By Susan Winter Fledderus
Social distancing—a term most of us had never heard or used before—has quickly become a new reality for all of us. But how do we ensure that we don’t let social distancing become social isolation?
Given the importance of social connections for our physical and emotional wellbeing, social distancing carries its own risks. Because we are social beings, social isolation can make us more stressed, more vulnerable to illness, and negatively affect our emotional and mental health.
Particularly for those who have pre-existing depression, social distancing could increase an already existing sense of isolation.
And, as pointed out in a previous blog, loneliness is a greater predictor of early death than smoking or obesity.
As a result, it is worrisome for loved ones to hear of seniors’ care facilities not allowing visitors—family members wonder how their aging parents and grandparents will do and whether the isolation could contribute to a further decline in their health, even while supporting the need for such measures to keep their loved ones safe from the more serious risk of COVID-19.
CBC News is reporting that crisis and distress lines, including Kids Help Phone, are seeing a spike in calls with more people feeling increasingly anxious and scared.
Loneliness has to do with loss of connection. In the midst of the stress and in light of the real physical barriers that social distancing and self-isolating impose, we need to find ways to stay connected.
There are many practical things people can do via phone, videochat and other technical solutions to ensure frequent contact with loved ones over a distance, assuming they are capable of managing the technology themselves. There are plenty of articles readily available about how to connect with family and friends, watch out for neighbours, and lend a hand to those in our communities in self-isolation.
There are also articles describing COVID-19 support groups, live-streaming of concerts and religious services, and Facebook groups connecting those with resources with those who have needs.
Family and community connections are so important during this time of uncertainty and threat. And that is what makes it so important that in our most intimate relationships, we are careful that social distancing isn’t experienced as a lack of care or as abandonment.
It is the heart connections that we need to maintain—that sense of attachment to a dear loved one that no distance can break. It has to do with being able to access an unshakable internal sense of reassurance that they love us and are there for us, and that we matter to them and them to us.
This is the type of connection that relationship expert Dr. Sue Johnson talks about when she describes managing her anxiety on an airplane during take-off by envisioning her husband’s face and reassuring smile.
This is the type of connection that allows us to hold on to a cherished grandparent’s encouragement and belief in us during hard times, even though they may have passed away years ago.
This is the type of connection that helps young children maintain strong attachment relationships with their parents when they need to be apart for a few days.
But it doesn’t happen automatically.
This type of connection requires consistency and attentiveness to develop and maintain. It means finding creative ways to move beyond a quick text message to a meaningful conversation over Skype or the phone where warm voices and steady eye contact and shared laughter can substitute for physical cuddles and closeness.
It means deliberately reaching out to the single friend who lives alone, not once, but regularly. It means finding new online groups or programs to join, to replace the previous in-person connections. We each need to act to protect the emotional health and connections of our loved ones, and also protect our own mental health.
This isn’t easy during a time of heightened stress. And sometimes we can’t do it without help.
If you are finding yourself alone and anxious, or increasingly depressed and isolated, reach out. Call a friend or family member and let them know you are struggling, and ask them to help you stay in touch by calling you regularly. And if you don’t have someone available, do call one of the local distress lines or crisis services such as these:
- Crisis Services Canada: 1-833-456-4566 or text 45645; 1-866-277-3553 (from Quebec).
- Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868.
- First Nations and Inuit Hope for Wellness Help Line: 1-855-242-3310.
- Native Youth Crisis Hotline: 1-877-209-1266.
Now, more than ever, we are recognizing the importance of staying deeply connected, intentionally nurturing both our closest attachment relationships and our community connections.
Stay apart, stay well, and stay connected.
Susan Winter Fledderus is a Clinical Therapist with Shalem Mental Health Network