How to Maintain Friendships While Social Distancing

A.K.A. how not to feel lonely while isolating, because staying connected is essential to your well-being.

By Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
By Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

Millions of people are practicing social distancing during the coronavirus: They’re stuck in quarantine indefinitely, not leaving their homes except when absolutely necessary. It’s important to remember that as strange as it may feel, everyone who’s able to quarantine should — since it can save lives and help stop the spread of the virus. That said, we all need to take measures to protect against another crisis: loneliness. Nearly 70 percent of people are worried about feeling isolated and/or alone in light of the coronavirus, according to a Thrive Global original survey of 5,000 respondents about coronavirus pain points. And their concerns aren’t unwarranted, because socializing isn’t just fun — it’s vital to our health and well-being.

While we don’t yet know the effects of short-term social distancing, over the long term, social isolation can increase the risk of a variety of health problems, including heart disease, depression, dementia, and even death, researchers note in the journal Science. Another University of Chicago study concluded that social isolation can increase stress and symptoms of depression, as well as negatively impact individuals’ sleep quality and overall immunity.

“As humans, we are wired for connection,” says Dr. Lori Whatley, P.h.D., a clinical psychologist and author of Connected and Engaged. “It is good for us mentally and physiologically to stay in touch with others during this pandemic….Our brains produce positive endorphins when we interact with those we love.” In fact, Harvard research found that connecting with friends and family — even virtually — has the capacity to significantly improve people’s overall well-being and mental health.

And there are lots of ways to do this from home: “We can text and make phone calls during this time of ‘sheltering in place,’” suggests Whatley. “Another way to build your cognitive well-being muscles is to write notes to those you love.”

Ultimately, “the more people can connect on Zoom, FaceTime or some other video platform, the more they can feel assured that life in general is still going on, and that all is well with others and their loved ones,” Dr. Scott Hoye, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and Clinical Director of Chicago Psychology Services, tells Thrive. In fact, Hoye says seeing your loved ones while talking to them is “very powerful,” and more preferred than audio alone, and certainly texting, which lacks “emotional nuance.”

“Approximately 80% of what makes up human communication is through facial expression, hand gestures, and tone of voice. That connection, in some variation, is paramount to us feeling whole and healthy.”

As everyone adapts to this “new normal,” more and more people are getting creative with their connections. “People are having online cocktail parties and group charades, group exercise classes, zoom meetups, and Facetime meals,” says Lauren Muhlheim, Psy.D., a psychologist who focuses on anxiety and depression.

Bottom line: Maintaining a safe distance and limiting our in-person contact doesn’t mean we have to fall out of touch with the people we love. Here are three science-backed Microsteps to help you stay connected during this time:

When you’re feeling lonely, schedule a virtual coffee break with a friend. Social isolation can have powerful negative effects on your health, but spending time with others – even virtually – helps you stay connected.

Schedule a regular check-in with your parent or relative. Set a daily reminder on your phone. Even a quick call or text will help them feel more connected in an isolating time.

Ask someone what they’re doing to take care of themselves and stay connected to loved ones. Social distancing can make us feel further apart, not just physically but emotionally. Bridge the distance with a simple question — you might learn something, or find you have something in common.

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