Social Connectedness in the time of COVID-19

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At this time of the corona outbreak, we have all been advised to practise ‘social distancing’for our own protection. Even if we do meet, we are to stay at least six feet away from other humans. We cannot visit our friends or hang out in groups. We cannot celebrate, or have gatherings, worship together or go to the movies/shopping/malls and other places where we would otherwise meet other people.

This unusual situation is likely to continue for the rest of the year or at least until there is a well-established prevention and cure for the virus.

The question is, while social distancing may be protecting us from the ­pandemic, how is this semi-isolation going to affect us mentally and emotionally in the long term? Some of us are already in the throes of cabin fever, feeling claustrophobic in our own homes. Others are feeling depressed, anxious and lonely.

The truth is that human beings need social connectedness to prevent ill-health. We need good social relationships, interaction, human touch, affection and love.

We are of course fortunate that we can connect virtually with relative ease, but that’s not the same. Attending a virtual chat is certainly not the same as getting together with friends in real life.

 

Perceived social isolation – PSI

Perceived social isolation is the feeling of being alone and isolated. It can be a reality (as it is now) or something one experiences internally even when not alone. One can be lonely even in a crowd for instance. People who have trouble truly connecting with others in reality may face an even greater challenge today.

The repercussions of this sense of isolation that many people may be experiencing today cannot be underestimated and I suspect mental and emotional issues like depression and anxiety will be the next tsunami that will engulf us post-corona.

 

Good quality relationships matter

It’s not the number of friends you have but the quality of the relationships that really matter. If you have even one good relationship/friendship that you can be completely vulnerable, comfortable, it makes an enormous difference to the quality of your life. People who are better connected socially to family, friends and community live longer and are happier.

Analysing several studies on loneliness, authors, A B Bhatti and A U Haq, looked at social isolation and its effects on human wellbeing. The mechanisms through which PSI affects health are both direct and indirect and may be hormonal, neuronal, behavioural, emotional or genetic. The physical isolation can lead to various concerns like changes in blood pressure, decline in cognitive health (especially in the elderly), sleep problems, depression, increased risk of suicide and suicide ideation, poor eating habits and addictions.

 

What can we do to stay connected in this ‘socially distanced’ world?

Here are some ideas to prevent PSI and remain connected despite the current situation.

  • Understand and acknowledge that the current situation is beyond your control. The only thing that you can control is your response to it. Feeling anxious about the present doesn’t help and anticipating a bleak future, (which hasn’t yet arrived) is pointless. Instead focus on what you can control which is, how to stay safe and improve immunity.
  • Establish a routine for yourself on a daily basis. This could include housework, cooking, working from home, grocery shopping, socialising virtually, virtual exercise classes, webinars and work meetings. Having a routine, however simple, helps you from slipping into the ‘helpless victim’ mode and makes you feel more productive and in control.
  • Most importantly, establish a connection with someone (or a few people), with whom you can be truly comfortable and trust. Connect virtually with them on a regular basis and discuss your fears and anxieties if any with them.
  • Reach out with a simple call or message to others who may be living alone or may hesitate to initiate contact. Helping others is hugely beneficial to one’s own sense of meaning and well-being.
  • Be conscious of the reality. This kind of lockdown and isolation certainly is bound to create feelings of anxiety. This is a normal response to an unusual time like this. The tendency to self-soothe using food, alcohol or any number of addictive substances is increased many-fold when you are anxious and restless. Be acutely mindful of this and use better alternatives (like exercise, meditation, music) to prevent a tailspin.
  • Exercise regularly. If you have exercise equipment at home set aside an hour a day for workout. There are plenty of virtual exercise classes available online. Do take advantage of them. If you can walk outdoors during limited periods of time, do so. Exercise combats anxiety and greatly improves mood and positive emotion. You need all the help you can get to keep your mood elevated.
  • Cultivate positive emotion. You may wonder how does one ‘cultivate’ positive emotion and why? Positive emotion is a feeling created by the right chemical balance and neural firing in the brain. It can be activated with good lifestyle habits, exercise, proper nutrition, meditation and so on.
    Creating positive emotion is important to establish and continue authentic social connections. When you are depressed or anxious, it is hard to connect with others and a vicious cycle is set in motion.
    By increasing positive emotion, you are more inclined to reach out and connect with others in an authentic fashion.
  • Eat healthy. It is tempting to indulge in convenience food. This may also be an excuse to binge-eat or drink. Eating healthy is not just about weight control, but is the key to keeping your gut healthy. A healthy gut influences your brain, preventing depression, increasing positive emotion and helps in clarity of thought. Eating clean at times like this becomes even more critical.
  • Be grateful.  Expressing gratitude (in a gratitude journal for instance) goes a long way in improving positive emotion. Research has shown that people who regularly feel and express gratitude are happier.

While this may be a trying time for all of us, we can use it to reflect, introspect and ask ourselves the important questions in life. We can also make the best of it and stay connected, despite the social distancing and isolation, with a few simple habits.

Stay Safe.

The author is a lifestyle medicine physician.sheela.nambiar@gmail.com
www.drsheelanambiar.com

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