Mental Health Initiatives coordinator. “It might sound like telling a parent the family’s well-being is a priority, so quarantining prior to gathering is important or telling a friend you’re comfortable having a distanced lunch with them outside, instead of indoors.”

H — Have a conversation

Conversations about COVID-19 can feel uncomfortable, but it is essential to hear the perspectives of others, especially those you care about.

“The best situations are to have the conversation somewhere private and comfortable for both,” said Laurie Fritsch, assistant director, Student Wellness. “Write a list of things you want to talk about, including include specific behaviors that worry you, how it makes you feel, and why and during the conversation, use 'I' statements when you connect those behaviors to your feelings.”

A — Affirm what they are already doing

Try to identify behaviors that the person is doing that you appreciate, even if small, and share this with them at the onset of the conversation. This will let the person know the conversation is not an attack on them, but rather you sharing a specific behavior that is making you uncomfortable, causing you stress or fear.

“Affirmations may sound like, ‘I know wearing masks can feel uncomfortable, you are doing a great job wearing them all day on campus,’ or ‘you’re such a fun, outgoing person. I know wearing a mask all of the time is hard, and I appreciate that you put it on when you are in large groups of people,’" Fritsch said.

N — Negotiate solutions that feel realistic and attainable for both parties.

Taking the other person’s preferences and abilities into account, even when you disagree with them, is a part of setting good, achievable boundaries. When needs are expressed calmly and clearly, it’s much more likely a common goal will be reached.

“Make sure you listen to understand, not just to argue or counter their points,” said Kelsey O’Hara-Marasigan, assistant director, Student Wellness. “Instead of saying 'no' or shutting down any potential idea, have a solution-focused mindset. That may sound like sharing what behavioral changes are most important to you or asking the other person what you could do differently to help them.”

K — Keep a level head.

De-personalizing the conversation can prevent emotions from diverting the conversation and keep it focused on the topic. It’s OK to take a moment before articulating a point or suggestion, and it’s always a good idea to ask more questions to better understand the other person’s stance before drawing conclusions.

“Bringing up examples like, how it feels when people around you don’t wear a mask or adhere to physical-distancing guidelines can help get your point across without it feeling too personal,” said Kevin Sutton, assistant director of Financial Wellness. “Sometimes it’s also helpful to limit conversations to one topic at a time in an effort to prevent the talk from growing too broad and feeling overwhelming.”

S — Seek and give support.

Navigating difficult conversations and trying to maintain a sense of calm during this time can be mentally and emotionally draining, so it can be restorative to connect with people who help you feel seen, heard, and valued.

“Being intentional about connecting with folks who share your values can be affirming and validating for both you and them during this time,” Prabhu said. “Support can look differently for each of us and both giving and receiving encouragement can help each of us give THANKS more effectively.”

Written by Travis Williams