Updated on 1/27/21
Social distancing doesn’t have to be lonely
Having a strong community is one of the most important factors in our mental and emotional health. Loneliness or social isolation increases our risk of depression and anxiety, and it can even make us more vulnerable to physical ailments, increasing our risk of heart disease by 29%, and stroke by 32%.
Usually, maintaining strong community bonds is as easy as taking a walk to the neighborhood bar, calling up a friend for brunch, or attending your weekly church service or bookclub. With public health officials around the world recommending most of us avoid large gatherings or even leaving our homes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, those normal social outlets are now out of reach. There is no playbook for a pandemic, and it’s normal to feel anxious, scared, or lonely in response to the uncertainty of the current moment.
We’re in this Together
Remember, you are not alone. From our immediate neighbors to people on the other side of the world, we are all currently sharing a common experience of disruption, but also of resilience. Social distancing or sheltering in place may sound lonely, but it doesn’t have to be. That’s because it’s not something we do for just ourselves — it’s something we do as an act of care for our communities, and especially for those around us who are most vulnerable.
It’s not easy, but there are ways we can make social distancing an experience of togetherness rather than loneliness, even if that contact is happening from afar. That shift begins by remembering that we are in this together, and that we can make our communities stronger by taking small steps to make sure no one is going through this alone.
1. Reach out
The simplest, and most effective, thing you can do right now for your and your community’s mental health is to reach out to others remotely. Call your mother or that friend you’ve been meaning to catch up with. Having many incoming and outgoing calls, indicative of a strong social network, has been shown to be a better predictor of overall health than conventional markers, like how many steps you take a day.
Texting has also been shown to boost our moods when we’re feeling lonely, so shooting a friend a simple message of love and support can go far to keep everyone’s spirits up.
Even posting on social media can help us feel connected. While the mental health effects of social media are mixed, sharing positive sentiments on platforms like Facebook has been shown to increase feelings of wellbeing, so reaching out with encouraging messages for your community will help both them and you, too.
Another great way to reach out digitally is to go beyond your immediate community and even country by connecting with a digital penpal. You can make a new friend, learn a new skill, increase your social contact, and support people who need the income by signing up for a digital class through services like NaTakallam, in which refugees offer personal video language instruction in Arabic, Persian, French, and Spanish.
2. Resist the urge to scapegoat
Unfortunately, the spread of COVID-19 has inspired a wave of xenophobia. Because of the virus’s geographic origins, even some government officials have called it the “China virus” or “Wuhan virus.” As Marietta Vazquez, vice chair of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Yale School of Medicine Pediatrics notes, this risks stigmatizing Asian and Asian American people, and conflating the virus’s geographic origins with a racial or ethnic group. Anti-Asian discrimination has spread along with the virus, resulting in decreased business in U.S. Chinatowns and acts of racial discrimination in public.
Viruses have no nationality. They are not Asian, European, African, or American. They are microscopic particles without a race, culture, or country. While many nations, including the United States, have responded to the crisis by closing borders, public health officials say that the biggest current risk of coronavirus transmission comes from spread within communities, not from people crossing borders.
At the same time, those most likely to experience discrimination in times of crisis — including the elderly, homeless people, communities of color, incarcerated people, migrants and refugees, and people with HIV — are actually the very people most at risk of serious infection, and most likely to lack access to adequate healthcare. COVID-19 is a collective problem, and it can only be solved by caring for the collective, not by blaming those who are different than you.
3. Help friends and neighbors
Social distancing doesn’t mean the end of social solidarity. While public health experts advise — and some state and city-wide governments mandate — “shelter in place” restrictions, many of us do still need to go out to obtain vital supplies, like food and medication. Still others, especially healthcare workers and those who provide essential governmental services, have to continue going to work.
Some community members, however, may be unable to leave their homes even for essentials. You can help friends and neighbors who may be under total self-quarantine, either because they’re particularly vulnerable to infection or because they have symptoms, by delivering groceries to their doors. However, make sure that if you have any symptoms of coronavirus you stay home entirely.
If you’re well and you do deliver groceries to someone in need, wash your hands thoroughly and sanitize the groceries before you drop them off. You can support both local businesses and neighbors in need by ordering food delivery for community members who may be unable to leave their homes.
With markets in a steep downturn, some economists have already called recession imminent. At the same time, many workers, including gig economy workers, contract workers, and workers in food service and public events industries, have already lost their jobs, and many will likely lose jobs in the short- or medium-term future.
Many community groups are circulating online mutual aid funds for community members experiencing economic hardship. If you have the money to spare, continue donating or directly extending financial help to your neighbors by sending personal funds to loved ones, or buying digital gift cards to neighborhood businesses like restaurants and salons.
4. Find old school ways to connect
The internet provides us with a powerful way to connect in times of crisis, but too much or the wrong kind of social media exposure can also have a negative effect on our mental health. Exposure to bad news can increase feelings of anxiety and depression. There’s also evidence that increased social media exposure can exacerbate negative mental health issues in young adults, though this may be due to the lack of sleep accompanying late-night social media scrolling.
If exposure to too much news is stressing you out, experts suggest limiting your news intake to once a day, and choosing a narrow selection of trusted hard news sources — like the New York Times or the Washington Post and your local newspaper — and sites that make you feel good (like the Talkspace Voice). You can also use a screen-time monitor to keep yourself from anxiety-scrolling, especially when you’re working from home.
If you’re at home with family and roommates, and you’re not showing symptoms, this can also be an opportunity for in-person bonding with loved ones. Plan a pajama movie night, bake a cake together, light a candle and tell stories, or sing songs. Social distancing also doesn’t have to spell the end of romance. If you’re home with a partner, leave a love note on their pillow or plan a dining room dinner date. We all deserve intimacy, even in the midst of pandemic.
5. Invest in your mental health
While it’s natural to want to tighten our belts with an uncertain financial future ahead, mental health is one investment you might consider making. If you already see a therapist in real life, check in as to whether they can continue sessions online. If you saw a therapist in the past but haven’t visited them for a while, and would like someone to talk to, reach out and ask about online sessions — many therapists would be happy for the business. You can also subscribe to online therapy resources, like Talkspace, to begin a new therapeutic relationship.
While of course, the circumstances are less than ideal, seeking help for your anxiety or stress during this crisis can also be your gateway to dealing with preexisting mental health issues you may not have previously addressed. It will help you develop coping skills now that will come in handy in the future.
If you’re struggling and need to talk to someone now, you can reach out to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Disaster Distress Helpline, where you can speak to a trained counselor with experience helping individuals navigate social crises. And if you feel you are in imminent danger of self-harm, you can reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline anytime.
Finally, if you’re at home with an abusive partner, family member, or roommate; are feeling at risk of sexual or domestic violence in your home; or feel unsafe in any way, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline or the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline.
We Are More Resilient Together
Social distancing may feel isolating, but it is not an individual dilemma. As scary as it is to imagine that we are all — the entire world — in this together, it can be a comforting thought, too. The anxiety, fear, or loneliness you may be feeling now is an experience you share not just with your immediate neighbors or others in your country, but with people on the other side of the world — from Iran to Spain to the United States — in communities you may have never visited or thought about before.
It’s not just anxiety that we share — it’s also resilience, community, and hope. Social distancing may feel lonely, but it’s actually something that we undertake to protect one another, to care for both our loved ones and for strangers. By staying in, you could be saving the life of someone you’ve never met, who speaks a language you might not share, in a country you may have never visited. That is pretty magical.
Whatever lies ahead, it is this fact — that we are all connected, and that our actions can have a profound positive effect on the wellbeing of a loved one or stranger — that ultimately matters most.