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Tips for Staying Socially Connected While Physically Distancing

From Lacie Anthony, Licensed Professional Counselor at Crossing Rivers Health Behavioral Health

Social distancing and self-isolation are really difficult. This is because our drive to be together is more than just not being able to go out to eat or go to the movie theater. It's because, as humans, we are innately social creatures. Since the beginning of time to the modern-day, we've lived in groups – in villages, communities, and family units. Being part of a group or a tribe makes us feel safe and cared for.

Prior to this pandemic and stay at home order, we have known that social isolation has a negative impact on our mental and physical health. One of the things that I often do when working with people that are diagnosed with depression or other mental health issues is work on increasing their social support system. We know that being connected to others can decrease depression and help us manage stress better. In fact, studies show that when we feel like we are not alone, we feel more equipped and confident to manage everyday stressors.

Loneliness and isolation create a kind of toxic chain reaction in our body. In essence, it produces stress and the chronic release of stress hormones, which suppresses our immune response and triggers inflammation. Fear also causes the release of stress hormones. Suppression of our immune system can leave us more susceptible to a virus such as the common cold and flu. By its very nature, a pandemic involves massive amounts of uncertainty, which produces fear, which can lead to increased levels of stress and anxiety. All of this can cause chronic feelings of stress, which, if left untreated, can also put us at risk of developing chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer's.

Since none of us have ever been through anything quite like this before, we don't really know what the effects of long term social isolation could be. However, it's safe to say that we can expect it could increase the risk of loneliness, feelings of isolation, stress, and anxiety. Remember… anxiety doesn't like to wait, and it thrives on not knowing!

We are now going into week 4 of the stay at home order and have at least another month ahead of us. We want to make sure that people are aware of how this could be impacting them and some things that you can do to reduce the feelings of loneliness and isolation. In fact, we mental health professionals are really urging people to think about this as physical distancing instead of social distancing because we don't want people to feel like they cannot be social. We just have to think of other ways to do this, than in-person.

Am I really feeling lonely, or is it something else?

We all feel lonely at times, but it can easily begin to interfere with our lives if left unchecked. Some things to look out for are:

  • Feeling more tired than usual
  • Changes in your eating habits or gaining weight
  • Constant checking of social media and having stronger feelings of rejection if you are not getting an immediate response to your posts
  • Not feeling well all the time
  • Buying more things, lonely people tend to surround themselves with things
  • Taking really long, hot showers

These could be signs that you are feeling lonelier. Making connections with others regularly will help ease these feelings

It's also important to be watching for signs of depression during this time as well. Below is a list of symptoms that are common in people experiencing depression:

  • Trouble concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
  • Fatigue
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and helplessness
  • Pessimism and hopelessness
  • Sleep disturbance; trouble falling asleep, early-morning wakefulness, or sleeping too much
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Loss of interest in things once pleasurable, including sex
  • Overeating, or appetite loss
  • Aches, pains, headaches, or cramps that won't go away
  • Digestive problems that don't get better, even with treatment
  • Persistent sad, anxious, or "empty" feelings
  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts

If you are experiencing any of these issues for two weeks or more, please reach out for help. There are several helplines such as Great Rivers 211, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), and Northwest Connections at 1-888-552-6642. These resources have 24 hours, seven days a week, trained professionals that can help you find the resources that you need. Many mental health professionals are still offering either telemedicine or telephone therapy that you can access to help you with these symptoms that you are experiencing.

Staying socially connected while physically distant

Stay connected

  • Keep your relationships active; the phone is your lifeline. Set a personal goal to talk (actually talk, not text) with one or two friends, elderly neighbors, or family members by phone every day until this pandemic ends.
  • Write a letter. Writing is therapeutic and getting letters makes us feel good
  • Look at old pictures – studies are showing that the simple act of looking at pictures of our family, friends, vacations, and other events increases our moods and makes us feel connected. Take this opportunity to sort through the box of old pictures or download your photos and order prints online.
  • Start/join a blog/chat room – there are thousands of other people out there that enjoy the same things you do, chat with them about these interests online
  • Create a podcast or do a YouTube video about a skill that you have and want to teach others

Video Conferencing

There are multiple platforms to use today to do video chats to stay connected to love ones or set up meetings/clubs/organizations. Sites such as Zoom, Skype, FaceTime all let us stay virtually connected…for free.

Examples are:

  • Can't meet with your book club in person, set up a Zoom meeting for the same day and time as you usually meet.
  • Nana's birthday? Set up a group face time call with relatives to wish her a happy birthday
  • Easter Day – set up a group chat with relatives to wish them a happy Easter or send warm wishes/prayers

Speaking of Easter - many churches are offering live streaming or recorded services. Check with your local places of worship or online in your community.

Be extra neighborly

Connect with neighbors by bringing lunch or dinner to the bottom of your driveway, your porch, deck, or other safe distance location and waving to each other.

Participate in a Heart Hunters or other social campaigns – Facebook has Heart Hunters groups which is community effort to help others feel connected without being close. People make heart displays and putting them up in their windows. Parents and kids can then walk or drive around in their community and "collect" hearts by taking pictures and sharing them online. Others are putting stuffed animals in windows so kids can "go to the zoo" virtually as well. Again, speaking of Easter, put up cut out Easter eggs in your windows so kids can have a virtual "Easter Egg Hunt"

Still, others are painting rocks and setting them throughout the community or drawing positive messages on sidewalks with sidewalk chalk.

Taking Care of Yourself

While being socially connected is super important, taking care of yourself is also essential during this time of physical distancing. Here are some ways to do this, as well.

Exercise

Anyone who can exercise should do more of it now, every day. Physical exercise reduces stress and boosts immune functioning. It also releases serotonin, which is the feel-good chemical in our brain that helps regulate our mood and reduce anxiety. Outdoor activities are good, going for a walk, riding a bike, or going on a hike…just stay 6 feet apart, please. There are also additional resources online that offer free exercise videos, including weight lifting and yoga. Also, continue to eat healthily and get enough sleep as these can also reduce stress.

Mindfulness

If you have resisted this trend so far, now may be the time to reconsider. Meditation reduces inflammation and enhances our immune functions, literally undoing the damage of self-isolation. There is evidence that prayer can have a similar effect. The big surprise is that meditation is not about clearing your mind. It's about managing your attention and mindfulness helps us become more aware of when our attention is wandering or getting stuck on worries about things that are out of our control. While it doesn't seem hard to just pay attention, we know that it is a hard skill to learn without some kind of practice and guidance. It may sound kind of woo woo, but the science is persuasive. Headspace, Stop Breath Think, and Calm are all apps that you can download for guided mindfulness and meditation, or doing a google search will lead you to more websites and YouTube videos on the subject.

Volunteer

Do something small for someone else. In surveys, people say volunteering gives them a sense of purpose and reduces anxiety.

Right now, we may not actually be able to volunteer physically, but we can find other ways to do this. Find out of your local nursing homes or churches are looking for people to "virtually visit" residents or members that don't have family or friends locally or at all. Visit outside the window or by telephone with a person that otherwise would not have the opportunity to talk to someone else.

Make blankets or quilts and donate them to nursing homes, hospitals, homeless shelters, police departments, or public health departments.

We hope that this helps give you some ideas on ways to reduce the health risks of loneliness and isolation and gives you a feeling of connectedness. #AloneTogether.