In about a month’s time, the term “social distancing” has become a regular part of our vocabulary. Used to describe the act of putting space between others and ourselves to help prevent the spread of disease, there has been concern by health officials at the World Health Organization that the term “social distance” could imply isolation from human connection.
The recommendation to stay at home during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak does not mean you have to end contact with your friends, loved ones or community. Remember, the goal is to separate physically, not emotionally.
In fact, maintaining social connections is especially important right now. That’s because loneliness can have a negative impact on your mental and physical health and is already a social health crisis, with about 1 in 3 adults experiencing it to some degree.
So how can you stay socially connected while being physically distant? UNC Health psychiatrist Diana O. Perkins, MD, MPH, offers these three tips.
1. Find safe ways to interact with others.
Think of creative ways to connect with others.
For example, inspired by Michael Rosen’s 1989 children’s book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, families are putting teddy bears in their windows as a way to connect with people who may pass by, Dr. Perkins says.
Another way to connect is to talk to your neighbors across your driveway, staying at least 6 feet apart, or open your windows and talk across the lawn.
“Social distancing is key to preventing transmission. This means it is unwise to invite your neighbor in for a cup of coffee, but it is OK so have a conversion across the driveway,” Dr. Perkins says.
Other ideas include putting a friendly note in a neighbor’s mailbox to say that you are thinking of him or her, mailing family and friends homemade cards, letters and pictures, and initiating interactive games such as virtual Scrabble—for example, Words With Friends.
2. Get outside.
Lace up your sneakers and head outside for a walk around the neighborhood or local greenway or trails. Wave or call out a hello as you pass by fellow walkers—just be sure to stay 6 feet apart. Also avoid touching public surfaces, and wash your hands when you go back inside.
In addition to offering an opportunity to connect with others at a safe distance, going on a walk has been shown to be effective in reducing anxiety and depression. With anxiety on the rise during the COVID-19 pandemic, walking can be an important tool to help relieve stress.
“I have enjoyed touching base with many of my neighbors while out on a walk. I feel better even if we just make small talk or wave,” Dr. Perkins says. “I think people understand the importance of maintaining a physical distance, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t connect emotionally, share our experiences and find ways to help each other during this crisis.”
3. Use technology, but remember to unplug, too.
You can stay emotionally connected through technology and virtual meetups. Plan a regular video chat with friends or loved ones. Set up a Zoom video conference for your book club. Kids can connect with classmates on Google Classroom. Host a watch party on Facebook or take a virtual tour of someplace you’ve always wanted to see.
You also can FaceTime with grandparents or pick up the phone and call them. Send loved ones a text or share a funny meme on your social media feeds. Or why not sign up for an online course—several are free—and learn a new language or skill?
But while technology is especially helpful in connecting us with our loved ones right now, be sure to spend time connecting with anyone who lives with you.
Remember, during these unprecedented times, it’s vital that we support each other and offer compassion and support to those who need it.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it,” Dr. Perkins says. “We are a community, and people are willing to help.”