Connecting without the human touch: How to cope with the side effects of social distancing – Milwaukee Independent

Posted: March 26, 2020 at 12:41 am


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To fight the spread of coronavirus, government officials have asked Americans to swallow a hard pill: Stay away from each other.

In times of societal stress, such a demand runs counter to what evolution has hard-wired people to do: Seek out and support each other as families, friends and communities. We yearn to huddle together. The warmth of our breath and bodies, of holding hands and hugging, of talking and listening, is a primary source of soothing. These connections are pivotal for responding to and maximizing our survival in times of stress.

Priority number one is to follow the recommended social distancing guidelines to control the virus. The cure is definitely not worse than the disease experts projections of disease spread and mortality without strong intervention make this clear. But as with any pill, there are side effects. As psychological scientists at the University of Washingtons Center for the Science of Social Connection, our lab studies social connectedness, why it is important and how to maximize its benefits. Our clinical and research experiences help us understand the side effects of social distancing and suggest strategies for addressing them.

Human beings are social beings

In times of stress and illness, being deprived of social connection can create more stress and illness. People who are lonely have higher levels of the hormone cortisol, an indicator of stress; show weaker immune responses to pathogens; and are at increased risk for premature death. Isolation can lead to depression, suicidal thoughts and other clinical conditions.

For those who must be quarantined because they are infected with the virus, this research has one important implication: Depriving the sick of social connection and physical closeness unfortunately may make it harder for them to defeat infection. For example, lonely college students respond more weakly to influenza vaccinations than do non-lonely students.

There are other costs. Loneliness makes people feel more vulnerable and anxious in social interactions. An official mandate to socially distance and isolate may increase what psychologists call intergroup anxiety, the natural threat and distrust people feel when interacting with those who are different.

People may circle the wagons around themselves and those they perceive as like themselves those with whom they share a common identity while excluding everyone else. The recent travel restrictions play into these very human fears, and could exacerbate impulses to blame and stigmatize others as the source of this crisis. These fears fuel negative and inaccurate stereotypes of others, rather than cultivating connections to a larger human community that is suffering together.

Reach out and connect

While social distancing and isolation are in effect, there are things everyone can do to mitigate their downsides. Now is the time to reach out to friends and family and connect with them however you can. Let people know how much you care about them. While live human connection is best, a phone call, with a real voice, is better than text, and a videochat is better than a phone call.

We believe such social technology-facilitated connections will aid all of us in staying as healthy as possible during this time. Although research on this is not comprehensive, we think its valuable to use social technology to mitigate the effects of loneliness and isolation for those who are sick.

What you say when connecting also matters. If you are stressed and upset, talking about your feelings can help. You may or may not feel better, but you will feel less alone. If you are on the receiving end of this kind of sharing, resist the impulse to dismiss, debate or tell the other person not to worry. Your task is to listen and convey that you understand their feelings and accept them. This process one person sharing something vulnerable, and the other responding with understanding and care is the basic dance step of good, close relationships.

Human touch is also vital for well-being. If you are distancing with people who are close to you and healthy, donot forget the positive impact of a gentle hug, or holding someones hand. Safe, mutually consenting physical touch leads to the release of oxytocin. Sometimes called the love hormone, oxytocin helps regulate your fight or flight system and calms your body in times of stress.

Things you can do

Other actions can help boost the well-being of yourself and others, as you adapt to a world of social distancing.

This coronavirus crisis may not end soon. Things may get worse. As people hunker down, the negative side effects of social distancing and isolation will shift and evolve. What feels manageable today may not feel manageable tomorrow. As psychologists, we are concerned that the lack of social connections, increased stress, disruptions and losses of livelihoods and routines will tip some people toward depression. We are concerned about increased family conflict as people are forced to navigate unusual amounts of time together, many in confined spaces.

Flexibility is adaptive. Building a foundation of healthy coping, maintaining awareness of the side effects of our necessary societal changes, and staying connected to our values and to each other are imperative. Human beings have great capacity for empathy and caring in times of suffering. Maintaining social distance doesnt need to change that.

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Connecting without the human touch: How to cope with the side effects of social distancing - Milwaukee Independent

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March 26th, 2020 at 12:41 am