In the midst of all calls to social distance in almost every country, one important thing that we need to slow the spread of coronavirus is that we are basically social, and social distance can bring a heavy psychological price. This is especially true for individuals, but we can all fight the emotional impact of isolation and its primary side effect, soleness.
Although there was no time to study the effects of social distance specifically related to the coronavirus, we know very much about the mental and physical health impact of social isolation. It is very stressful often and stress can become toxic. Isolation increases the risk of anxiety and depression, particularly when it leads to loneliness. Social isolation is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day for physical health. It is a greater health risk than obesity and has been linked to an increased risk of a wide range of health problems.
The growing recognition that social distancing poses psychological and physical health risks has led to a growing call to rename the term “physical distancing,” implying that what we need is the greater physical distance between people rather than great social distance. Yes, physical distance does imply a decrease in social contact, and no amount of rebranding will change that fact. However, the concept remains sound: let us focus on reducing physical contact while maintaining—to the greatest extent possible—the social connections that help us thrive and stay healthy. Let us protect ourselves both psychologically and physically while doing everything we can to slow the virus’s spread and “flatten the curve” of its impact.
We can refocus on the power of staying socially connected while maintaining a safe physical distance once we distinguish between physical and social distancing. We can easily get creative in finding ways to incorporate social time for ourselves and those we care about who may be feeling isolated. It’s not rocket science, but small steps can have big consequences.
If you live somewhere where you can go outside, invite friends for walks, meet up for a run, or simply spend time together. It makes no difference where you walk: Spend time together by walking through a park, strolling down city streets, or jogging down a country road. Just remember to keep about two meters (six feet) apart, avoid shaking hands, and take all the usual precautions.
Video (and Phone) Calls are Great
Video calls are great, and phone calls are great as well. If you have an elderly relative or friend who does not know the usage of smartphones or computers for video calls, it is an ideal time for an intro to WhatsApp and Facetime. I live in Pakistan and have just been chatting with my 60-year-old New York cousin, who just learned that she’s got Facetime on her iPad. We spent an hour chatting and it almost felt like we were sitting in person together.
Make an online working group if you work from home. Join in for a video lunch: Simply activate the camera and microphone and eat “together.”
Texting is Great, Again
Text messages are quick and simple ways to stay in touch, even to say “I’m thinking of you.” My research team in Dhaka is on hold due to the country’s lockdown, but we communicate via WhatsApp throughout the day, and the contact is invaluable.