Physical Distance is Important. So is Social Connection

March 31, 2020

It’s Physical Distancing that Prevents the Spread of COVID-19, Not Social Distancing


We’ve all heard it. Keep a minimum distance of 6 ft from others while in public environments and wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands, and we may all need to “shelter in place.” These are physical changes in behavior, physical distancing but not what has been dangerously labeled social distancing. “Social distancing” has implied profound psychological effects of isolation and loneliness.


COVID-19’s devastation is not only through causing pandemonium and taking lives, but potentially killing our world’s healthy psychological spirit.

 

Psychologically, we need to bond in crisis, not retreat. That makes COVID-19 impact more profound. Research on crises, like 911, suggests that acute stress may actually lead to greater human connection and social closeness. A study by Markus Heinrichs and Bernadette von Dawans at the University of Freiburg, Germany, suggests that these disasters lead to greater cooperative, social, and friendly behavior. During times of emergencies, people tend to bond, ignore typical barriers like perceived class, and make warm and creative connections that are believed to be responsible for our collective survival as a species. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Together we can solve more problems than as individuals.


We are social animals. We need to be in touch with others, especially during a wide sweeping emergency. This is especially true of seniors who are most likely to be harmed. Social distancing can exacerbate the lonely feelings of everyone and especially those older members of our community who are already feeling isolated, already at risk.

 

It’s not just the elderly. Research shows that loneliness can lead to long-term "fight-or-flight" stress signaling, which negatively affects immune system functioning. People of all ages who feel lonely have lowered immunity and therefore more susceptibility to disease.

 

Social isolation has the equivalent adverse impact on physical health to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It’s been found to be a greater threat to health than obesity, and is linked to an increased risk of a wide variety of health problems. In an interesting study that’s highly relevant to our current situation, students who reported higher levels of loneliness responded less powerfully to flu vaccinations.

 

So how do we stay humanly connected while we’re physically protecting ourselves from COVID-19?

 

How can we keep up our social connections while maintain safe physical boundaries?


If you are allowed to go outside your living space, go for a walk: by yourself, with your dog, with a family member or friend. This is especially helpful on a sunny day. It will lift your spirits and provide an unfriendly environment for virus. Just remember to keep about six feet between each other, avoid shaking hands, bring hand wipes . . . all the usual safety precautions.

 

Text your friends, make phone calls, connect with a video call. If you have relatives or friends who have smart phones or computers but don’t know how to use them, you can give them a gift of showing them how to connect with Facetime, Skype or Zoom for video calls, meet for a video lunch with colleagues or friends where you actually eat together and chat.


Create a “Circle of Five.” These are five friends you reach out to daily to see how they’re doing and check in, even if only to say, “I’m thinking of you.” It helps you and them to feel connected even during a lock down. Then suggest they do the same, reaching out to five of their people.

 

Invite people on Facebook to watch something together. This could be recreational or educational - learning and/or enjoying something together with a group discussion following.


Use the time to do something you didn’t have time for with your busy work schedule – learn how to play guitar, write the articles/book you’ve always thought you should, change something in your home environment for the better, reach out to old friends and acquaintances just because, learn how to cook something new, start a project, etc.

 

It’s an opportunity to do something new, different. In 1665, following an outbreak of the bubonic plague in England, Cambridge University closed its doors, forcing Sir Isaac Newton to return home to Woolsthorpe Manor. While sitting in the garden there one day, he saw an apple fall from a tree, providing him with the inspiration to eventually formulate his universally accepted law of gravity. During that time he also developed calculus.


It’s true that physical isolation does reduce social contact, even with all of the steps we can take to stay connected socially. Do you belong to a book club, go to yoga classes, dance? Some of these things can be done online (online yoga classes are easy to find, and book clubs can meet via video conferencing). There are even dance instructors offering free lessons on Youtube that you can watch and practice at home. COVID-19 has made a large part of our world feel very anxious. Here’s an article on things we can do to manage our collective anxiety.

 

Increasing physical exercise is one that’s always helped me personally when I’m stressed and anxious. I’m sure you have your own personal remedies that work for you, too.

 

The good news is that our current actions of isolating to curtail COVID-19 will be temporary, even if it’s longer than any of us would like. We can continue to stay socially connected in ways that people in previous pandemics like the Spanish Flu of 1918 could not. We are blessed in that way. We just need to remember to reach out to the people in our lives and preserve our healthy spirits.

 

Sharon Livingston, PhD

 

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