I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that life has been turned on its head for millions of people around the globe by the novel coronavirus. Many of us have stopped going in to the office, stocked up on groceries, and limited our movement outside of the home. The list of cancellations is vast: trips, sports practices, dentist appointments, concerts, book clubs… but you don’t need me to list these for you. We are all painfully aware of our isolation.
While limiting our contact with other people is a necessary step to try to slow the spread of COVID-19, isolation itself comes with a huge list of potential health consequences. Isolation can cause sleep issues, an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, decreased immune system functioning, and even an increased risk of death. When it’s ongoing, isolation is as detrimental to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Mental health-wise, isolation can feed depression, increase anxiety, and decrease cognitive functioning. Severe isolation can even cause a warped sense of time and hallucinations.
To care for our bodies and our minds, we have to take steps to address these negative effects of isolation. So what can we do to stay connected while we have to be apart?
First, I recommend changing the narrative from “social” distancing to “physical” distancing. People are not a threat- this virus hiding in respiratory droplets is the threat. We must protect our own mental health and physical health by finding more social connectedness in a time of physical isolation.
With our health in mind, here is a list of ways to stay connected while distanced:
- Communication by phone. This one is the most obvious, but facetime, phone calls, and even text messaging can go a long way towards making you feel connected. When we can hear our friends’ and family’s voices, and even see their faces, we feel less alone. We have evolved to be social creatures, and to depend on other people for survival. Let’s not ignore that instinct now.
- Seek out new music, art, books, scientific discoveries… whatever floats your boat. Then share it. Now is a great time for learning about something new! Want to visit Europe without leaving home? You can use Google Arts & Culture to take a virtual tour through a museum you’ve never visited. Missing out on a concert you had planned to go to? Stream a different opera each night this week from the Metropolitan Opera at home! How about reading one of the books sitting at home you’ve never gotten around to? If you’re more into scientific learning than the arts, did you know that Neil deGrasse Tysons’ Cosmos is back with a new season on National Geographic? Once you’ve found something new and exciting that fires up your brain and connects you to the outside world, share it with your friends and family! Send a link to your favorite newly discovered poem, start a virtual book club, or watch a TV show “together” then discuss via facetime!
- Gratitude. I’ve written about this before, and my clients hear about it all of the time. Gratitude shouldn’t be a chore. Noticing the things and people you feel grateful for is a nearly-instant mood boost and way to feel connected to life beyond your front door. Try writing down three things you are grateful for each morning before starting your day.
- Take a walk outside. Boy, it can be refreshing to see that your neighborhood still exists! As much as you cognitively may know everything will be alright, it’s hard not to feel like the apocalypse is imminent, especially if you’ve been tuned into the news all day. A walk around your neighborhood is not only beneficial to your health, but also to your perspective. Keep an eye out for those spring flowers just starting to pop up, take in the routine and familiar sights of your street, and remind yourself that these changes are temporary.
- Finally, I urge you to do that one thing you know makes you feel better but you always have to force yourself to do. For me, it’s sitting for a meditation. For you it might be a run, an at-home yoga session, a shower, or cleaning the house. Sometimes we stop doing the things that help our mental health the most when we actually need them the most. Don’t let this be one of those times!
One last thought about distancing- please put a healthy distance between you and the news. While it’s crucial that we stay informed, checking the news nonstop is a guaranteed ticket to Anxiety Town. Limit yourself to a few (3, max!!!) times a day that you can check the news- and don’t make those times the first thing you do when you get up or the last thing before bed.