Humans have social needs. Throughout our lifespan, we depend on each other in countless ways. In addition to working together to create and maintain a functioning society (complete with butchers, bakers, and CPAs,) we also rely on one another to just kind of be around. Hanging out, having someone to vent to, discussing a shared interest with a friend—these aren’t frivolous things. Social contact provides us comfort, informs our understanding of the world, and reinforces our sense of ourselves. When it comes to mental health, social support is a key protective factor—associated with decreased risk of anxiety, depression, and other psychological difficulties. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has largely disrupted our ability to fulfill our social needs in the ways to which we’re accustomed. However, there are some steps we can take to stay connected while we’re apart.
1. Reach Out
Prior to the call for social distancing, many of us were able to get our social needs met passively. That is to say, we didn’t need to actively reach out to people. Whether it was through work, school, or any social space in which we’d routinely spend a good chunk of our week, certain people would just end up in our orbit. For most of us, that’s no longer the case. Now, we have to put thought and effort into something that once, more or less, happened on its own. It’s never easy to incorporate something unfamiliar into our routine, but contacting people whom we appreciate and enjoy speaking with can go a long way towards making this situation more tolerable.
It may be the case that the people we would normally see on a regular basis are not the same people that it would be most rewarding to connect with under our current circumstances. For some, it may be helpful, or necessary, to contact people with whom you haven’t recently been in touch. This is likely to be slightly uncomfortable. Rebuilding rapport is not something that happens instantaneously. However, a bit of discomfort is common when reaching out to old connections. As such, it’s a reasonable expectation that others will be understanding. Sometimes, it can be helpful to name the elephant in the room, maybe by making light of the strange circumstances of the conversation. It may also be helpful to focus on the subjects that you and your friend or family member used to discuss. Sometimes, you can skip the seemingly obligatory how-have-you-beens and allow life-updates to come up naturally over more interest-focused conversations.
2. Make New Connections
Some people may not have many people in their lives who would be rewarding, or appropriate, to reach out to. It may be helpful to utilize online spaces like message boards and microblogging platforms (Twitter, Tumblr, etc.) to connect. When trying to find the right place for you to connect with others online, consider what your interests are. Maybe you enjoy a specific genre of fiction, or you want to connect with others in your cultural community; the key is finding people who want to discuss the things that are meaningful and enjoyable to you.
3. Set Boundaries
Digital communication does not come with as many built-in boundaries as physical spaces. Setting hard limits on phone and internet use may be necessary. It’s also important to recognize our limits with specific people. Liking and appreciating someone doesn’t mean we have infinite patience for them. Sometimes, it’s appropriate and necessary to take a break from someone. It’s important to set boundaries and assert our expectation that people be reasonably receptive to them.
Another consideration is that some digital spaces may not be healthy environments. It’s important that we monitor how our time online makes us feel. If your internet use is leaving you feeling stressed out, or if others have expressed concern, it may be a good idea to distance yourself from specific websites and platforms.
4. Schedule Social Time
Our minds and bodies rely on external cues to keep our internal clocks in sync and maintain functioning. These signals are sometimes called zeitgebers (German for “time giver”) and include things like sunlight and temperature. According to some researchers, our daily social interactions also act as zeitgebers. This is supported by findings that suggest events that disrupt our normal social activities can negatively affect our mental health. The negative effects of social disruption may be greater for individuals who are prone to depressive or manic symptoms. Right now, we are all experiencing social disruption, and it may be wise to take steps to set some kind of social routine for ourselves.
A few tips for establishing a social routine include:
· Scheduling phone calls with friends and family.
· Using teleconference technology to set up movie nights or other shared activities.
· Joining an online group that meets regularly
· Setting up a specific time devoted to writing letters or emails
· Attending virtual events
· If you live with others, setting up a designated time to be together
Taking part in scheduled virtual contact can keep us feeling connected and provide a sense of normalcy. For a lot of us right now, time seems distorted; the days can feel formless. People give one another a sense of grounding—we provide shape to each other’s worlds. Connecting with people whose company you enjoy can significantly change the quality of the quarantine experience.
Thomas Shooman is a mental health counselor at Resolution Psychotherapy in Poughkeepsie, New York. Thomas’ clients include individuals dealing with issues such as anxiety, grief, and obsessive thinking. He enjoys helping people navigate uncomfortable circumstances and find solutions that are in line with their personal style. Thomas is a member of the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science and the International OCD Foundation, and he is currently accepting new clients. To schedule a session with Thomas, call him at 845 309-9834 or email him here.