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Social Distancing, not Social Isolation: A psychologist’s 7 Essential Tips

Our lives have changed dramatically, overnight. The intensity is increasing daily, and with it the uncertainty of not just our future work and personal lives, but how we’ll get by in the next few weeks. People are panicking all around us, and it’s hard to not get swept up in it. “Maybe they’re right and I should panic more,” you ask. “Or, maybe I’m overreacting.” Life is disorienting right now and with every day bringing alarming news it’s normal to feel a constantly elevated level of anxiety.

We all know that we need to stay socially distant from each other. It’s a mandate now, and it’s what each one of us has to do to stop the pandemic that threatens every one of us in some way. When it’s such a new concept at this scale, and when we don’t even know how long we’ll have to do it, we may do it in ways that make it more difficult for ourselves. While we need to stay apart physically, we also need social bonding in order to maintain a lower baseline level of anxiety.

What’s most important is that our social distancing doesn’t result in social isolation.

Yes, we may need to stay indoors, and that can mean something different for each one of us. It may mean watching Netflix and cleaning out the drawers you’ve been meaning to get to. But it could also mean feeling lonely and stir crazy and at your own personal breaking point. For some of you, past traumas may begin to resurface while your control over your own life seems to have been pulled out from underneath you. You may be worried about whether you can get basic needs met, of how you’ll manage your compromised health or the welfare of your elderly parents. Maybe your job isn’t paying you and you don’t know if you’ll even have a job soon. Your business, your life savings, and your dreams of getting ahead in life may be deflating by the hour.

For some of you, it may look like spending a lot more time with family members who you aren’t getting along with. You could be at home dealing with people who are mentally ill, disabled, or just difficult. There are some people who are now spending more time with a violent spouse or an out-of-control teenager – keeping them living on edge.

Wherever you may be on this spectrum, you’ll need to be ready to get through this pandemic for as long as it takes. You’ve got to be ready for the long haul..

And while there’s a variety of physical and other practical matters to manage (like sleeping, eating, and exercising), I’m going to focus on just one important aspect of how we can successfully get through a pandemic – our social support and connections. There are certain things we can do now to improve the support we get from others and the support we give – resulting in dramatically lowered fear and anxiety, and especially, panic:

1. Stay connected via phone, text, and online with the people who are important and supportive to you. Share your experiences of the situation and share some laughs and hopes you each have. Check in on people who need help. Some of us have less social support and would suffer in silence before reaching out for a friend to connect with.

2. Disconnect from the people in your life who aren’t supportive. You know who I’m talking about – that guy who unfairly argues with you on social media over politics, the person who discounts what you say and talks over you. Unfollow friends who spread anxiety and unkindness. The longer this situation lasts, the angrier people will get, and the hurtful and hateful attacks will get worse as people continue to be confined and on edge.

3. Find ways to help others. Helping others can improve your sense of control and lower your anxiety and panic even more than receiving support from others. There are always others who need more than we do, and helping others increases the hormone oxytocin, associated with bonding behaviors, along with dopamine and serotonin, hormones which give us a positive outlook and make us feel good. Each one of us has unique contributions that can help others in this crisis. Know how to listen well? Have more supplies in the back yard that can help others? Have a tree back there that’s growing fruit that people could use? Have important knowledge on healthy eating? Are there elders in your neighborhood that you can get groceries or manage some needed errands for? It can be as easy as a call to just see how others are holding up.

4. Learn how to communicate (i.e., listen) better. When you learn to listen so well that others can emotionally rest in your presence, you give one of the greatest gifts that many people don’t even know they need. In an upcoming article, I’ll be sharing some tips on how to communicate like a pro and manage conflict.

5. Become more active than you ever have in creating community. If you normally wait for the connectors and the extroverts to bring people together, remember that these aren’t normal times. We’re social animals, and either we’re going to suffer alone or we’ll grow socially and emotionally together. Find your own way to bring people together, whether it’s introducing one person to another who can support him/her, creating a zoom group chat of friends who have virtual dinners or drinks together, learning to meditate from a good app with others, or just to reconnect with some family.

6. Maintain and strengthen your spiritual practice. Vital to your mental health is staying connected to the big picture. A spiritual practice gives meaning to every experience you have, and gives us the direction that something greater than us is working in our favor, has our best interest in mind, and/or has a plan in it all. Whether you pray, meditate, or have a different method, connecting to that source of inspiration, love, dignity, and gratitude will help calm you and give you faith that you will be okay. Churches, synagogues, mediation, yoga, and temples are now offering those services online. And, whether you have a spiritual practice or not, prioritize breathing deeply and gently into your life, especially when anxiety begins to resurface. Our breathe is sacred and it’s the best way to calm our bodies and minds.

7. Ask for help when you need it. Each of us is responding differently to this traumatic shift in our lives. If you had parents who were addicts, mentally ill, or domestically violent, you may be getting triggered, especially if you feel gaslighted by the government telling you things are under control when you know they aren’t. If you are in recovery, you may need to continue and perhaps increase your 12-step meetings, though you will need to do it online now. Our consciousness doesn’t have a sense of time, so when it’s triggered it may think it’s reliving past traumas. If you’re feeling a lot of stress, therapy can help. It’s designed to help you understand your anxiety and fear and learn to cope and become even stronger than you were before.

The fear and anxiety we’re all feeling now is normal for the situation we’re in. If past traumas are being triggered, you may feel like you’re panicking, which can disorient you and have you behaving less rationally and not quite recognizing yourself. The seven steps here are basic and simple, which is what is often needed to get grounded and to give you back control. The more control you consciously develop, the less anxiety and panic you’ll have. Furthermore, the more fun moments you create during these times, the more you will improve your mood and get hits of energy to keep you going. Remember, that like a battery, you’ll need to keep doing these things that give you more energy than you’re expending due of the constant stresses happening to you right now. Improving the support and connections you have isn’t just about getting through difficult times, though. Crises like this one are the types of breakdowns that, handled correctly, can lead to the biggest breakthroughs of our lives.


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