August 3, 2020

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Caitlin Harper

Why Physical Distancing Is Better For Your Mental Health Than Social Distancing

It looks like physical distancing is going to be part of our lives for the foreseeable future, but now more than ever, we have to stay socially connected, even though we need to stay physically apart. But we never should have called physical distancing “social distancing” in the first place, and the term has done some damage. So why do we call it social distancing and how can we maintain social ties while staying physically distant?

We’re now in the second half of 2020 and it doesn’t look like we’re going “back to normal” anytime soon. Masks are mandatory in most places, many restaurants and public spaces are operating at reduced capacity, and office workers are coming to the realization that hybrid or even fully remote work might be a permanent possibility. From plexiglass partitions at grocery stores to stickers on the floor reminding us to remain six feet apart, it looks like physical distancing is going to be part of our lives for the foreseeable future.

That’s right: physical distancing.

Now more than ever, we have to stay socially connected, even though we need to stay physically apart. But we never should have called physical distancing “social distancing” in the first place, and the term has done some damage.

Walling people off from one another for months means the secondary effects of the pandemic, such as recession, social unrest, and unemployment, could trigger unpredictable and widespread mental health challenges.

I remember the dissonance I felt when New York City issued its stay-at-home order and encouraged social distancing. Obviously, a video chat is completely safe and a great way to maintain social ties while keeping your physical distance, but a small part of me still felt like I was doing something wrong!

I’m lucky to live with a partner, so I have some daily human interaction, but every time I heard the phrase social distancing, my brain interpreted it as turn in on yourself, don’t make contact, sever ties. The fear caused by COVID-19 itself only fueled these feelings. On my weekly grocery run, I wouldn’t make eye contact with other people on the street, wouldn’t speak to anyone but the cashier at checkout, and wouldn’t say hello to neighbors in my building. It was hard to shake the concept that social distancing didn’t mean I had to end all social interactions.

We need to stay social while maintaining physical distance

At this point, most of us know the drill: stay home as much as possible, maintain six feet from others when we do venture outside our home, avoid gatherings, wash our hands, and wear a mask. So why do we call it social distancing?

As early as March, officials at the World Health Organization (WHO) said while maintaining a physical distance was "absolutely essential" amid the global pandemic, "it does not mean that socially we have to disconnect from our loved ones, from our family." At MyWellbeing, we decided to adopt the term physical distancing shortly after WHO did. But as of July 2020, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention was primarily using the term social distancing on their website.

Social distancing is the last thing we want to do. Some research has already shown that mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety have been more prevalent among those isolating themselves during the pandemic and that chronic loneliness can lead to sleep problems, a weakened immune system, feelings of depression or anxiety, and other health complications.

The longer this crisis stretches, the more it seems we should be using physical distancing as an accurate term that could help decrease the negative mental health implications. So how can we strengthen or rekindle social ties while maintaining physical distance?

What you can do to strengthen social ties while physically distanced

Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki says that, ironically, the same technologies we often blame for tearing apart our social fabric might be our best chance, now, of keeping it together. I’ve attended quite a few Zoom birthdays in the past few months and while they were weird at first, my friends and family quickly adapted to the online experience. I’ve now attended (and hosted) online conferences, poetry readings, product launches, workshops, and so many meetings.

At first, I felt like every online event had to be perfectly curated, no matter the subject, but there is value in just having another person on the other side of the screen. I’ve participated in activist hours where hundreds of people completed activist actions separately but at a communal time and chatted in a chatroom while we did it. I’ve hosted writing sprints on Instagram Live where people tuned in to get some writing done—in complete silence!

We should all lower our expectations of what a perfect online experience should be, embrace the moment, and get creative when replicating or even inventing new opportunities

One thing I’ve found super helpful during this time is making a list and schedule of when I want to contact people. It sounds pretty weird to need to remind myself to talk to my friends and family, but our normal routines have been upended and there’s no harm in using new tools and methods to cope. Like any behavioral shift, the change won’t happen on its own. A little forethought and repetition go a long way to adapting to a new way of staying in touch.

Each week, I have a little post-it list of people I’d like to connect with and try my best to reach out to everyone on my list. Otherwise, I get to the end of the week and realize that I’ve logged ten hours on Twitter without having a meaningful conversation with anyone. This sort of planning works on both a personal and professional level.

The workplace is another area where people are concerned about weakening social ties

Without impromptu chats in the hallway, quick brainstorming sessions over coffee, or opportunities to eat lunch together, many companies are worried about the impact on both business and company culture. Adjusting your communication strategy, being open and honest about struggles, creating digital versions of those impromptu conversations, and expanding your employee experience and mental health and wellness offerings can create times for coworkers to connect.

Be kind to yourself and center the positive things

Even after the explosion of Zoom events (and resulting Zoom fatigue), it has still been a struggle for many people to maintain social ties during COVID-19. Although most of us have access to a plethora of ways to stay connected online, many social media platforms are designed to keep you scrolling and clicking and not truly connecting. Add the trauma BIPOC have experienced brought into the national conversation by the murder of George Floyd and it seems that every time we log on to say hello to someone, we’re inundated with news whether we’re prepared for it or not.

It’s important to develop self-awareness, know your own triggers and red flags, and proactively manage your stress. If you find yourself in distress on certain platforms, take a break. Whenever possible, focus on happiness. While we shouldn’t avoid or deny negative emotions, focusing on the positive can increase resilience during crises. Things like creating a routine around your social media usage, working with a therapist, keeping a gratitude journal, or developing your preventative self-care practice are all things that can help you focus on the positive. And if you’re so inclined, share your feelings, ideas, and plans with your family and friends—we’re all in this together.

For many of us, life online, especially at this level, is new and often overwhelming. While it can be scary to think of the impacts of long-term physical distancing, isolation, and loneliness, taking time to connect with others, getting creative about new ways of forming bonds and rekindling relationships, and being kind to ourselves can help keep us socially connected in these physically distant times.

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About the author

Caitlin is MyWellbeing's Content Lead, a writer, speaker, communication coach, and the founder of Commcoterie, a communication consultancy. She teaches teams how to use professional coaching communication techniques in their everyday conversations, helps leaders engage their teams with effective and inclusive communication, and partners with service providers to activate their programs and offerings with their own clients through inspiring communication strategies. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.

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